A Resurgence of Verbatim Theatre: Authenticity, Empathy and
Transformation Michael Anderson , Linden Wilkinson . Australasian Drama Studies
. St. Lucia: Apr 2007. , Iss. 50; pg. 153, 19 pgs Abstract (Summary)
Anderson and Wilkinson discuss the resurgence and evolution of the
Verbatim Theatre both nationally and internationally. Verbatim Theatre
plays began in regional Britain in the 1960s and complex local stories were
told by distilling diverse personal narratives woven into a theatrical
framework. Today the demand for specificity in subject matter and a
variety of perspectives in its presentation has re-invigorated the
Verbatim Theatre form and expanded its application.
Full Text (6445 words) Copyright University of Queensland Apr 2007
The wave of media mergers and acquisitions from the late 1990s to the
present day has created an environment where commercialism, shareholder
interest and economies of scale dictate an increasingly homogenised
media context. Narrowing points of view and decreasing opportunities for
debate and for specific communities to know or own their particular
stories, as McChesney warns, are putting democracy at risk. Australian
Opposition senator John Faulkner sees democracy coming under threat through
the relentless pursuit of the latest scoop: 'News now comes packaged,
enhanced with manipulative sound and image. Stories that don't suit
simplistic solutions are dropped. Stories about scandals boost
circulation, and take priority over complex discussion on policy ... The short
attention spans of today's media "consumers" are trained by infotainment
that seeks to reduce our political process to a more boring version of
Not only is content delivered in small, high-impact bites but political
communicators must conform to the infotainment format. Graeme Turner
elaborates on the pervasiveness of celebrity packaging: 'Public
relations consultants, media advisers and press officers have proliferated in
western political systems and have become standard components of the
contemporary furniture of democratic administrations.'3 This lack of
depth, diversity and intelligence in media coverage of areas in the public
interest. Faulkner claims, is leading to an Australian democracy
characterised by distrust, apathy and ultimately anger.4 These commentators
argue that the media are pivotal in creating disenfranchised societies,
where power is allowed to become increasingly concentrated in the hands
of a few. A growing interdependence between media empire owners and
holders of political power effectively suppresses controversy. Complexity
is both expensive to produce and difficult to debate, therefore it is
not in either stakeholder group's interest, and it is therefore becoming
increasingly absent from the public domain.
Audiences in Australia, as in the United Kingdom and in the United
States, have responded to the increasingly formulaic television news and
current affairs by switching off. In a study of current affairs on
Australian television, Turner demonstrates that flagships like ABC's Four
Corners lost 44.7 percent of its audience between 1991 and 1998, A Current
Affair lost 29.2 percent and The 7.30 Report lost 27.3 percent; these
trends have sharpened since. Meanwhile, over the last fifteen years,
the only innovation to the standard current affairs format is to make it
increasingly tabloid.6 Diminishing cultural capital - the way we
understand, relate to and participate in our culture7 - is further reduced in
Australia by the decline in local drama content on television. While
local content in the USA forms 96 percent of screened drama product, and
in the UK accounts for 91 percent, in Australia, local drama content
has plummeted to 24 percent.8 In 2003 alone, adult television series
production dropped by seventy-one hours.9 Adult drama production at the
ABC is down to twenty hours a year in 2005, from 102 hours in 2001.10
The resurgence of Verbatim Theatre
This lack of diverse voices and stories in our community may be a
contributor to the resurgence and evolution of the Verbatim Theatre form,
both nationally and internationally.11 Like the proliferation of bloggers
on the Net providing alternative voices to mainstream media,12
Verbatim Theatre13 provides a platform for diverse, authentic voices, unheard
in popular media. Evolving from Documentary Theatre, Verbatim Theatre
plays began in regional Britain in the 1960s. Complex local stories were
told by distilling diverse personal narratives woven into a theatrical
framework. Today the demand for specificity in subject matter and a
variety of perspectives in its presentation has re-invigorated the
Verbatim Theatre form and expanded its application. Two very different recent
Verbatim plays The Laramie Project (2001) and Talking to Terrorists
(2005) - tackle complex global issues and are performed on global stages.
Both plays use edited texts distilled from interviews and personal
narratives. The Laramie Project, however, includes text taken from the
actors' journals, as they collected data; so actors play members of the
Tektonic Theatre project as well as a variety of Laramie townsfolk. In
Talking to Terrorists, the actors perform only characters impacted by
'political activism', caught in the web of 'terrorism'. The difference in
reflexivity in performance, however, does not represent a departure
from the Verbatim Theatre form, where authentic story remains the primary
source of play material.14 Verbatim Theatre has become a portmanteau
term, incorporating a stylistically rich and varied product that owes its
origins to spoken text but does not always perform these words
literally, as they are spoken.
