Sunday, January 11, 2015

Documentary and Verbatim Theatre




Documentary and Verbatim Theatre





Documentary Theatre is a style of theatre performance and /or theatre making or performance making where documentary material such as interviews, reports, media material and transcripts are used as the primary source for the script. Although it is often seen as a theatre form unto itself, Verbatim Theatre is a subset or branch of Documentary Theatre.

Verbatim theatre is a style of documentary theatre and/or research which is developed from the transcripts and recordings of people interviewed normally centering on the interviewers observations, insights and experiences about a topic, event or theme. It often involves a writer, researcher and/or actors and directors interviewing a person or people about an event, experience or topic and selectively using parts of the transcripts of those interviews to construct a performed piece.

Documentary and Verbatim Theatre can be seen as a theatre primarily of social and political change since they often seek to present both an entire picture and individual perspective on issues while trying also to give emotional insights into a theme or issue.

Verbatim Theatre in particular can be seen within broader research fields as a form of ethnographic research or Ethnodrama. Ethnodrama is used in many research fields both within and outside of the fields of the Arts. Ethnodrama is the transformation and adaptation of ethnographic data such as interview transcripts, field notes and journals into a dramatic playscript which often uses performative modes in inquiry-based research to dramatise data (Saldaña 2005, pp.7-16). Some examples of qualitative studies in educational settings involving ethnodrama include Walker, Pick and MacDonald’s 1991 study of a typical day in the lives of teacher’s at school, Vanover and Saldaña’s 2002 study into the ways teachers reflect and struggle with their implementation of teaching practices and Goldstein’s 2002 study of race relations in high school setting. In the context of this study. Ethnodrama is used firstly as a method for organizing, synthesizing and correlating data as suggested by Saldaña (2005, pp.32-38). Secondly, Ethnodrama is used as a method for data presentation and verification to the participants in the study as modeled in studies done by Vanover and Saldaña (2002) and Roberts (2002).

In Documentary Theatre as a performance style, real documents and even the words or testimony of involved in a situation or event are used to construct a script or a performance piece. Often Documentary Theatre focuses on events and experiences that have a political or topical focus and puts factual information above aesthetic concerns. In doing this, Documentary Theatre works off the continuous tension and juxtaposition of the actual situation and documents and the fiction of the narrative performed for an audience. Some critics of Documentary Theatre claim that it assumes objectivity while it itself creates a subjective or biased perspective or perspectives.

Verbatim Theatre is a branch or subset of Documentary Theatre because it concentrates on using the words and testimonials of people involved or interviews and tries to use these words in a relatively unedited or transformed form to create the narrative and or drama of the performance. In its purest form, Verbatim Theatre uses the real words of those interviewed exclusively. Most often this involves selected speeches and sentences from the transcripts being used as dialogue, speeches or lines in the performance piece. However, the use of recorded voice delivery or video playback during performance where the theatre makers have recorded interviews play them back during the performance is another common technique. This allows the performers to watch, respond to or even directly mimic, mime or accompany the words and interview of the people and events being portrayed.

Documentary Theatre probably has formed part of theatre over many centuries and theatre makers and playwrights have probably used it as a form to develop dialogue and speeches. Some academics cite the Ancient Greek playwright Phrynicus and his play about the Persian War The Capture of Miletus as the first piece of Documentary Theatre. Certainly European Medieval Drama and Elizabethan Drama contain aspects of real events and testimonies.

However, probably the first pieces of modern theatre which consciously and openly used Verbatim Theatre techniques were the Living Newspaper theatre experiments of Erwin Piscator in the 1920;s in Germany. One play which is often cited is Piscator’s 1925 production of German Trotz alledem! (In Spite of Everything!). This play was a review about the history of the Communist Party and it used interviews, recorded speeches, newsreel footage, filmed sequences and montages. Piscator went on to direct other plays which included Verbatim Theatre and Documentary Theatre techniques. Other mid-twentieth century examples of documentary and verbatim theatre include Rolf Hochhuth’s Der Stellvertreter (1963) and Heinar Kipphardt’s In the Matter of J. Robert Oppenheimer (1964). English woman Joan Littlewood’s Oh What a Lovely War! which chronicled the First World War can also be seen to use many of these techniques of Verbatim and Documentary Theatre through its use of the WW1 songs and actual WW1 pictures and documents.

The Verbatim form of Documentary Theatre made many advances with the productions by Englishman Peter Cheeseman and his productions at the Victoria Theatre, Stoke-on-Trent from 1962 – 1984. One of Cheeseman’s most notable productions (which some regard as the first piece of Verbatim Theatre) was Fight for Shelton Bar (1974), which centred on the closure of a steelworks in the heart of Stoke. The piece was performed to many of the ex-steel workers who had been interviewed and had lost their jobs.

David Hare can be seen as one of major exponents of the Verbatim form of Documentary Theatre and many of his plays use the techniques of Verbatim Theatre for both the development of material and for performance techniques. Some of his works including these techniques include The Permanent Way (2003), Stuff Happens (2004) and The Power of Yes (2009) were all performed at the National Theatre. Director Nicholas Kent and writer Richard Norton Taylor at the Tricycle Theatre in North London furthered the form with their series of tribunal plays which included Nuremberg (1996), The Colour of Justice: The Stephen Lawrence Enquiry (1999) and Bloody Sunday (2005).

