This month, a new piece of verbatim theatre will take up temporary residence in a disused textile mill in Manningham, Bradford. The Mill – City of Dreams uses the recorded testimonies of local people to explore Bradford’s relationship to its past. Jo Caird explores the popularity of verbatim theatre, and hears from The Mill's co-writer, Jonathan Holmes...
In the past few years, we’ve seen verbatim plays – which are constructed from real-life testimonies or interviews – tackle all manner of topics on all manner of scales.
Recent works include My Name is Rachel Corrie, Alan Rickman and Katherine Viner’s one-woman show about the American activist who was killed in the Gaza strip by an Israeli bulldozer; David Hare’s play about the global financial crisis, The Power of Yes; and IdeasTap member Eilís Sanfey’s climate change drama, Change, which recently enjoyed a short run at the Arcola.
But it’s not just the format of verbatim theatre that is so adaptable: the techniques available for constructing this type of play are themselves very varied. Alecky Blythe’s “recorded delivery” technique – which she used in her shows The Girlfriend Experience and Do We Look Like Refugees? – sees actors wearing headsets and mimicking word for word and intonation for intonation the recordings she made of her subjects. Meanwhile, Hare wrote The Power of Yes purely from notes he made while interviewing politicians, economists and journalists.
In playwright Jonathan Holmes’s words, The Mill – City of Dreams “is a mixture, a kind of hybrid script. Some of it is testimony and some of it isn’t”. The testimony itself, he goes on to explain, is a combination of interviews conducted over the last few months by associate producer Jenna Omeltschenko and older material gathered from past oral history projects.
Omeltschenko has conducted a large number of formal interviews with Manningham residents with ties to the mill, but before this work even began, her first task was to get to know the various migrant communities so that people felt comfortable sharing their stories with her. To this end, she visited churches, community spaces and lunch clubs, allowing herself to be guided in her research “by the people who knew [the communities] the best”.
The testimony she gathered was then fed to Holmes and his co-writer (and the show’s director) Madani Younis, who have used it to construct the text of The Mill. A very important aspect of this process, alongside what Holmes calls the “general dramaturgical work”, was “responding to the space”. For the writer, presenting verbatim work in a site-specific context or “found” space is integral to its impact.
“One of the principal reasons for doing work that’s wholly verbatim”, he explains, “is that it gets you much closer to the experiences of real people... So then it seems to be slightly strange that you would then put it in a black box or a theatre where the purpose is to distance an audience from what’s unfolding before them. With a found text, putting it in a found space takes an audience even further towards communicating more directly with the experiences that you’re trying to communicate to them.”
Of course, the verbatim technique alone is not enough to make a piece of theatre resound with an audience – as with all performance work, success depends on the talents of the entire creative team – but anyone who has seen a piece of verbatim theatre done well will be able to attest to the power of the genre.
Whether it’s politics, the environment, migration or economics that’s put in the spotlight, there’s nothing quite like hearing someone’s true story in their own words.
The Mill – City of Dreams runs from 29 March to 16 April at Drummonds Mill, Bradford. Book tickets.