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Verbatim Theatre Speaks for Itself Loud and Clear

Courts, Enquiries, Forums: Verbatim Evidence - Montrealais
‘Verbatim’ is a kind of documentary theatre in which drama is made from the precise words spoken by people in evidence, witnessing or remembering.

Verbatim originated in the USA in the 1930s’ Depression where a federally funded program, Living Newspaper Project, set actors sifting daily newspapers to create theatre to inform and motivate audiences. Owing something to Brecht, it later influenced Augusto Boal in Brazil and Joan Littlewood in Britain.

In 1965, Peter Weiss in Germany wrote The Investigation which publishers Marion Boyars described as: ‘a dramatic reconstruction of the Frankfurt War Crimes trials, based on actual evidence’. Weiss edited extracts from testimonies ‘concerning Auschwitz and the atrocities enacted there’ into a dramatic document ‘that relies solely and completely on facts for its effectiveness’.

There is no dramatic writing, no manipulation of facts/figures. Evidence is simply retold, ‘allowing us to bear witness to their painful and painstaking search for truth and ultimately justice. What emerges is a chastening and purging documentary of deeply moving power’.

The Range and Power of Verbatim

Since then, it has become a genre. Reaching something of a peak in Britain and the USA in the late 1990s, its mainstream around the world. Often political, it frequently raises awareness of issues and changes (government) policy. As Brecht said: “It’s not enough to understand the world, it’s necessary to change it.’

The Council of Ontario Dance and Drama Educators published a College/University Grade 12 drama teaching course on Verbatim Theater. Units included telling other people’s stories, defining the genre, overheard conversations, creating composite characters and polishing/performing a verbatim text.

Get Real: Documentary Theatre (2009) edited by Alison Forsyth and Chris Megson, ‘confronts new socio-political realities’, according to its publishers, Palgrave Macmillan. It led to ‘an astonishing range of performance styles, ways of working and modes of intervention in varied sites of theatrical production’. Focusing on verbatim examples from the US, UK, Canada, Australia, South Africa and the Middle East, the book explores documentary and new media, technology, the body, the archive, memory, autobiography and national identity.

A Canadian example was Talk Thirty To Me by Oonagh Duncan, from interviews with people aged 29 about how they felt hitting 30. Vancouver writer Alex Ferguson created a piece on the experience of Filipinos involved in the federal government’s Live-In Caregiver Program.

Examples of UK verbatim work include: Unprotected (2006) which began life as a docudrama response the proposal from Liverpool City Council for a controlled zone for sex workers. Though the zone never went ahead, the production became what The Times described (March 2006) at Liverpool’s Everyman Theatre as ‘an admirably non-sensational discussion of the sex industry through words of those whose lives are connected’.

These included prostitutes, pimps, clients and the mothers of two girls who were brutally murdered. The drama arose from the harrowing truths, articulated in monologues. Traditional tension-drama, verbatim is not. A 2002 armed siege in Hackney, in London’s east end, inspired Alecky Blythe to go onto the streets with microphone and minidisk recorder to invite citizens, and later the hostage, their responses to the siege. That later became Come Out Eli.

The Politics of Verbatim Theatre

David Hare dramatised evidence on the privatisation of Britain’s railways into The Permanent Way (2003). The Exonerated began life off-Broadway before crossing the Atlantic to Britain. It was the own words of six Death Row survivors condemned wrongly for murders and finally freed when new evidence came to light.

Reviewers described the acting as superb, but it was the words, the interwoven ‘voices’ of the prisoners, that conveyed emotion, drama, tragedy, and, in the end, the political message about the death penalty. There have been treatments about Guantanamo (2004); and Northern Ireland’s Bloody Sunday (2005);

The Tricycle Theatre in Kilburn, London, created Half the Picture (on the Scott Inquiry into the Arms to Iraq scandal), Nuremberg, and Srebrenica (about the 1996 war crimes tribunal at The Hague). The Colour of Justice (1999) took the literal words given in evidence at the Macpherson enquiry into police handling of the stabbing of 18 year old Stephen Lawrence at a bus stop.

The suggestion was that he was murdered ‘because he was black’. The enquiry found the Metropolitan Police to be ‘institutionally racist’, and it led to the Criminal Justice Act 2003, which abolished the age-old tradition of double jeopardy, that nobody could be tried twice for the same crime if acquitted previously.

In 2007, two barristers tested evidence to see if there were grounds to indict Prime Minister Blair for aggression against Iraq. They took evidence from Members of Parliament, UN officials, intelligence experts and journalists. The result was not indictment, but a re-telling of the evidence by actors in a tribunal play, Called to Account —The Indictment of Anthony Charles Lynton Blair for the crime of aggression against Iraq — A Hearing.

Writer Robin Soans and director Max Stafford-Clark created Talking to Terrorists (2005), partly in response to the UK 1990s’ policy never to negotiate with terrorists, to deny them the ‘oxygen of publicity’, and partly because they were at the forefront of groundbreaking theatre from verbal witness.

They worked with performers researching for a year, talking to those who had acted violently against the state and fellow human beings from Ireland and Uganda, a Kurdish fighter, an ex-British diplomat and victims and witnesses. Statements were then written into script. Alecky Blythe recorded sound files, so actors wore headphones and copied exactly what they heard in each witness statement, including coughs and mumblings.

Like all theatre, there are as many ways of creating verbatim theatre as there are actors, writers, directors, journalists, lawyers, politicians, controversial issues. It is a vehicle in the fleet of political theatre. It can be performed anywhere. It can be highly controversial and uncomfortable. Above all, it can be riveting performance.

First published on Suite 101, 8 January 2011.

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One Response to "Verbatim Theatre Speaks for Itself Loud and Clear"

  1. […] published on Suite 101, 8 January 2011 and republished on my website, 14 February 2012. David […]

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