FROM ORAL HISTORY TO VERBATUM THEATRE: A REFLECTION

FROM ORAL HISTORY TO VERBATUM THEATRE: A REFLECTION

“Verbatim Theatre is a form of theatre which places interviews with people at the heart of the process and product, since such interviews provide a foundation from which a script is developed that is then performed by actors.” Deirdre Heddon, 2009, p. 115.

“Documentary theatre has always been heavily context-based, and so tends to come to the fore in troubled times.” - Derek Paget (2010).

The transformation of recorded oral history interviews into performance is of course at the heart of our work in this year’s “Oral History and Performance” studio-seminar course. We have therefore spent a great deal of time thinking about how we might do so and to what end. Last term, we delved into the methodology and ethics of the interview and what is gained and lost in transcription. While the authority of the verbatim transcript is in its “authentic” rendering of what was said during the interview, we soon discovered its limits. Everybody seemed to agree that verbatim transcription largely fails to capture body language and the rhythm of the spoken word. Much is lost in translation to text. Yet, we also learned that a great deal is gained in the process of deep listening.

This term’s shift to “embodied learning” can be a little bewildering for a historian. The first two weeks of January consisted of back-to-back theatrical exercises and ensemble building in which everyone participated. At times, I wondered where this was going. I yearned to reconnect to the interviews. Clearly, the first two weeks were designed to give our class of history and theatre students a common set of performance-based tools and a shared vocabulary. It was also important I think to shift the class into a new mode of learning. Gone were the tables and chairs. I think that this also facilitated the transition to Ted Little (theatre) as lead instructor. The introduction of Jim Forsythe (on sabbatical from Brandon’s Theatre Department) into the mix, served to spice things up further. It also gave us the capacity to do a great deal of group-work. This was all terrifyingly new to me and I grappled with how I might contribute to our process of collective creation this term. In part, this blog is my response to my uncertainty in this new learning environment.

It therefore felt ‘oh, so good’ to reconnect with the oral history interviews in Week 3. The class formed back into their seven oral history project teams in order to explore a specific theatrical form. I had been given the task of selecting an excerpt of a transcript for the group working on Verbatim Theatre. Bryan graciously agreed to my request to use his transcript of an interview he conducted for the "Queer Community" project. I chose at random three consecutive pages to copy, minutes before class started.

How we approached the transcript in class was just as improvised. First, the three student members of the project and I read the transcript, highlighting passages that spoke to us. We then arranged them in an order that seemed to make sense. The sequence was not the same as the interview. Lost, too, was the voice of the interviewer. But how would we perform these verbatim passages? Again, in our rush, we decided to say the first passage in unison before alternating with the next eight passages. The final passage would be again said (more or less) in unison as we rejoined the circle around us. This shifting voice, from the chorus to individual to chorus, was I think meant to signal that this person’s story was not his alone. The relationship between individual memory and collective memory is often unclear, sparking a huge amount of academic writing. At least to me, it seemed easier to represent this in performance than in text.

Of course we had almost no time to rehearse and the excerpts had not been edited to make it easier to read – making my own reading awkward and clumsy. I kept tripping over the words of the final passage in our rehearsal, forcing me to slightly edit the words on the fly for our final ‘performance’. As a historian, the fact that these words were spoken by an interviewee about his own experience is important to me. Even though we re-arranged the sequence of the stories, they represent his own interpretation of his own life. This strikes me as substantially different then projecting our own feeling and interpretations onto others. Yet it resulted in a more awkward and rigid performance than some of the other groups, the weight of these verbatim words does not always communicate.

The experience motivated me to explore verbatim theatre further in order to write this blog. Here is what I learned from the literature:

What is Verbatim Theatre?

Verbatim theatre was coined by Derek Paget in 1987 to describe theatrical performances based on interview transcripts. As you might expect, a great deal of emphasis is placed on the authenticity of the stories being performed on stage. While some playwrights insist that every word spoken onstage must originate in the interview material, others use a combination of verbatim and self-authored material.

