Verbatim theatre: truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth?

Elsden, Rhianna (2022). Verbatim theatre: truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth? University of Birmingham. Ph.D.

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I am a teacher, by profession. I teach Drama as a subject to students aged 11-18, and I’m also a freelance copywriter and I write scripts for performance myself (not professionally). All of these strands feed into this thesis and led me in the first case to propose the study and investigate verbatim theatre, and with it ideas (and ideals) of truth in performance.

The link for me specifically was my Masters thesis, where I was writing a film script that, while fictitious, had to involve research. During this time I came across relevant films that tagged themselves as ‘based on real events’. In the Critical Studies essay that I wrote alongside my own creative work, I looked into what this phrase might mean. Once I had left behind the MA I did not leave behind the questions on truth in performance and performance writing. As my work at school became more about verbatim theatre, with it working well for devising modules that students have to do for key components, the questions moved from the MA and film into something else, and eventually this thesis.

The scholarly debates surrounding what authenticity and truth mean within verbatim theatre have been taking place throughout the form’s existence. It has been particularly common as a concern since the 1990s as the form’s claims of ‘truth’ and popularity grew.

The form has been especially prevalent in the twenty-first century, but if it is to have a long future without being undermined by claims of misleading the audience in terms of authenticity, truth and bias too, it must look to its past, learn from mistakes, and also beware that as it seeks to reinvent itself to remain fresh, relevant and indeed entertaining, it does not lose sight of its ethical responsibilities.

What follows is research into verbatim’s emergence from documentary theatre and a clarification on the hybrids within the form. This also includes a consideration of the form’s emergence and use within schools as a popular approach for devising and engaging with young people. Case studies have been undertaken into key examples from these hybrids, examining the methodologies in collecting, editing and performing the material. The primary case studies are – David Hare and Max Stafford-Clark’s The Permanent Way (2003), Mark Wheeller’s I Love You Mum and I Promise I Won’t Die (2017), Julia Samuels’ and 20 Stories High’s Tales from the MP3 (2012), Cate Hollis and Mark Wheeller’s Kindness: A legacy of the Holocaust (2021), Alecky Blythe and Dominic Cork’s London Road (2011), Carol Ann Duffy and Rufus Norris’ My Country (2017). Sitting within the primary corpus, the body of verbatim work and methodologies of Anna Deavere Smith, Tricycle Theatre Company, Tectonic Theater Project, DV8, Nadia Fall, LUNG theatre company and Frantic Assembly are also analysed.

Testimony, including original interviews with Samuels, Wheeller, Hollis and LUNG’s Helen Monks, and extracts from the unpublished personal diaries of Max Stafford-Clark is included, as is the subsequent critical reflection the pieces received; all of which is then analysed. In each case, the discussion returns to the central question for consideration: how much ‘truth’ and ‘authenticity’ is there in verbatim theatre?

This investigation examines and acknowledges the ethical issues and tensions that emerge as playwrights integrate and edit personal testimony into a creative project that ultimately must engage an audience and creatively represent its ‘subjects’. The thesis also offers an understanding of how complex the notions of truth and authenticity are, discussing their etymology for example. This then leads to consideration of whether verbatim theatre can ever be truthful and authentic given the impossibilities in defining the words themselves.

The thesis will offer considerations for ethical verbatim practice, encouraging practitioners to critically reflect on the methods that they employ within all stages of the verbatim theatre process. An appreciation of the form in spite of inherent weaknesses is given and all these deliberations, it is hoped, will benefit other theatre practitioners as well as scholars working within the wider field of theatre studies.

Type of Work: Thesis (Doctorates > Ph.D.)
Award Type: Doctorates > Ph.D.
Licence: All rights reserved
College/Faculty: Colleges (2008 onwards) > College of Arts & Law
School or Department: School of English, Drama and Creative Studies, Department of Drama and Theatre Arts
Funders: None/not applicable
Subjects: P Language and Literature > PN Literature (General) > PN2000 Dramatic representation. The Theater


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