What is verbatim theatre? What is the power of a story in the original words? What are the ethical issues involved in using this technique?
Verbatim theatre is a form of documentary theatre that is based on the stories of real people. The materials are collected by interviewing people and then they can be edited and performed by theatre-makers. This form of theatre is based on word for word repetition and the exact stories of people. Verbatim allows performers to broadcast the truths of people as they were told, as they wish to be heard instead of an alternative or altered narrative. This way theatre-makers can empower people to speak their version of events, accepting the fact that they are the experts of their own life journey.
By allowing people to tell their story, using their original words, dialect (or accent), expressions and sometimes body movements, the storytellers receive a channel where they can be represented in front of an audience without physically being there. This is a very useful method to give voice to witnesses and victims who would not or could not tell their stories otherwise.
The ethical issues regarding verbatim theatre are connected to the process of this form, therefore, it is easier to address them through the steps of the process itself. At the interview stage, there are plenty of questions to answer, such as with whom they are sharing their stories, the loss, and gain of sharing and whether or not the interviewee gives consent to the use of the materials. After the interview stage comes to the editing where different perspectives can create different realities and truths and the editing process itself can change the original story, its intent or the perception of the original source. How can one perfectly capture accents and intonation in written form? How can one avoid stereotypes? When the edited product is ready to be performed, the question of authenticity and authority comes into question. Who can represent that person and who has the authority to perform them? Throughout the whole process, the author of the “performance” will continuously change. On one hand, the original source is the author of the story, however, after editing, the editor and researcher can be authors as well, especially after using several interviews and source materials. Afterwards, the director and the actors can be authors and receive credit for their own work. This brings up the question, who is the author and should that be credited some way or another when the performance is promoted?
Verbatim theatre was founded in the 1990s and since then various forms has developed such as the use of headphones to represent the storyteller to the fullest extent of originality. In the 21st century with the introduction of new technology that can be applied in this form, authenticity, and representation may raise entirely different ethical questions.