Increasingly, computerized technology – in the form of iPods, mobile phones and smart watches – has become an extension, even part, of the human body, and in the process has modified and perhaps even determined human behavior. Over the last six years we have developed a form of “verbatim theatre,” whose use of such audio technology governs the actor and her performance onstage, thereby challenging fundamental assumptions of the actor’s craft.
Our methodology draws on British theatre-maker Alecky Blythe’s “verbatim technique” (playing interviewees’ testimony to actors in performance via earphones), in conjunction with Anna Deavere Smith’s practice (re-creating both the vocal mannerisms and the body language of her subjects). Our actors use iPods or mp3 players, visible to the audience, to relay their subjects’ testimony, which they repeat, complete with accents, inflexions, and hesitations. Meanwhile, in rehearsal the actors study closely the digital video recordings corresponding to the audio edits in order to replicate as exactly as possible the accompanying physical gestures and mannerisms. By drawing the audience’s attention to the slippage between the original speaker and testimony and the mediated performance, this methodology highlights the “gap” between actor and character (Deavere Smith, in Kondo 96), and consequently presents the actor “as both character and performer” (States 119).
This “iPod method” raises the question, “Is this really acting?” The discipline of strict imitation seems to make the actor “merely” a technician, a cipher for the absent subject, rather than allowing him scope for expressiveness, creative interpretation and even empathy, which have been at the heart of traditional theatrical training and practice. Yet, this new method demands both acute, utterly respectful observation, and an ability to dilate one’s performance in a way that reaches beyond the footlights without sacrificing integrity.
This paper explores the implications of our verbatim theatre methodology, which places audio technology and the actor’s body between the subject and his testimony, and between the subject and the audience.
Like other contributions to this volume, this essay discusses the ways in which the use of technologies in theatrical production challenges fundamental assumptions of the actor’s craft. However, we are concerned with technologies and a theater practice that differ somewhat from those on which the majority of these essays focus, having visual and videographic technologies as their principal point of reference. We have developed a theater practice that does involve digital film, but as a rehearsal tool, rather than as a conspicuous presence onstage; more conspicuously, our practice features in performance a form of audio technology – MP3 players or iPods – that are the visible manifestation of the technological process that governs the actors and their performances.
Over the last seven years, working with a group of theater practitioners in Dunedin, we have developed a specific form of verbatim theater in which technology plays a pivotal role. Like a number of other verbatim theater makers, we create plays from testimony that we have gathered in interviews. Those plays include Hush: A Verbatim Play about Family Violence (2009); Be | Longing (2012); which looks at the experiences of immigrants settling – or unsettling – in New Zealand; The Keys are in the Margarine: A Verbatim Play about Dementia (2014); and two works with senior students studying with us at the University of Otago: Gathered in Confidence (2008) and Passages (2012). Not only do we use digital technology to research and “write” the plays – creating the script in a film editing program suite; that technology is also integral to the performance, ensuring that the actors re-present as accurately as possible not only the testimony itself, but also the manner, if not the circumstances, of its delivery.
Our practice has been shaped by debates around issues of representation and “truth” in documentary theater. The theater maker Jonathan Holmes observes a fundamental contradiction or paradox in the documentary enterprise. Noting that, “more than most artforms,” theater “struggles to represent events in as realistic or objective a manner as a textbook or a documentary film (themselves not uncompromised in this arena),” Holmes remarks that “the substitution of an actor for the absent human source of the testimony presented in a documentary play ipso facto raises the issue of authenticity.” Therefore, as Derek Paget observes, the actor becomes “the visible sign of docudrama’s essential inauthenticity as documentary.” Of course, in the age of the Baudrillardian hyperreal, authenticity is a dubious, even quaint concept: in all aspects of life simulations substitute for and ultimately come to constitute reality. Much of the theater that is the subject of this volume testifies to, indeed celebrates, this understanding. Nonetheless, verbatim and documentary plays are often heavily invested in notions of truth and authenticity: theater makers may foster that investment, and audiences readily assume and desire it, especially as a corrective to the pervasive media “spin” of which we are so hyper-conscious today.
Carol Martin claims that “at its best,” documentary theater “troubles our already troubled categories” of “truth, reality, fiction.” Therefore, like a number of contemporary documentary theater makers, we were concerned to fashion a practice that, in the words of Alison Forsyth and Chris Megson, “complicate[s] notions of authenticity with a more nuanced and challenging evocation of the ‘real.’” As a way of foregrounding the complicated relationship between representation and reality, we have sought to explore theater’s inherent capacity to draw explicit attention to the interplay of absence and presence. For us this meant the interplay between the absent source of the testimony with the presence of the actor who re-presents that testimony. Consequently, whereas some documentary and verbatim plays have an illusion of transparency and seem merely to “record” information, we have been concerned to create both texts and performances that “display” their “quotation marks”; that is, we make explicit the processes of construction and mediation in both the writing and the staging.
