Verbatim Theatre Workshops

Posted on: 11 March 2012

Written by: Clemmie

NB: Last week, a group of Cardboard Citizens' Members participated in a 2-day masterclass on Verbatim Theatre techniques with playwright & director Philip Osment.

One of the participants shares some of his thoughts below.

I took part in Philip's two-day verbatim theatre workshop and really enjoyed it. Before I got there, I had my doubts about verbatim, but thought I'd give it a chance. At first I wasn't really sure if verbatim theatre could work dramatically. I thought that passing someone's speech on word-for-word, (as 'verbatim' implies) would be a massive constraint on a director, since s/he wouldn't be able to shape the dialogue to achieve the dramatic effect that s/he's aiming for. To be true to the genre, the speech has to be passed on unaltered.

I realised then that that is both verbatim's strength, as well as being its constraint. The words spoken are authentic, and reflect someone's real experience. That in itself gives verbatim theatre dramatic impact. Especially since in a verbatim piece, players occasionally digress from the topic in hand, and some repeat themselves, and some use inaccurate grammar. All these idiosyncrasies lend the finished product an authenticity, a real-life feel, that can't always be achieved in a scripted piece.

While doing the two-day workshop, I heard extracts from some of Philip's work that left me really moved. I'm thinking in particular of the recording where a mother is discussing the death of her daughter, who was stabbed at a party. The sense of grief and loss was palpable, but handled sympathetically by Kerry who read it out, and it seemed to me, true to the sense of the recording. I was also impressed by how sensitively Philip approached the subject, aware that he was working with people who had suffered a massive loss, and avoiding causing them further distress.

I think verbatim is technically quite challenging for actors, since they have to rely on the other actors to keep up, else their lines could get either lost, or repeated out of sync. Worked well, I think that it's got real potential, especially if tackling topical themes, such as knife crime, as Philip did. Verbatim's definitely something that I’d like Cardboard Citizens to look at doing again.

Our task – to record members of the public on a topical issue, then back in the rehearsal room listen to those words through headphones and speak them aloud as we hear them.

Recording people speaking their thoughts is a great way to get new and original material. This can then be adapted, used as is, or perhaps as inspiration for an unrelated piece. Collecting material in this way means it’s 100% genuine compared to the work of a writer which inevitably is an invention, approximation or interpretation of real speech. Using this methodology, you truly get ‘the voice of the people’.

Speaking as you listen to the recorded interviews is a real skill and could be useful in the rehearsal room as a tool and a way into a character. However, I do question its validity in performance. Is it a needed complication? Does it not lead the actor toward re-presenting and so missing a truthful performance? If it’s an enquiry into a subject more than a ‘truthful performance’ one is after, then it seems you can’t go far wrong with verbatim.

Perhaps the best approach in its application is to use it as a source of material, then hand over to ‘tradition’ and have the actor off-book and bringing his/her ‘being’ to the character, as opposed to copying what they hear. With the text totally honouring the words of real people, it should surely mean the characters are unbeatably 3D and genuine (only beatable if you’re Bill Shakespeare).

The question is how to turn that into a truly theatrical piece of drama with all the conflict we love?


With thanks to

Arts Council England Lottery funded