Authenticity remains a problematic concept once the Verbatim Theatre
form travels beyond its regional origins and on to national or
international stages. Its claims to authenticity rest now on the credibility of
its stories rather than the verbatim recounting of interviews undertaken
in a research process. To assert verbatim recounting as a test of
authenticity is disingenuous, as it ignores the process of change that any
verbatim testimony is subjected to as it becomes theatre. Perhaps the
test now should be - and probably always was - one of credibility for
the original participants and for the audiences who see the performances.
This triangulation asks participants and audiences to attest to the
authenticity or otherwise of the production.15 In verbatim works that
address current media and political discourses, the audience is also
required to examine what playwrights and performers consider as the
inauthentic. Auslander describes this as an 'authentic inauthenticity',16 which
highlights the ironies inherent in the performance for the audience to
Version 1.0's A Certain Maritime Incident and Wages of Spin juxtapose
actual media coverage and verbatim political speeches with horrific
images and records of marginalised debate to tell the plays' stories. Other
recent plays that employ verbatim material, particularly those by
David Hare Permanent Way (2003) and Stuff Happens (2004) - challenge the
concept of authentic testimony, as Hare has chosen to interweave fact and
fiction. Therefore inauthentic public discourses become content for
plays such as Stuff Happens, since they attempt to tell the stories of
the disenfranchised and misinformed, the global voiceless.
Critics like Stephen Bottoms criticise Hare for failing to remind
audiences that the work is not a presentation of truth but a highly
selective manipulation of opinion and rhetoric.17 Yet Bottoms fails to
acknowledge that the Stuff Happens story, how the West went into Iraq, is a
story about manipulation and rhetoric. The play is a drama about political
spin for an already spin-savvy audience. Other critics, like Donna
Soto-Morettini, refuse to allow the Verbatim Theatre label as a genre to
apply in any way to Stuff Happens: 'The verbatim employed in Stuff
Happens is never off the cuff or unmediated - it is endlessly massaged by
political speech writers and designed to be delivered and received as
authoritative.'18 However, in a broader sense, the 'massaged' testimony is
exactly the right text to be hearing in the context of plays about
political manipulation, persuasion and hypocrisy, as the audience can then
examine the ironies inherent in inauthentic authenticity. The paradox
here is that in these times of reductionist media coverage, the
inauthentic - the recognisably phoney, constructed language of spin - becomes
the authentic language of 'news'. That it presents diverse content
makes Verbatim Theatre therefore an anomaly in the current media landscape.
There are other features of this form that may also be contributing to
Traditionally, Verbatim Theatre explores a range of perspectives, a
variety of truths; Verbatim plays express the complex layering of
characters' realities through story and language. Conscious that it is
witnessing a shared reality, whether local or global, an audience is given the
opportunity simultaneously to reflect on a play's content
intellectually and to experience the characters' stories emotionally. Ros Horin
summarises the experience of developing Through the Wire, her Verbatim play
about asylum-seekers and the systemic denial of human rights to them:
I ... wanted to create a piece of ordinary theatre that can take this
complex subject and can open it up to ordinary people, who don't know
much about it ... I decided that it's primarily a conversation with the
audience but it didn't stay fixedly that. It becomes a conversation ...
between two other people and then a juxtaposition somebody saying
something and something different appearing on the screen above. I worked
with projected images on the screen and with music. This play works
because it's constantly changing its modes.19
David Edgar also recognises the link between Verbatim Theatre's ability
to explore complexity and the difficulty - both intellectual and
emotional - that audiences have in obtaining information elsewhere.20 He
sees political theatre >> as recurring like a sequence of comets, saying
'we were due for a whoosh' in the post-9/11 world.21 He describes
Verbatim Theatre as filling 'the hole left by the current inadequacy of
television documentary, [which has ...] perished under the tanktracks of
reality TV'.22 Edgar's view that Verbatim Theatre's resurgence is a factor
of the larger socio-political environment is strongly supported by
David Hare, who argues:
What we are witnessing is one of these moments at which theatre excels.
Once again the art-form is looking outside itself - and more
profitably than any other - to try and expose the way in which we all, as
individuals, are or are not connected to the great moments in history ... And
if this kind of work does appear even more necessary and affecting at
this particular time, doesn't that tell us something about the time as
much as the work?23
Nationally and internationally, Verbatim Theatre is evolving
significantly from its regional origins but its purpose - to connect with an
audience emotionally and intellectually, to empathically inform and empower
through authentic story - remains a constant.
