Verbatim theatre


The Scar Test  

Bloomsbury Publishing
Type: Text

I haven't hurt anyone, killed, raped, murdered - I just ran away - came here to be safe. But I'm locked up. I just - I can't believe this is England.

They have run away from unimaginable horrors looking only for safety. But, imprisoned together at Yarl's Wood Dentention Centre, these women are stuck in a limbo that offers them exactly the opposite.

Based on verbatim interviews from current and former detainees, The Scar Test takes you inside one of England's migrant detention centres, exposing the conditions the inmates must endure whilst awaiting a decision on their fate. Told with compassion, Hannah Khalil's play throws a spotlight on the harrowing ordeals of the female migrants seeking refuge in Britain and the obstacles they face in the process.

Published to coincide with its 2017 London and regional tour, The Scar Test originally debuted in 2015 with Untold Arts company. 

Stuff Happens

Faber and Faber
Type: Text

Stuff happens... And it's untidy, and freedom's untidy, and free people are free to make mistakes and commit crimes and do bad things.

The famous response of Donald Rumsfeld, American Secretary of Defense, to the looting of Baghdad, at a press conference on 11 April 2003, provides the title for a new play, specially written for the Olivier Theatre, about the extraordinary process leading up to the invasion of Iraq.

How does the world settle its differences, now there is only one superpower? What happens to leaders risking their credibility with sceptical publics? From events which have dominated international headlines for the last two years David Hare has fashioned both a historical narrative and a human drama about the frustrations of power and the limits of diplomacy.

Stuff Happens premiered at the National Theatre, London, in 2004 season and has subsequently been performed around the world. In April 2006, it was given its New York premiere at the Public Theater in this new, slightly updated text.

The Swing

Bloomsbury Publishing
Type: Text

At the beginning of the The Swing, one of the characters explains that in Kentucky in 1911 a black man was charged with murder and lynched on the stage of the local theatre. Bond’s short play is subtitled A Documentary: this true story is sparingly stylised into a powerful and profoundly shocking drama. Bond draws a detailed picture of the quotidian injustice of a community, headed by the store owner Mr Skinner, which can condone violent murder and drive people to madness. When his store is robbed and a young woman appears to have been attacked, Skinner accuses Fred with no evidence, and organises the grotesque staging of his death.

The Swing was first presented in 1976 at Inter-Action’s Almost Free Theatre, London.


Faber and Faber
Type: Text

At 11.40pm on 14 April 1912, the RMS Titanic, on its maiden voyage from Southampton to New York, struck an iceberg. At 2.20am the following morning, the ship sank. 1,517 people died.

In response to the disaster the British Government ordered an immediate inquiry and Lord Mersey was appointed commissioner. The British Wreck Commissioner's Inquiry sat from 2 May to 3 July 1912. It took testimony from 97 witnesses.

Full of intrigue, bravery and human frailty, Titanic retells the survivors' stories, using dialogue taken word-for-word from the hundred-year-old accounts. The play premiered in April 2012 as the inaugural production of the MAC, Belfast.

audio Unquestioned Integrity: The Hill/Thomas Hearing

LA Theatre Works
Type: Audio

Adapted directly from the actual transcripts, Unquestioned Integrity examines the notorious Senate Confirmation hearings when law professor Anita Hill charged Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas with sexual harassment.

An L.A. Theatre Works full-cast performance featuring Edward Asner, Ella Joyce and Paul Winfield.

Featuring: Edward Asner, Ella Joyce, Paul Winfield

Verbatim theatre is a form of documentary theatre which is based on the spoken words of real people. In its strictest form, verbatim theatre-makers use real people’s words exclusively, and take this testimony from recorded interviews. However, the form is more malleable than this, and writers have frequently combined interview material with invented scenes, or used reported and remembered speech rather than recorded testimony. There is an overlap between verbatim theatre and documentary theatre, and other kinds of fact-based drama, such as testimonial theatre (in which an individual works with a writer to tell their own story) and tribunal theatre (edited from court transcripts). In the United Kingdom, the term ‘verbatim’ specifically relates to the use of spoken testimony, whereas ‘documentary’ encompasses other found sources, such as newspaper articles, diaries and letters. However, in America ‘verbatim’ is not used, with ‘documentary’ being the preferred term. When looking for verbatim playtexts, the reader will often find them conflated with other documentary forms.

