Verbatim theatre exploring sensitive issue at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe 2014
‘It accesses an emotional honesty and an immediacy that is rare in conventional scripted performance’
This article is from 2014.
Whether it’s sex, drugs, or public transport, difficult subjects are sometimes best tackled with real words. Gareth K Vile investigates the growing popularity of verbatim theatre.
Max Stafford-Clark, former artistic director of the Traverse and collaborator with writers as diverse as David Hare, Mark Ravenhill and Caryl Churchill, regards verbatim as ‘the last great pulse in theatre’. Often used in a documentary format, it takes the words of people involved in an event and puts them directly to the stage.
Mark Jeary, who has two verbatim plays in the Fringe (X and Y and Blackout), is clear about the advantages. ‘You get the layering and nuances: but for me it’s honesty,’ he says. ‘Verbatim gives real layering to characters – different nuances that are difficult to reproduce accurately – from patterns of speech, to a certain sense of humour. I find it all in the text and find it difficult to fake.’
Jeary’s two entries both deal with sensitive issues (gender identity and alcoholism, respectively) – and verbatim offers a way into complex subjects without falling foul of typical theatrical conventions. Travesti asks some tough questions about the socialisation of women. Director Rebecca Hill explains: ‘I felt that fictional accounts of these experiences are easily written off because they are fiction, and actually the women’s true accounts are far more entertaining, shocking and touching than anything I could have made up.’ While the form is not necessarily more confrontational, it challenges audiences to consider the performance as part of a discussion rather than mere entertainment.
The biggest row in Edinburgh for the past five years has been the long protracted tram saga, so it feels inevitable that Joe Douglas, director of Bloody Trams, would use a verbatim approach to get ‘an authenticity of voice – hopefully this will live up to its billing as a piece by The People of Edinburgh’. Douglas takes the theatre experience even closer to the source, using a technique whereby the actors hear the words through a headset, rather than following a traditional script. ‘It gives a really exciting, live performance quality – somewhere between acting and presenting the characters,’ he says. ‘It means you can be more truthful to the voices that have been captured and that audiences also receive a tone or quality of delivery.’
Against these advantages, however, there are some challenges: as Matthew Baldwin and Thomas Hescott, writers of Outings, note. ‘We prefer to say the show is based on real life coming-out stories than "verbatim" theatre: quite a few of our stories were emailed to us, this meant we didn't get the rhythm of their speech and we had to find that for ourselves.’ But more importantly, the writers are noticing the ethical demands that verbatim processes place on the artist. Respect for the participants trumps the usual aesthetic concerns, and places an obligation on the makers to be honest, and not adapt the material to achieve a sensational drama.
Across these various subjects, verbatim techniques access an emotional honesty, and an immediacy that is rare in conventional scripted performance. Stafford-Clark sees the approach as borrowing from journalism, and it charges up performance by connecting it to wider debates and real lives. From Bloody Trams to Blackout, it is not just the form that is urgent and intimate. All of these plays deal with relevant and immediate matters, transforming social issues into theatre and then feeding back into the social discussion.