An overview of Verbatim Theatre
Developed for specific communities in regional Britain in the 1960s,
Verbatim plays provided a platform for the silent or marginalised in
those communities. The captured uniqueness of individuals' stories and
perspectives, often of the same event, were interwoven both to inform and
engage the audience. Voices could be heard for the first time in a
framework and vernacular endemic to place; fixed in a locale, the text
inspired relatedness and identity.24 Memories, typically free from analysis,
raw and vivid, were gathered through interviews. Hours of tapes were
then transcribed, edited and frequently fed back into the community as a
play by the same actors who first collected the stories, as a way of
triangulating the data. The theatre projects that came out of this
process represented a way of understanding a shared past, a traumatic
present, a diversity of truths. Verbatim Theatre provided a forum for debate
by exposing similarities and differences; its purpose was to reveal
truths in a simple and accessible way through authentic personal
Paget suggests that the evolution of Verbatim Theatre stems from both
the portable tape-recorder and the provincial initiatives of five
British theatre practitioners Peter Cheeseman, Chris Honer, Rony Robinson,
David Thacker and Ron Rose - during the 1960s and early 1970s.25 Of these
five, Cheeseman, in his position as director of the Victoria Theatre
in Stoke-on-Trent from 1962, was the first to use documentary techniques
to gather primary source material from which play texts were
generated. Cheeseman credits Joan Littlewood's Theatre Workshop - especially Oh
What a Lovely War! - and the documentary film movement in Britain in
the 1930s and 1940s as being the inspiration for his work. So even in its
twentieth-century origins, the search for authenticity in text always
had a relationship with technological change and cultural awareness.
Although the influence of Brecht and the European << political theatre
tradition is apparent in both production style and characterisation, for
Cheeseman, language remains the greatest reservoir of creativity.
'Listen. Listen to people talking', he remembers being advised by radio
revolutionary, Charles Parker.26 By Cheeseman's third production for
Stoke-on-Trent, The Knotty in 1966 about the life and death of the local
railway company - he had 'found what I had sought for a long time: the
muscular strength and unselfconscious flashes of imagery that characterise
Historically, Cheeseman believes his contribution to the evolution of
documentary theatre stemmed from his determination to explore a
relationship with, in the case of Stoke-on-Trent, a 'coherent community in a
battered landscape'.28 He felt it was important 'to cement our
relationship with North Staffordshire people by telling the stories of their
trials and achievements. No other agency was providing this kind of food
for their self-respect.' So from the outset, the relationship between
dramatic narrative and community identity and self-esteem was
identifiable. Cheeseman's work at Stoke led two director/writer teams - Honer and
Robinson, and Thacker and Rose - to develop the model further. Subject
matter gradually shifted away from major historical events, to simply
look at perspectives of time: of past and present, of living history. But
in all cases Verbatim Theatre, performed for the communities that
inspired it, brought 'that sense of pride and self-confidence that every
district outside London desperately needs - so you don't feel you're a
nonentity'.29 Verbatim Theatre counterbalanced the frequent commodified
plays that became London successes.
Evolving Verbatim Theatre techniques
Techniques developed by these early practitioners have been used in the
creation of more recent work. Max Stafford-Clark's Out of Joint
Theatre Company has been taking the stories of marginalised communities and
constructing drama for decades.30 Although he uses the traditional
tape-recorder approach to collect data, he also sends actors out into the
community in pairs and asks them, rather than recording anything, to
improvise what they have discovered and present it for the writer, as if
they were that person interviewed. The actors can use the voice of the
person they have interviewed, the mannerisms, and essentially tell the
story for the writer, who can potentially shape that material
theatrically. The other actors in the company can also ask that particular actor
questions, as if that actor were the interviewee. This gives the company
actors and the writer the chance to find out anything that they
haven't already discovered and also deepens the stories the actor has chosen
Nicholas Kent at Tricycle uses 100 percent verbatim 'testimony' in
plays with subject matter spanning the Hutton Inquiry into the 'sexing-up'
of intelligence reports on Iraq prior to its invasion, to Guantanamo:
'Honour Bound to Defend Freedom' and to Bloody Sunday, an exploration of
the deaths of thirteen civil rights marchers at the hands of the
British Army in Northern Ireland in 1972. Kent, committed to ensuring that
his audience engages in what's happening in the world, declares that the
current challenge of Verbatim Theatre is 'to give a play dramatic
shape without distorting the truth'.31 As all Verbatim works rely on hours
of testimony, the editing process naturally involves selectivity, and
in this process is subjectivity and bias. However, as Verbatim plays
structurally interweave character interviews to create dramatic tension
and accelerate the narrative, there also has to be constant surprise and
juxtaposition to keep an audience engaged.