Documentary theatre has a rich heritage in comparison to the relative infancy of verbatim theatre. Erwin Piscator’s Trotz alledem! (In Spite of Everything! Berlin, 1925) is widely acknowledged as the first stage documentary. The play was a revue about the Communist Party and Piscator utilised new technologies which included creating montages using projected newsreel footage. Trotz alledem! also featured recorded speeches, news-extracts, photographs and film sequences from the First World War. Piscator went on to direct some of the most respected German documentary plays such as Rolf Hochhuth’s Der Stellvertreter (The Representative, known in America as The Deputy), which premiered in West Berlin in 1963, Heinar Kipphardt’s In the Matter of J. Robert Oppenheimer (1964), and Peter Weiss’s The Investigation (1965). These German documentary productions had a great influence on British documentary theatre, particularly the work of Joan Littlewood. Her production, Oh What a Lovely War! chronicled the First World War through songs and documents of the period. Its importance was immediately recognised, with the production hailed by the Observer as ‘The most important theatrical event of the decade’.

The development of verbatim theatre, rather like Piscator’s use of new film projection technologies, is closely linked to a simple technological development – the invention of the portable cassette recorder. This enabled the voices of individuals to be recorded in their own environment. Mobile interviews could take place which extended the dramatic possibilities of verbatim theatre. The first verbatim productions were directed by Peter Cheeseman who was artistic director of the Victoria Theatre, Stoke-on-Trent from 1962 – 1984. Cheeseman’s verbatim work at Stoke was not only influenced by the left-wing documentary theatre of Joan Littlewood, but also by the radio documentary tradition, particularly the radio ballads of Charles Parker. Central to Parker’s work was the prominence of working class voices in the broadcasts. One of Cheeseman’s most notable productions, which can be regarded the first verbatim play, was Fight for Shelton Bar (1974), which was part of a campaign fighting against the closure of a major steelworks in the heart of Stoke, and was performed in the city to an audience of many of the ex-workers.

Over the past two decades verbatim theatre has come to occupy a central place on the British stage, and is seen as one of the most incisive forms of political theatre. It has moved from the fringes to the mainstream, with some of the highest profile theatres staging verbatim plays. Particularly noteworthy exponents of the form include David Hare, whose verbatim (or at least part-verbatim) plays The Permanent Way (2003), Stuff Happens (2004) and The Power of Yes (2009) were all performed at the National Theatre; director Max Stafford-Clark and writer Robin Soans, who have collaborated on A State Affair (2000), Talking to Terrorists (2005) and Mixed Up North (2009); and in particular the campaigning work of director Nicholas Kent and the Guardian journalist Richard Norton Taylor at the Tricycle Theatre in Kilburn, North London. Kent and Norton-Taylor’s work has included a series of tribunal plays, including Nuremberg (1996), Bloody Sunday (2005), and perhaps their most successful production: The Colour of Justice: The Stephen Lawrence Enquiry (1999). All these were edited scenes from court cases. Kent has also collaborated with Gillian Slovo on Guantanamo: ‘Honour Bound to Defend Freedom’ (with Victoria Brittain, 2004) and most recently on The Riots (2011), which was the first theatrical response to the riots in the summer of 2011.

Verbatim theatre has arisen as the medium chosen to depict major societal issues. For example, army deaths in Philip Ralph’s Deep Cut (2008) and Fiona Evans’s Geoff Dead: Disco for Sale (2008); prostitution in Esther Wilson’s Unprotected (2006), Alecky Blythe’s The Girlfriend Experience (2008); murder in Tanika Gupta’s Gladiator Games (2005) and London Road (2012) and perhaps most predominantly, a surge of work on the continuing issue of the war in Iraq: Norton-Taylor’s Justifying War (2003), Called to Account (2007) and Tactical Questioning (2011), Gregory Burke’s Black Watch (2007) and Steve Gilroy’s The Motherland (2008).

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) and Fires in the Mirror (1992). 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. Australia has also experienced a boom in verbatim productions. The first verbatim production was Paul Brown’s Aftershocks (1993), featuring interviews in the aftermath of the devastating Newcastle earthquake. Works by Alana Valentine including Run Rabbit Run (2004) and Parramatta Girls (2007) have also raised the profile of Australian verbatim theatre.

In addition to the plays themselves, over recent years there have been a number of useful publications on verbatim theatre. These include Alison Forsyth and Chris Megson’s Get Real: Documentary Theatre Past and Present (2009) which is an edited collection of chapters on many different aspects of documentary and verbatim theatre; Will Hammond and Dan Steward’s Verbatim, Verbatim: Contemporary Documentary Theatre (2009) which includes interviews with verbatim writers and directors, Tom Cantrell’s Acting in Documentary Theatre (2013) explores how actors approach playing real people in verbatim productions, and Paul Brown’s Verbatim Theatre: The Art of Authenticity (2010), which focuses on Australian verbatim theatre.

courtesy of Dr Tom Cantrell, Lecturer in Drama, University of York, 2012.