The playwright behind London Road and mentor to IdeasTap Underbelly Award winner Ellie Browning, tells us how to make a verbatim play from spotting the stories to editing your recording...
I start with either an interesting event, or interesting character. That might be a story that I read in the paper or it might be an ongoing story, like women bishops. Then I’ll take myself off to interview people in a very journalistic way.
You have to be quite upfront from the beginning. Even if you don’t know where your project will end up - if it’ll even get used - you need to let people know that you’re going to record them and that an actor might portray them on stage. And you have to get their permission to do that.
Some people have said 'no'. You have to judge if that really is a 'no' or if you just haven’t explained yourself properly. If it’s a matter of them being identifiable, I will go into how I can make them anonymous. For example, The Girlfriend Experience is all set in a brothel, so I had to explain how I could change their names and location.
Some people have both [of the] things you’re looking for: interesting characters and the potential to be developed narratively. Some people are brilliant, likeable and accessible straight away, but they might not have much forward story; all their best stories have already happened to them. The best verbatim theatre is as much present tense as possible – it’s about capturing things as they happen.
Of course you’re looking for emotional effect, but at other points in the story you’ll be looking for plot and facts, which means asking slightly dry questions – where they are, what they’re doing, who they’re waiting for etc. Those things are key to the highs and lows of the story.
Legally I don’t know whether it’s different to journalism. If someone says something that is highly contentious, as I am finalising the edit I’ll also go over exactly what they said with them. I want to check they remember, in case it could lead to any kind of back lash for them, and that they are ok with that. Some people say things in the heat of the moment that they might forget; sometimes the show is produced at least a year after they said it.
I don’t transcribe anything. I make a first edit, and of that edit I’ll log the timecode and who said what. That means that further down the line I can pick up specific moments – someone talking about sunglasses, for instance – by reading back through my notes rather than listening to 15 hours of recording.
I don’t write any lines; I give the actors the audio recordings. Although on the first day of rehearsal they get a running order; the names of the characters, titles of the tracks and who’s playing what part.
When it comes to casting I’m looking for the spirit of the person. In the early days, with things like Come Out Eli and even Cruising, we cast against gender, against ethnicity, against age. The technique is so transforming - you’re copying their words so precisely - you can play quite far from yourself. It was very exciting, when I started out as an actor, to be able to play a Jamaican grandma, because I’d never normally get cast for that part.
But as the work’s matured I’ve tried to rely less on that and started to cast closer to type. People come to see the shows because the stories are good, not because of this quirky, gimmicky technique.
You don’t think, “I’m now at The Bush, that means I’ll be at The Royal Court next year.” You just think, “Wow! I’m at The Bush!” London Road came out of doing workshops at the National Theatre studio, so probably during the second workshop I though, “Maybe, maybe this will get on the stage.”
Don’t worry about slipping down the ladder – just about whether the project is good. While working at the National, I also did a show in Stoke on a much smaller budget. It’s good to do that – you’re not always going to be at The National and not every play can be a big main house show.
One of the strengths of verbatim is the sort of rich text you just couldn’t make up. So if you’re doing a verbatim play, put some of those quotes on the flyer or poster. It can just be a tiny soundbite.
I’ve always gone out and followed stories before anybody’s put any money on the table. That’s still the case. Even if a company says they want to work with you, by the time the paperwork’s gone through and the contract is signed, you might have missed a month’s worth of collecting material. Sometimes you are living on a breadline and taking gambles. But luckily my process isn’t too expensive – apart from the initial cost of a dictaphone, it’s just batteries and travel.
To find out more about Alecky’s theatre company Recorded Delivery, visit the website.
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