Like all forms of documentary theatre, Verbatim Theatre is
labour-intensive and, like journalism, has a disposable aspect. Stories are about a
particular place, time and community. But recent Verbatim plays -
Horin's Through the Wire, Moises Kaufman and the Tektonic Theatre Project's
The Laramie Project and Robin Soans' Talking to Terrorists - have
universal themes that reach beyond the communities that gave rise to their
stories. Embedded in these plays are issues like fear, disempowerment,
ignorance and demonisation. Through globalised media, the muscularity
of the vernacular that Cheeseman first identified now binds societal
sub-groups - not just physical towns but also holders of certain points of
view, so changing the notion of 'community'. Turner also re-examines
the changing concept of community in relation to the media, suggesting
that gossip and celebrity culture now form a common language and create
links akin to community transactions.32 'Community' could therefore be
redefined to incorporate a community of interests. Globalisation, along
with technology, has made both the vernacular of language and the
content of issues explored in Verbatim plays transportable. In Australia,
perhaps the most important local influence on the evolution of the
Verbatim Theatre form was Paul Brown's Aftershocks.
Verbatim Theatre in Australia (some perspectives of practitioners)
Paul Brown and the Workers' Cultural Action Committee's Aftershocks, a
Verbatim play - and film - about the Newcastle earthquake in 1989, was
in first-draft form by February 1991. Triggered by conversations
between staff, members and friends of the Newcastle Workers' Club, it was a
way for Newcastle to come to terms with the aftermath of disaster,
which, according to Brown, was
perhaps more full of crisis than the day the earthquake struck.
Sluggishness by governments and insurance companies, insurance rorts, lack of
funding for emergency reconstruction, dislocation from homes or
workplaces, and grief, all hit home. There was a desire for closure in
Newcastle - for the story of the quake to end, for it to be filed away and
forgotten, for rebuilding to proceed quickly. But for many reasons this
could not happen, and for some people, a 'normal life' would not be
achieved for ten years.33
Brown argues34 that it is a local story, 'it's gusty, bloody and
humorous and it tells what these people did on the day of the Newcastle
earthquake when their club was reduced to a pile of twisted rubble and
several of their friends died'.35 However, the play, as Brown and critics
acknowledge, touches on universal themes: How do people respond to
crisis, assume leadership, deal with death? What language do these people
use, when confronted with disaster? What do all these answers tell us
about our culture?
One of the original actors in Aftershocks, Paul Makeham, disputes the
play's authenticity when it is performed outside Newcastle:
[T]o understand the play in terms of a dehistoricised, unlocalised
'universal human spirit' is ultimately to negate its power as a history
written by a particular group of people in unique circumstances ...
Ultimately, the universalist response is one of appropriation, a falsely
inclusive reading, which serves the purposes of the dominant 'Art' culture
... Such appropriation has the effect of a form of censorship a
censorship of inclusion rather than exclusion - but serving nonetheless to
repress the voices of a particular socio-political formation.36
This response to 'outside' productions of the play, although valid in
terms of its instinctively knowing the play's setting and therefore the
source of the text, is problematic. It implies that Verbatim Theatre is
only valid in its place - and time - of origin. Yet the issue of
authenticity or truth begins to be a mutable commodity at the very start of
the scripting process; by the time 'the truth' has become a play, it is
already, as Brown says, a fabrication.37 If it comes to ownership of
the material, doesn't it actually belong to the interviewees? By the
time it is presented theatrically, it is already a distillation. Obviously
the choice of the material and the manner of its presentation are open
to interpretation. What is left in, what is considered powerful,
resonant and compelling is subjective. The writer or the actors do not
change the words themselves; they are, in Horin's terms, 'cherry-picked'. As
Makeham implies, those that gather the material profoundly influence
this selection process, but gathering material does not necessarily
endow the gatherer with more emotional resonance in performance. Theatre is
not that kind.