Verbatim theatre has also proliferated internationally. Interested readers should explore American plays such as Moises Kaufman’s Gross Indecency: The Three Trials of Oscar Wilde (1997) and in particular The Laramie Project (2000) and The Laramie Project Ten Years Later (2009). Anna Deavere Smith is also one of the most high profile documentary makers. Her work includes Building Bridges, Not Walls (1985), Fires in the Mirror (1992) and her 1993 piece Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992 (a piece based on the Rodney King riots, trial and verdict)  Similarly important is Jessica Blank and Erik Jensen’s celebrated play The Exonerated (2002), composed of interviews with individuals who have been released from death row. Important contributions have been made to Verbatim Theatre in Australia by playwrights such as John Romeril and groups like the Melbourne Worker’s Theatre. Some important Australian Verbatim Theatre pieces include Paul Brown’s Aftershocks (1993), (which was based on interviews in the aftermath of the devastating Newcastle earthquake) and Alana Valentine’s Parramatta Girls (2007) which used interviews with abused indigenous females in a girl’s home in Parramatta. Another powerful piece of Indigenous Australian Documentary theatre using some aspects of Verbatim theatre was the Indigenous Australian theatre company Ilbijerri's Theatre Company's Coranderrk (2017) which is about the events in 1881 when the men and women of the Coranderrk Aboriginal Reserve in Victoria (Australia) went head to head with the Aboriginal Protection Board to continue their community on the land they had acquired. It uses documents from the government inquiry as well as stories passed down to members of the local Aboriginal communities. Here are links to source materials for the production:


Some examples of recent prominent Verbatim Theatre include Moises Kaufman and the Tectonic Theater’s The Laramie Project and its sequel The Laramie Project-Ten Years Later, Campion Decent’s Embers, Robin Soans’ Talking to Terrorists, David Hare’s The Permanent Way, Tess Berry-Hart’s Someone to Blame and Sochi 2014.
In the UK, Robin Soans and Stafford-Clark are two of the most prolific Documentary and Verbatim Theatre writers. Their contributions include:
A State Affair (2000), Talking to Terrorists (2005), Mixed Up North (2009) and Crouch, Touch, Pause, Engage (2015).

Some interesting articles on how to approach or write Documentary or Verbatim Theatre include the following article by playwright Alecky Blythe
and Out-of-Joint Theatre Company's article on their Verbatim Theatre on their homepage:



Verbatim Theatre Lessons and Exercises
Verbatim literally means word for word or in the exact wording. Theatre makers and playwrights often use interviews and the exact words of people central to the event or issue they are exploring to get authenticity or relate a specific response or thought or emotion. Actors also often use interviews to ‘get inside the character’ and imitate posture, gestures, expressions and vocal patterns.

Get the students to choose a topic, issue, theme or event they want to focus on which they think they can get real people to interview. Some suggestions could be Drugs in Sport, The Immigrant Experience, Woman in Leadership, What the future holds at university and/or Encountering Grief or a Disaster. Alternatively, the students can interview one another on issues such as Identity, Bullying or first Childhood Memories or interview a family member who is older about what school was like for them. If the group is large then two or three topics can be chosen. The subjects to be interviewed should be real people.

The students interview the subjects either using audio equipment or their phones or using some device that takes video footage. Because the students need to transcribe the interview I suggest that 5-10 minutes is long enough for high school students. Students may even want to use a voice recognition program to help them with transcription but to do this takes some setting up and means training the program to recognize the subject’s voice and this takes extra time.

The next part of the process is something that the students can work in small groups on or in one large group. Students decide on the connections between elements of the transcripts and decide on the narrative they want to present. If students have for example interviewed relatives about their school experiences, they might want to collate the experiences into a chronological narrative form and start with the experiences of older relatives first and then move through to the present day. If the students have for instance collected material on bullying experiences, they may want to collate them into a piece with a thematic narrative or collate similar experiences into groups and create four or five characters from the different experiences. The important part of the collation part of the process is that it should make a script which the students think best reflects the material collected. I sometimes suggest that each student can only use 1 minutes of their transcriptions and state that each student can use this in one whole slab, speech or scene OR put elements or sections of their transcript into different parts of the performance or script.

An alternative to this process can involve students concentrating on a moment from history and using different archival and historical material and creating a piece of Verbatim or Documentary Theatre using different historical material including interviews and transcripts. Some events which could work are 9/11, The Julia Gillard ‘Misogyny Speech’, Prime Minister Rudd’s ‘Sorry Speech’ to the Australian Indigenous Peoples, Martin Luther King’s ‘I Have Dream Speech’ or the announcement of the declaration of WWII.


References and Resources

Brown, P. (2010). Verbatim Theatre: The Art of Authenticity. Sydney: Currency Press.
Cantrell, T. (2013). Acting in Documentary Theatre. New York. Palgrave Macmillan.
Favorini, A. (2012). Voicings: Ten Plays from the Documentary Theatre. New York: Ecco Press.
Forsyth, A. & Megson, C. (2009). Get Real: Documentary Theatre Past and Present. New York: Palgrave Macmillan,
Hammond, W. & Steward, D. (2009). Verbatim, Verbatim: Contemporary Documentary Theatre. London: William Hammond.
Saldaña, J. (Ed.). (2005). Ethnodrama: An anthology of reality theatre. Langham, MD: Rowman Altamira.

Websites and Resources
A good place to start with materials is to watch the National Theatre Video Materials on Verbatim Theatre. These include:
Introduction to Verbatim Theatre
The Ethics of Verbatim Theatre

There is also an excellent unit on Verbatim Theatre on the Council of Ontario Dance and Drama Educators Website

There is also an insightful article on the web done in 2013 done for IDEASTAP by Alecky Blythe on ‘How to Create Verbatim Theatre’:

Drama Online Resources
Documentary Theatre:
Verbatim Theatre:





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