What does a testimony-based play look like? In verbatim theatre, actors often speak directly to the audience and sometimes acknowledge their reactions to what is occurring on stage. According to Alison Jeffers, verbatim playwrights “are looking for what writer Dennis Woolf has called an ‘emotional arc’ rather than the linear narrative of cause and effect which creates the classic dramatic arc.” (Jeffers, 4) In creating a collage of multiple voices, verbatim performances usually allow for multiple points of view arranged side-by-side. For Jeffers,

“Watching a verbatim play can feel like being washed over by a great tide of voices, feelings and opinions... verbatim theatre is a lesson in suppression; more material is recorded that can ever be used It is manipulated, crafted and edited to create an effect. The spectator’s freedom to meander within this, to create their own patterns, logic and narratives may, ultimately, prove a false one whereby the constructed nature of the playwright’s vision is concealed from the audience by the very wash of the voices and the apparent lack of any narrative line.” (Alison Jeffers, 2006, p.6).

Rarely do verbatim plays include the interview context itself. It is as though verbatim playwrights are casting the audience in the role of interviewer – to add this layer onstage would risk distancing them from the stories being told and listened to. For Deirdre Heddon, “The practical methodology of verbatim performance, though it might vary in detail, generally includes the conducting of interviews by performers, which are often recorded. These are then used as the basis of the performed script (sometimes composed by a playwright and/or dramaturges), with performers taking on the words of the interviewees, and often key physical characteristics...” (Deirdre Heddon, p117)

Verbatim theatre relies heavily on the “authenticating detail.” Its authenticity is what gives it a certain power to reach audiences. Importantly, it is the absence of much of what makes theatre (props, elaborate staging, etc) that increases the focus on the verbatim document itself. Observing the process, Derek Paget noticed how the actors explored the character behind the stories, making various choices about small gestures and expressions, accent, and articles of clothing as markers of identity. According to Paget, “so far from a distancing effect, a kind of proximity is achieved by means of this closeness to the fact of the interview.” At its best, says Paget, verbatim theatre opens a space of ethical reflection and deepening engagement. The rehearsed reading can therefore be seen as a form of political intervention.

Responding to a recent surge in “testimony-based theatre”, Derek Paget has suggested that the rehearsed readings of verbatim scripts have emerged as a form of documentary theatre and activist art. (Paget, 173) Examples of this minimalist form include Christine Bacon’s “iceandfire” theatre company in the United Kingdom which focuses on the experiences of asylum seekers, refugees and illegal immigrants. These rehearsed reading are often performed on a bare stage. Verbatim theatre companies sometimes integrate other documentary materials such as video or audio recordings as well. Post-show discussions are another common way to connect the stage to the “reality” outside.

I was struck by Paget’s use of “source communities” to describe verbatim theatre’s connection to the communities from which these verbatim stories originate, as it is a term that emerged in the museum-world to describe the curator’s responsibility to the communities from which their artefacts come. I read the book “Museums and Source Communities” a couple of years ago, learning that the sharing of curatorial authority only came about after aboriginal peoples in Canada and immigrant communities challenged their monopoly to interpret. New partnership guidelines are thus designed to foster trust and (I would argue) to bolster curatorial authority. I wonder if theatre companies are under the same kinds of pressures. Does the labelling of something as ‘verbatim’ give performers the authority to represent stories and groups that they would otherwise be at risk in doing so? I also wonder about the limits to community participation – does their role end once the recording device is turned off? Of course, the attendance of interviewees and their “source communities” at public performances and their participation in post-show round table discussions influences the process. Generally, it appears that a strong sense of responsibility and trust pervade verbatim theatre, reinforced by the bonds created in the interview space itself.

Why Verbatim Theatre?

Debates about the accuracy or authenticity of verbatim theatre dominate the scholarship. Personally, I think it inevitable that a person represented onstage is turned into a stage character, a theatrical construction. What then is the value of incorporating verbatim testimony? When is it done and why?

Verbatim seems to be a particularly common practice in work with refugees. (Jeffers, 15) Many projects exploring human rights and the immigrant experience theatricalise interview material. Be it an anti-Iraq War play like Guantanamo: Honor Bound to Defend Freedom (Riding, 2004), Sonja Linden’s Crocodile Seeking Refuge, David Hare’s play about the privatization of the British railway in The Permanent Way, or Robin Soans’ The Arab Israeli Cookbook and Talking to Terrorists. Perhaps the most famous verbatim play of all is Peter Weiss’s 1968 documentary play The Investigation, a dramatization of the Frankfurt Auschwitz trials. (Filewood) Verbatim theatre techniques were subsequently honed by the likes of Peter Cheeseman in the United Kingdom and Anna Deveare Smith in the United States. Smith’s Fires in the Mirror, for example, was written in response to the LA riots of 1991. She conducted the interviews and then performed them all herself. Examples of verbatim theatre abound in recent years. One of the main verbatim theatres in the United Kingdom is Dave Rogers’ Banner Theatre (Migrant Voices, 2001; Burning Issues, 2004; and Wild Geese, 2005). In Wild Geese, Banner Theatre combines video interviews of migrants, informational slides on immigration, as well as music and song, into their live performances of migrant workers. (Jeffers, 9) These “digital projections of actuality” were part of Banner Theatre’s May 2005 performance of Wild Geese in Guelph Ontario. The other half of that night’s double bill was Troublemakers, a video ballad about Alberta’s working-class history from Don Bouzek’s Ground Zero Productions in Edmonton, Alberta. Ground Zero appears to be one of the main Canadian verbatim theatre companies.