That the play should have received so many productions far beyond
Newcastle, that it should have become a film, and that SBS, which funded the
film, should have screened it three years in a row close to the
anniversary date of the earthquake - all this is a tribute both to the
satisfyingly dramatic quality of the story-telling and to the empathic nature
of the experience offered by the play to an audience. If we return to
our approach focused on credibility rather than authenticity, the
popularity of the work with audiences suggests that they are responding to
Director and writer, Ros Horin, on the other hand, was determined from
the outset to engage the broadest community possible. Although the
taped testimonies for her play, Through the Wire, came from only one
detention centre, she believed they had credibility for an audience who might
know of detention centres' existence but had never ventured inside
one. Horin did not intend devising a piece of Verbatim Theatre when she
began visiting Villawood Detention Centre in Sydney as a curious citizen.
Through the Wire evolved over years of interviewing four refugees and
three middle-class Australians, all women, who became professionally
involved with them.
They were the only four refugees I interviewed. I did not do a survey
of thirty or forty refugees. I just followed my nose and got to know
these four people and their stories were so gripping and dramatic and
extraordinary that they were enough for me. I can only assume that if I had
met another four, their stories would have been just as amazing. At
that stage I still didn't know that I was going to write a play. I was
just gathering material but all the time thinking if we are going to
create a piece of theatre on this issue, I want it to be a piece of theatre
that reaches mainstream Australia.
I didn't come in with a point of view. I came in with a healthy degree
of scepticism. How do I know these people are genuine refugees? I
thought I had to go through that - to convince an audience, I have to really
convince myself. So I was rather forensic in my questioning. Why? What
had happened? What got you into trouble? So what? Couldn't you have
lived there with that? Why did you have to get out? What would have
happened if you'd stayed? What were the political ramifications? So I guess
I drew out from them very detailed stories of that moment that changed
their lives forever - the event that made them have to flee.
The emotional heart of the play became about individual Australians and
individual refugees, hence the title. Through the Wire ... this is a
story about what individuals can do to make a difference.38
Shahin Shafei as himself in Ros Horin's Through the Wire. Performing
Lines, Sydney, 2005. Photo: Heidrun Löhr.
Wadih Dona as Farshid in Through the Wire. Photo: Heidrun Löhr.
Through the Wire presents as a universal story, even though it is
examining a uniquely Australian experience. In social research terms, the
play's content conforms exactly to Denzin's belief that performance
ethnography - or performed research - is most effective when it focuses on
crises and moments of epiphany in the culture.39 In Horin's play,
refugees are given a depth and an intellectual, emotional and spiritual
dimension they were generally denied in mainstream media. The refugee
stories that the press covered at the time Horin was first staging her play
were keen to sensationalise the results of their treatment in Australia,
not the causes. Lips sewn during hunger strikes; men tunnelling out of
the Villawood mosque and into the community; a traumatised Afghan boy
who refused to eat or speak all received coverage which, by its
brevity, helped to alienate and at times demonise the already alienated.
Through the Wire helped to shatter the illusion of separateness. Recognition
and reclamation of moral values catapulted another Verbatim play, The
Laramie Project, out of the regions and on to world stages.
Kate Gaul, an Australian director with a thirty-year career in Verbatim
Theatre, sees the current trend in the area as stemming from an
increasing universality of themes. She discusses Moises Kaufman and the
Tektonic Theatre Project's play, The Laramie Project, about the brutal
homophobic torture and murder of Mathew Shepherd and its impact on the tiny
town of Laramie, Wyoming, USA. To source the text for this play,
Kaufman and twelve actors compiled over 200 hours of interviews over an
eighteen-month period. Through the play that evolved over another eighteen
months from this standard verbatim process, the company not only brought
an increased level of understanding to the motivations of the crime
and its ramifications, but they also created an international hit. Gaul
directed the Sydney production for Company B at Belvoir Street Theatre
The Laramie Project was about a specific hate crime in small town
America but it seems to have caught the imagination of white middle class
people around the world. Mathew Shepherd looked like everyone's son,
friend or brother and things like that don't happen to people like him. The
play is about comparison and violence. It is about how those two
things are deeply imbedded and wedded together in humanity. The show was
also about discrimination. But it was speaking specifically to the nature
of hate crimes and specifically about anti-gay and homophobic behaviour
and how at that time there was no legislation or disincentive to stop
it. The specific story probably doesn't matter that much. It is a play
of Greek tragic proportions and that is the art of the writer and the
But at its core, Gaul still sees Verbatim Theatre as being about a
specific community, despite its potentially broader significance. She did
not want the actors in her production of The Laramie Project to use
Australian accents, for example. She felt it was essential to the play's
integrity to keep it in Laramie, and to let the audience make the
geographical leap into their own back yard. She also works to preserve
authenticity in performance.
