Making verbatim theatre
Paper Cut’s upcoming work Hello, Stranger is an example of verbatim theatre: a work where the performance text is primarily drawn from real words spoken by real people recorded, transcribed and performed verbatim.
This off-shoot of the documentary tradition is said to have begun in the United Kingdom in the 1960s, around the same time that the portable cassette recorder became available. Since then the form of verbatim theatre has grown steadily in popularity across many continents.
Often verbatim theatre is created using interviews with real people who have something to share about a particular issue, theme or event. This is how Hello, Stranger began over 12 months ago.
We held a pop-up event in January 2015 called Be My Friend, where we invited members of the public to come and compete in a series of games in order to become our “New Best Friend”. The games were silly and fun but designed with a serious purpose in mind – to collect authentic stories from people about their experiences with strangers. We recorded copious conversations with friends and strangers inside our big blue tent and then painstakingly transcribed every one of them, complete with ums, ahs and awkward laughter.
Verbatim means ‘word for word’ so it’s important in this process to remain faithful to what was originally said. We are indebted to the people who offered up their stories for us to use in the creation of Hello, Stranger so trying to represent them honestly is the very least we can do. But also, one of the interesting things about verbatim theatre is being able to hear the unique ways in which different people express themselves naturally. So we transcribed everything exactly as it was said, and later we made careful and considered choices about what to keep and what to leave aside.
In the creative development process for Hello, Stranger we spent a lot of time sorting all of the stories we had collected into different categories. We sorted and then re-sorted until we had whittled the pile of paper down to a manageable size. This became the basis of our script.
In deciding which stories to keep in the show we had to consider what it was that we, as theatremakers, wanted to say. But also, we had to consider what it was that the collected stories would/could say in performance. Verbatim theatre “refrains from all invention” (Weiss, 1971) so it is not possible for us to say something that is not already there in the material we gathered (i.e. we can’t put words in people’s mouths). Through the editing and placement of the material, though, it is possible to make certain stories speak in ways that they cannot on their own.
In Hello, Stranger we have juxtaposed collected stories with statistics, excerpts from official reports and one particularly pertinent news story in order to highlight central ideas or pose questions. The result is a multi-layered performance text that explores what we know, what we think and how we feel about strangers.
Click here to find out more about Hello, Stranger.
Weiss, P. (1971). The material and the models: Notes towards a definition of documentary theatre. Theatre Quarterly, 1(1), 41-43.