It is conventionally assumed that in verbatim theater the words spoken by the play’s subjects constitute the testimony per se. Accordingly, Martin identifies the extra- and non-verbal elements – the “glances, gestures, body language,” not to mention vocal inflexions and intonation – as being “outside the archive” and therefore “created by the actors and directors.” However, in performances of plays featuring well known public figures – plays such as The Permanent Way, whose characters included then-British Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott; Fallujah, which featured Condoleezza Rice; or David Hare’s Stuff Happens, with its raft of British and United States political leaders – the actors impersonating those public figures generally take pains to mimic as accurately as possible their subjects’ vocal and physical mannerisms. In our practice those extra-verbal elements, which are all part of our digital record, belong very much within the “archive.”
Increasingly, digital technology – in the form of iPods, mobile phones and smart watches – has become an extension, even part of the human body, in the process modifying and perhaps even determining human behavior. In our productions each actor uses an MP3 player, or iPod, which contains the clips of edited testimony that she re-presents in performance. With those clips playing in their ears, the actors repeat not only their subjects’ words, but, as closely as possible, they replicate the original speaker’s accents, inflexions, and hesitations. We adopted this device from the practice of Alecky Blythe and her London-based company Recorded Delivery, which have used earphones in a number of productions since 2003, including Come Out Eli (2003), Cruising (2006), and The Girlfriend Experience (2008). Roslyn Oades has similarly used “headphone verbatim” in a series of Australian productions. However, whereas in Blythe’s and Oades’s productions the cast listens to the one recording of the whole script, our actors – except in – The Keys are in the Margarine, where we experimented with a centrally controlled transmission system – operate their players individually, hearing only their own edited lines. Not only does our practice give actors greater autonomy over their performance and provide a more nuanced theatrical rhythm; the audio players themselves also feature conspicuously in the performance. This is especially evident in scenes involving two or three characters, where the actors plug their earphones into one player so that they are listening to the same clip at the same time.
We have complicated Blythe’s method in another, more significant way. Here we draw on the work of the American actor and documentary theater-maker Anna Deavere Smith, known particularly for her virtuoso performances of her solo plays Fires in the Mirror (1992) and Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992 (1994). In re-enacting some of her subjects, Deavere Smith fabricated gestures and movements, but, where she had filmed the interviews, she carefully studied the video recordings in order to impersonate the interviewees physically as accurately as possible in performance. Having recorded all of our interviews on camera, in rehearsal we require our actors to study the film of their edits intently in order to be able to reproduce as precisely as possible each gesture and involuntary movement that accompanied the original testimony.
Whereas the voice of the participant is provided directly to the actor in performance – albeit mediated by the iPod – the physical score is remembered and therefore its veracity is more slippery and unstable. Nevertheless, the combination of the vocal and physical languages communicates intriguing subtleties of meaning in our interviewees’ testimony. Although the spectator might read the physical score less consciously than the vocal score, specific physical actions add potency or poignancy to the verbal testimony. Sometimes a person’s body language and tone of voice are at odds – subtly or jarringly – with the words she speaks; an actor licensed to create her own physical score would be highly unlikely ever to produce such a counter-intuitive action.
By making the original speaker simultaneously a presence and an absence, this performance technique not only highlights the inherently complex nature of representation in documentary and verbatim theater; it also raises fundamental questions about acting. By drawing attention to the process of mediation, and therefore, “expos[ing their] own means of production,” the MP3 players remind audiences of the “gap” between actor and character that Deavere Smith talks about, and present the actor “as both character and performer.” Consequently, there occurs a kind of Brechtian distancing. However, the technique of closely replicating both the verbal and physical scores of the participants means that this distancing is strangely combined with a heightened form of realism.
And, paradoxically, even as this performance technique foregrounds the process of mediation, it seemingly effaces the performer. After each performance of Hush, we held a forum for members of the audience. In general, rather than discussing the subject of the play, people were more curious about the mode of performance. Especially for other theater practitioners, actors in particular, the experience of watching was profoundly perplexing and even frustrating: where was the acting? Where was the actor’s craft? The actors’ agency? The discipline of strict imitation makes the actor more a technician than an artist; it prevents him from doing what, conventionally, actors are trained to do – interpret a role and create it expressively. Of course, at times and in various ways, the theatrical re-presentation of our subjects’ testimony requires a degree of dilation – verbal articulation or projection, and clear physical definition – in order to help audiences to discern words and actions. Otherwise, however, our technique forbids the actors from coloring their performance with any embellishments.