Aesthetically I treat the characters that are based on real people with
enormous dignity and the theatre owes humanity that. Even the most
bigoted character should be treated with dignity and honour. They don't
realize they are bigoted; it is for the audience to see that. In these
plays, the audience needs to make up their minds.
I think what is strong about Verbatim Theatre is that it is basic
story-telling. It's about going out and finding a story and putting it in a
room where lots of other people can hear it. That's at the heart of
theatre, really. It may be on an upswing because, if we are losing our way
in the bigger world, we go to something smaller and start there.
Getting back to basics and telling the stories of the community.41
The Laramie Project triumphs in its determination to explore a cultural
crisis. In exposing the complexity of the factors - the people, their
attitudes, and their actions - that contributed to the crisis without
presenting a panacea, a cure or 'a happy ending', the play opens the
audience up to acknowledging the existence of uncertainty. In Hugh
MacKay's terms, accepting uncertainty enlarges our vision.42 This encourages
us to live with mystery and ambiguity, he maintains, and helps combat
disengagement and the subsequent deadening acquiescence in all forms of
Moises Kaufman and Tektonic Theatre Project: The Laramie Project.
Company B, Sydney, 2001. Russell Dykstra, Tara Morice, Mitchell Butel,
Anthony Phelan, Lynette Curran. Photo: Heidrun Löhr.
Josef Ber, Lynette Curran, Russell Dykstra, Tara Morice in The Laramie
Project. Pholo: Heidrun Löhr.
Recent successes - global narratives
It is not only in the personal sphere that Verbatim plays have had
global relevance. In Soans' Talking to Terrorists, directed by Max
Stafford-Clark, verbatim accounts - from former militant resistance fighters,
their victims, ministers, diplomats, an army expert, a psychologist and
ordinary folk from London, Belfast, Uganda, Turkey and the Middle East
- are interwoven to create a complex, horrific and at times desperately
poignant picture of the inequality of our world and the desperation
that drives the agents of change or terrorists. The play offers insights
into the multiple causes of terrorism: the juxtaposition of testimonies
from activists, both militant and drafted, does more than inform; 'it
opens your eyes and alters your attitude'.41 '[It] ... takes a subject
surrounded by fear and panic and offers progressive enlightenment.'44
'Putting this material in a theatre, rather than on television or in a
newspaper, makes it more focused. It allows the audience to concentrate
harder and lends the evening a vital edge of being an activity
undertaken as a community. This is not so much verbatim theatre as imperative
Makeham's concerns about diminishing authenticity once a Verbatim play
leaves its origins seem less significant in the light of increasingly
inauthentic news and current affairs reportage. That Verbatim Theatre is
able to provide fuel for discussion and complex and differing
perspectives - as well as simultaneously anchoring information in human
experience - gives it a depth and a level of accountability currently outside
other readily available sources. But of course the power of effective
Verbatim Theatre, such as the plays discussed here, lies not only in
airing the content; it is found also in the very theatricality, the
dramatisation, of that content. The theatre, as John O'Toole defines it, is a
place of special significance.46 The nature of 'this special place',
and the transactions that occur between the space, the play, the actors
and the audience, have been examined countless times in drama
scholarship. Unlike other story-telling media. Verbatim Theatre has an
immediacy, demands a focus and works on our imaginations in a unique way,
because although the actors aren't really the characters, they are real
people; they are really present. Although theatre is an artificial construct
for narrative, and even Verbatim plays are, as Paul Brown described
Aftershocks, a fabrication,47 the texts are increasingly more real than
any other in this 'Information Age'.
Theatre and transformation
Characters in narrative drama rely on language for story; characters in
Verbatim Theatre use their own. Perhaps, apart from the strength of
the stories themselves, that is why hearing them makes them so
accessible, emotional and empathie for an audience. Just as Cheeseman recognised
in his initial Verbatim plays of the 1960s, using the language of the
community elevates that community by enhancing its self-esteem. In some
recent Verbatim plays examined here, the idea of bringing theatre to a
community has radically changed; the subject matter has universal
relevance and the sense of community created within the theatre does not
overtly exist outside it, as in the past. The language of spin, of
political and economic public relations packaging, is recognisable and
increasingly produces cynicism with its over-use; the language of human
experience is intuitively resonant. In the focused space of a theatre, this
intricately woven language potentially creates opportunities for new
meanings and allows new understandings and perspectives to evolve. Horin
was aware that audiences changed after seeing Through the Wire.
