Ahead of Speaking for Real: A Guide to Verbatim Theatre, acclaimed playwright and actor Alecky Blythe discusses her process, how she creates her work, and what’s required to perform it.
Many people know you for the very specific techniques in approaching verbatim theatre; where did this process come from and how has it developed?
My process was based on that of Mark Wing-Davey [British actor and director], who in turn learnt it from Anna Deavere Smith [American actress and playwright]. To be specific, Mark taught that actors wear earphones in both rehearsals and performances, and copy exact speech patterns of the interviewees, and this is the process I used for my plays at first. For Anna’s process, the earphones were only used in rehearsals and the actors learnt their lines for the performance. I did this for London Road and I’m using this method more and more; I suppose I’m going on a bit of a journey myself.
How do you start creating a new piece of verbatim theatre?
The starting point for me is often a news story, maybe something I’ve read in the newspaper or seen on the news. My plays are usually event-driven, so that is my way in. I then take myself off to those communities and record interviews, explaining that their words will become the script and actors will faithfully recreate their words onstage. I collect the audio and edit it down if I have time and that becomes the script. Or I may start with a subject and then I have to eke out a story.
How do you go about ‘eking out a story’?
It has to be a story you are interested in and for which you can find characters who will talk to you. The story has to push the play forward. The story’s structure is crucial to make sure it’s not just about anecdotes. You really have to put the time in, it’s one of the downsides with verbatim work. I can’t just block out some time and tell a theatre: ‘I’m going to write this play.’ I have to keep following the story or I might miss the story, that’s the tricky thing with it.
How do you work with your actors?
Performing this type of verbatim theatre requires all the same skills as if you were performing Mamet or Shakespeare, just in different ways. For those playwrights, the actor has to map the emotional journey, but with verbatim it’s all mapped out already – that’s what you’ve got to get to. It can feel quite technical, quite dry, but it’s still got to be ‘connected’, got to be ‘sprung’. You have to make the audience feel like you’re not doing it ‘parrot fashion’.
Actors who really ‘get it’ often tell me it informs the other work that they do, the more text-based work. They learn that, instead of always trying to ‘do’ something interesting with a line, sometimes people say the most profound things in the most mundane of ways.
Obviously verbatim work requires a lot of direct address. Actors get better at it the more they do, I don’t often have time to teach them the game of tennis that happens between them and the audience. The audience is the interviewer, they’re me, they’re Alecky. So the actors are trying to relive the conversations I have had with the interviewees, trying to bring them to life. That’s when it really works.
Speaking for Real: A Guide to Verbatim Theatre runs on Wednesday 20 May. For more information and booking links, click here.
This edited interview is taken from Telling the Truth: How to Make Verbatim Theatre by Robin Belfield, published by Nick Hern Books. Alecky Blythe’s plays are also published by Nick Hern Books.
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