Needless to say, initially this way of working was deeply unfamiliar to, and very challenging for our actors. This was exemplified by an instructive, cautionary experience during early rehearsals of Hush. It involved the actor Cindy Diver, who played Rose. Rose had been physically, sexually, and psychologically abused over many years. When recounting much of her story, she was relatively matter-of-fact and inexpressive emotionally and, as the interview progressed, she spoke in a slightly fatigued manner, slumped in her chair. With the best of intentions, born of a strong sense of obligation to Rose, Cindy resorted to her actorly instincts. As if to compensate for a manner of delivery that went against received theatrical convention, she began to inject vocal and physical energy into the lassitude. Moreover, in line with her training, which requires a search for an assumed subtext, Cindy began to emote – to express the emotions that she assumed underlay Rose’s testimony. Consequently, in Dominick LaCapra’s terms, Cindy “incorporated” Rose within her actorly self. Ironically, that amplification proved much less compelling than the understated, measured manner of the original delivery.
As one of our actors puts it, in our work the performers are like avatars. The sheer technical discipline and precision required to reproduce so specifically both the gestural and verbal score of each interview seemingly render the process of performing a purely mechanical exercise. In some ways this discourages empathy. Indeed, in the case of Hush, it helpfully prevented, or at least strongly mitigated the chances of the actors’ internalizing emotions and experiences expressed in some of the traumatic testimony. Yet, at the same time, the technique does prove strangely affecting, even moving for the actor. Hilary, who performed in Hush, has observed that the external execution of an action – albeit an action copied from filmed testimony – generates an inner affect; to use Bella Merlin’s phrase after Stanislavsky, a “psycho-physical” process. As Merlin puts it, “your body makes a movement which evokes a feeling.” The act of speaking another’s words, and performing his actions, is a psycho-physical one, similarly producing affect.
We theorize that this happens for several reasons. Body movements and posture in general, and head and eye movements in particular, not only communicate meaning to the audience; they also generate feelings in the actor. Moreover, as the actor speaks in tandem with her subjects, she breathes alongside them, and, of course, breath is at the centre of the actor’s craft. Breath is not simply about having enough air to say something, although that is important; it is a visceral process. Breath is both at the core of our voices, and it is central to our emotional lives. So, through breath, the actors share in some way in their subjects’ remembered experiences. Although Kristin Linklater cautions the actor against learning a set interpretation of a text – which, arguably, is precisely what we prescribe – she nonetheless tacitly favors aural learning. She says, “The spoken word is oscillating, transitory and free to move on the waves of sound. Sound waves actively affect the body that generates them and varying parts of the body that receives them.” She advocates letting the text “impregnate” the performer, and this effectively happens for our actors as they embody the testimony.
Meanwhile, for the spectator, the way in which the performance is mediated produces a kind of haunting effect, in which traces of the subject are uncannily both present and absent; the result is more than the sum of its parts. The distancing created by the technique affects the audience’s reception of the testimony and its performance in other ways too. By preventing the actors from re-living the experiences described, the technique works to prevent the sort of “pornographic” representation of people and stories that some verbatim and documentary theater can create. This was especially important in the case of Hush, with its passages of traumatic testimony. At one post-performance forum, a spectator – an actor and director – compared the experience of watching Hush with viewing a television news magazine program like 20/20. In contrast to the discomfort she feels when an invasive camera hones in on, and takes perverse, voyeuristic pleasure in its subject’s anguish, with Hush she felt completely confident that our participants were safe and were not being exploited or put in danger of being re-traumatized, and so she too felt completely safe as she watched.
In highlighting the inherently complex nature of representation in documentary and verbatim theater, our reflexive, de-familiarizing technique makes the actor’s performance utterly reliant on the technology. Without the iPod there would be no performance. Meanwhile, as the actor incorporates the technology within her body, she achieves the kind of “wondrous ‘doubling’” that Richard Schechner found in Deavere Smith’s work.
 Hilary Halba, Stuart Young, and others. Hush: A Verbatim Play about Family Violence. Applied Drama as Social Intervention in Conflict and Post-Conflict Contexts. Ed. Hazel Barnes and Marié-Heleen Coetzee. Newcastle upon Tyne: Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2013. 117-54.
Hilary Halba, Stuart Young, and Simon O’Connor. Be | Longing: A Verbatim Play. Dir. Hilary Halba and Stuart Young, Aotea Centre, Auckland, 22-23 February 2012; Hall Theatre, Dunedin, 1-10 March 2012.
Cindy Diver, Susie Lawless and Stuart Young. The Keys are in the Margarine: A Verbatim Play about Dementia. Dir. Cindy Diver and Stuart Young. Fortune Theatre. 19-29 June 2014.