The response to Through the Wire has been fantastic. People have been
enormously engaged and enormously moved by it [which is] the thing I am
most thrilled about because people are coming out saying 'I am going to
do something'. Perhaps 80 percent of the people who came had some
interest, but it has been able to change people from a theoretical interest
to a gut and heart response, absolutely engaged. They have come out of
the performance and said, 'I am going to go to the detention centre; I
am going to lobby a member of parliament; I am going to join Amnesty'.
Groups of schoolkids are writing to refugees. It has been fantastic in
the way it has produced action ... Theatre should have something to
uplift and inspire ... it has reaffirmed my belief in the possibility of
theatre as an agent for social change.49
Ros Arnold defines these experiences that engage both the intellect and
the emotions as opportunities for transformational learning.50 She
sees such learning as crucial in the evolution of leadership. 'When
thoughts and feelings can be encouraged to interact in dynamic ways, better
learning, communication and leadership can occur.'51 Once curiosity is
present, in Arnold's terms, the potential for transformational learning
is also present and it is the curious who go to theatre. Arnold
suggests that transformational learning is a product of empathie intelligence.
She defines such intelligence as 'a way of using various intelligences
and sensitivities to engage effectively with others'.52 For empathy -
the capacity to engage emotionally in experiences outside oneself - to
evolve, Arnold maintains that the imagination has to be engaged and
there must be the opportunity to reflect in an energised environment. It
seems that just such an intelligence is triggered by effective Verbatim
Theatre: an intelligence, a capacity to connect, an opportunity to
identify ourselves and others, a chance for our humanity to be touched and
our world to be understood. This intelligence, this opportunity for
transformational learning, is a building block for leadership rarely
offered elsewhere in the media.
The upsurge in Verbatim Theatre may have less to do with content and
more with the lack of connectivity and meaning elsewhere in our
mediasaturated environment. The Verbatim Theatre discussed here offers audiences
potentially transformative learning opportunities in a climate of
deteriorating public debate and consumer commodification. As Hare writes,
'what we are witnessing is one of these moments at which theatre
excels'.53 Verbatim Theatre's ability to move from its micro-community base to
today's world stages reflects a now-expanded global community and its
shared concerns. But perhaps Verbatim Theatre is performing an even
more powerful transformative experience for an audience than the
dissemination of narrative understanding? This, we suggest, is because it tells
authentic, credible and diverse stories, and has the ability to weave a
drama steeped in empathie complexity; it has the capacity to connect
with its audience through both the intellect and the emotion. Verbatim
Theatre provides a unique vehicle for the enrichment of an audience
starved of debate, denied an identity by the dictates of global enterprise.
The main reason for its resurgence lies more in the community's need
to hear diverse and authentic voices, to be presented with multiple
voices and perspectives, to be informed, engaged and transformed.
1 Robert McChesney, Rich Media, Poor Democracy: Communication Politics
in Dubious Times, University of Illinois Press, 30 November 2005,
2 John Faulkner, Henry Parkes Oration 2005, 'Apathy and Anger: Our
Modern Australian Democracy', Henry Parkes Foundation,
www.henryparkes.org.au October 2005, 3.
3 Graeme Turner, Understanding Celebrity (London: Sage Publications,
4 Faulkner 1, 5.
5 Graeme Turner, Ending the Affair: The Decline of Television Current
Affairs in Australia (Sydney: University of New South Wales Press, 2005)
6 Ibid 2.
7 Ibid 160.
8 Debi Enker, 'The Big Turn-off, News Review. Sydney Morning Herald,
July 23-4 2005, 31.
9 Judy McCrossin, 'Australian Film and Television Production in
Free-fall Plummet', Media, Entertainment and Arts Alliance press release, 4
10 Simon Whipp and Christopher Warren, 'ABC: The Eyes and Ears of
Australia', Media, Entertainment and Arts Alliance press release, 4 August
11 We are not arguing that Verbatim Theatre is a direct substitute for
television current affairs. We are suggesting, rather, that such
theatre ventilates narratives that cannot be heard in other parts of our
community, including mainstream media.
12 J. Carroll, M. Anderson and D. Cameron, Real Players: Drama,
Technology and Education (Stoke-on-Trent: Trentham Books, 2006).
13 In this article we capitalise 'Verbatim Theatre' to distinguish it
as a theatrical form.
14 D. Paget, 'Verbatim Theatre: Oral History and Documentary
Techniques', New Theatre Quarterly, 12. 1987: 317-36.