So what does verbatim theatre offer oral historians?

One thing that verbatim offers us is the possibility of oral historians and performers working together – a melding of crafts into one. Interviewing and transcribing are central to the oral historian’s craft. The editing of transcripts into a script could be undertaken in collaboration with a playwright and/or actors. I can also imagine this collaboration extending to the staging itself. Just as oral historians are questioning their reliance on text in transcription, verbatim theatre might also rethink its process in light of digital opportunities. Actors get a very different ‘feel’ for their real-life ‘characters’ if they interacted with something more than a finely edited script. To hear and see them would further contribute to the authenticity of their performance, but would constrain the actors even further. The verbatim script still requires a great deal of interpretation to fill in the spaces between.

Steven High

Key Readings

Derek Paget, “Verbatim Theatre: Oral history and documentary techniques,” New Theatre Quarterly 3, 12 (1987), 317-36.
Derek Paget, “Acts of Commitment: Activist Arts, the Rehearsed Reading, and Documentary Theatre,” New Theatre Quarterly 26, 2 (May 2010), 173-93.
Alison Jeffers, “Refugee Perspectives: the practice and ethics of verbatim theatre and refugee stories,” Platform 1, 1 (Autumn 2006).
Susan C. Haedicke, E. J. Westlake et al. Political Performances: Theory and Practice (NY: IFTR, 2009). “To Absent Friends: Ethics in the Field of Auto/Biography” by Deirdre Heddon, 111-136.
Alan Filewood, “The Documentary Body: From Theatre Workshop to Banner Theatre,” in Get Real: Documentary Theatre Past and Present, eds Alison Forsyth and Chris Megson (London: Palgrave, 2009), 55-73.
Deirdre Heddon, Autobiography and Performance (Palgrave Macmillan, 2008).
David Hare, Obedience, Struggle and Revolt (Macmillan, 2005).
Alison Forsyth, ed. Get Real: documentary theatre past and present. (Palgrave-Macmillan, 2009) examine documentary modes of performance including verbatim theatre. Among the chapters of particular interest to this discussion are A. Forsyth’s “Performing Trauma: Race Riots and Beyond in the Work of Anna Deavere Smith,” and Y. Huthison’s “Verbatim Theatre in South Africa: ‘living history in a person’s performance,”.
Pam Schweitzer, Reminiscence Theatre: Making Theatre from Memories (Jessica Kingsley Publishers, 2007)
Will Hammond and Dan Steward, eds. Verbatim verbatim: Contemporary Documentary Theatre (Oberon, 2008), contributors include Robin Soans, David Hare and Alecky Blythe (verbatim playwrights).

Published Scripts

Anna Deavere Smith. Twilight Los Angeles (New York: Anchor, 1994).
Anne Deveare Smith. Fires in the mirror (New York: Anchor, 1993).
Robin Soans. Talking to Terrorists (London: Oberon, 2005).
Robin Soans. The Arab Israeli Cookbook (London: Aurora Metro Press, 2004).

Other Readings

Susan E. Bell and Susan M. Reverby, “Vaginal politics: Tensions and possibilities in The Vagina Monologues,” Women’s Studies International Fourm 28 (2005), 430-444.
Charles R. Lyons and James C. Lyons, “Anna Deavere Smith: Perspectives on her performance within the context of critical theory,” Journal of Dramatic Theory and Criticism (Fall 1994).
Robert Cohen, “The Political Aesthetics of Holocaust Literature: Peter Weiss’s The Investigation and Its Critics,” History and Memory 10, 2 (YEAR?).
Robert Nunn, “The Meeting of Theatricality and Actuality in The Farm Show,” Canadian Drama 8,1 (1982), 43-54.