Hilary Halba, Stuart Young, and others. Gathered in Confidence: A Dunedin Documentary Play. Dir. Cindy Diver, Hilary Halba, and Stuart Young. Allen Hall, University of Otago, 11-14 September 2008.
Kiri Beeching, Alayne Dick and Jakub Green. Passages. Directed by Hilary Halba and Stuart Young. Allen Hall Theatre, Dunedin. 22-25 August 2012.
Holmes, Jonathan. Fallujah: Eyewitness Testimony from Iraq’s Besieged City. London: Constable, 2007, p. 141.
 Paget, Derek. “‘Acting with Facts’: Actors Performing the Real in British Theatre and Television Since 1990. A Preliminary Report on a New Research Project.” Studies in Documentary Film, vol. 1, no. 2, 2007, p. 165-176, p. 171.
 Martin, Carol. “Living Simulations: The Use of Media in Documentary in the UK, Lebanon and Israel.” In Alison Forsyth and Chris Megson (eds). Get Real: Documentary Theater Past and Present Basingstoke & New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2009, p. 74-90, p. 88.
 Forsyth, Alison, and Chris Megson. Introduction, Ibid., p. 2.
 Paget, Derek. True Stories? Documentary Drama on Radio, Screen and Stage. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1990, p. 39.
 Martin, Carol. “Bodies of Evidence.” TDR: The Drama Review, vol. 50, no. 3, 2006, p. 8-15, p. 14.
 Ibid., p. 11.
 Denzin, Norman K., “The Reflexive Interview and a Performative Social Science.” Qualitative Research, vol. 1, no. 1, 1997, p. 23-46, p. 33.
 Anna Deavere Smith, quoted in Kondo, Dorinne. “(Re)visions of Race: Contemporary Race Theory and the Cultural Politics of Racial Crossover in Documentary Theater.” Theatre Journal, vol. 52, no. 1, 2000, p. 81-107, p. 96.
 States, Bert O. Great Reckonings in Little Rooms. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1987, p. 119.
 LaCapra, Dominick. History in Transit: Experience, Identity, Critical Theory. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2004, p. 76.
 Merlin, Bella. Acting: The Basics. London: Routledge, 2010, p. 49.
 Linklater, Kristin. Freeing the Natural Voice. New York: Drama Book Publishers, 1976, p. 187.
 Ibid., p. 191.
 Schechner, Richard. “Anna Deavere Smith: Acting as Incorporation.” TDR: The Drama Review, vol. 37, no. 4, 1993, p. 63-64, p. 64.
Denzin, Norman K., “The Reflexive Interview and a Performative Social Science,” Qualitative Research, vol. 1, no. 1, 1997, p. 23-46.
Forsyth, Alison and Chris Megson (eds.). Get Real: Documentary Theatre Past and Present. Basingstoke & New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2009.
Halba, Hilary, Stuart Young, et al. Hush: A Verbatim Play about Family Violence. In Applied Drama as Social Intervention in Conflict and Post-Conflict Contexts. Ed. Hazel Barnes and Marié-Heleen Coetzee. Newcastle upon Tyne: Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2013, p. 117-54.
Holmes, Jonathan. Fallujah: Eyewitness Testimony from Iraq’s Besieged City. London: Constable, 2007.
Kondo, Dorinne. “(Re)visions of Race: Contemporary Race Theory and the Cultural Politics of Racial Crossover in Documentary Theater.” Theatre Journal, vol. 52, no. 1, 2000, p. 81-107.
LaCapra, Dominick. History in Transit: Experience, Identity, Critical Theory. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2004.
Linklater, Kristin. Freeing the Natural Voice. New York: Drama Book Publishers, 1976.
Martin, Carol. “Bodies of Evidence.” TDR: The Drama Review, vol. 50, no. 3, 2006, p. 8-15.
—–. “Living Simulations: The Use of Media in Documentary in the UK, Lebanon and Israel.” In Alison Forsyth and Chris Megson, eds, Get Real: Documentary Theater Past and Present. Basingstoke & New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2009, p. 74-90.
Merlin, Bella. Acting: The Basics. London: Routledge, 2010.
Paget, Derek. “‘Acting with Facts’: Actors Performing the Real in British Theatre and Television Since 1990. A Preliminary Report on a New Research Project.” Studies in Documentary Film, vol. 1, no. 2, 2007, p. 165-176.
—. True Stories? Documentary Drama on Radio, Screen and Stage. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1990.
Schechner, Richard. “Anna Deavere Smith: Acting as Incorporation.” TDR: The Drama Review, vol. 37, no. 4, 1993, p. 63-64.
States, Bert O. Great Reckonings in Little Rooms. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1987.