15 D. T. Campbell and D. W. Fiske, 'Convergant and Discriminant
Validation by the Multitrait-Multitimethod Maim', Psychological Bulletin, 1959
16 P. Auslander, Liveness: Performance in a Mediatized Culture (London:
Routledge, 1999) 90-1.
17 Stephen Bottoms, 'Putting the Document into Documentary: An
Unwelcome Corrective?', The Drama Review 50.3 (T191) Fall, 2006 (New York
University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology) 56-68.
18 Donna Soto-Morettini, 'Trouble in the House: David Hare's Stuff
Happens', Contemporary Theatre Review, Vol. 15 (3) 2005: 314.
19 Ros Horin, personal interview with the authors, Rose Bay, New South
Wales, 9 June 2005.
20 D. Edgar, 'What Are We Telling the Nation?, London Review of Books,
Vol. 27 No. 13, 7 July 2005, http://www.lrb.co.uk/v27/n13/edga01_.html
21 Kate Kellaway, 'Theatre of War', The Observer, Guardian Unlimited,
Arts Features, 29 August 2004: 3,
Accessed 25 July 2005.
22 Ibid 3.
23 David Hare, 'On Factual Theatre', in Robin Soans, Talking to
Terrorists (London: Oberon, 2005) 113.
24 Paget 317-18.
26 Peter Cheeseman, 'On Documentary Theatre', in Robin Soans, Talking
to Terrorists (London: Oberon, 2005) 106.
28 Ibid 104.
29 Paget 322.
30 S. Freeman, 'Joint Stock Theatre Company 1974-1989', The Literary
Encyclopedia, http://www,litencyc.com/php/stopics.php?rec=true&UID= 1655
Accessed 31 October 2006.
31 Kellaway 3.
32 Turner, Understanding Celebrity 118.
33 Paul Brown and the Workers' Cultural Action Committee, Aftershocks
(Strawberry Hills: Currency Press, 2001) viii.
34 Ibid vii.
36 Paul Makeham, 'Community Stories: Aftershocks and Verbatim Theatre',
in V. Kelly, ed., Our Australian Theatre in the 1990s (Amsterdam:
Rodopi, 1998) 180.
37 Brown xx.
38 Horin interview.
39 Norman K. Denzin, Performance Ethnography: Critical Pedagogy and the
Politics of Culture (London: Sage Publications, 2004) 83.
40 Kate Gaul, personal interview with the authors, 29 June 2005.
42 Hugh MacKay, Annual Manning Clark Lecture: 'Social Disengagement: A
Breeding Ground for Fundamentalism', Big Ideas, ABC Radio National, 20
43 Georgina Brown, Review: 'Talking to Terrorists', Mail on Sunday,
Monday 2 May 2005: 8, www.wolscythcatre.co.uk/pages/reviews.html?
cvent=Talking+To+Terrorists&even Accessed 28 June 2005.
44 Michael Billington, Review: 'Talking to Terrorists', The Guardian,
Thursday 28 April 2005: 4.
www.wolseytheatre.co.uk/pages/reviews.html?event=Talking+To+Terrorists&even... Accessed 28 June 2005.
45 Andrew Haydon, 'Talking to Terrorists', Culture Wars. Royal Court,
London. 6 July 2005.
www.wolseythcatre.co.uk/pages/reviews.html?event=Talking+To+Terrorists&even Accessed 25 July 2005.
46 John O'Toole, The Process of Drama: Negotiating Art and Meaning
(London: Routledge, 1992) 171.
47 Brown xx.
48 Cheeseman 104.
49 Horin interview.
50 R. Arnold, Empathie Intelligence: Teaching. Learning. Relating
(Sydney: University of New South Wales Press, 2005).
51 Ibid 13.
52 Ibid 19.
53 Hare 113.
DR. MICHAEL ANDERSON teaches and researches in drama in the Faculty of
Education and Social Work at The University of Sydney. Michael has
worked as a drama teacher in several schools and was recently a curriculum
adviser for the NSW Department of Education and Training. Michael has
recently co-written Real Players drama, technology and education. His
current research interests include: video narratives and pedagogy and
critical perspectives in drama teachers' professional development. He is
currently co-writing a book for Allen and Unwin on the place of screen
studies in the modern classroom.
LINDEN VILKINSON graduated from NIDA in 1976, after completing an
Economics Degree at Sydney University. She performed in major theatre
companies in Melbourne, Adelaide and Auckland before returning home to Sydney
in the late '80's. Since then she has continued to perform, as well as
write for stage, film and television. She recently completed a
Bachelor of Teaching at Sydney University and has gone on to do a Masters in