‘Authenticity guaranteed’: Robin Belfield on why verbatim theatre is so important right now

Verbatim theatre, fashioned from the actual words spoken by real people, is the perfect antidote to our troubled times, argues Robin Belfield, whose new book Telling the Truth: How to Make Verbatim Theatre is an essential guide for theatre-makers, artists, students and teachers.

If ever there was a time for verbatim theatre, it’s now.

We live in a world that sometimes feels like it’s being overrun by information outlets – television, newspapers, bloggers, social media platforms, the list goes on… I don’t suppose there’s more news, just more channels clamouring for attention. And how much of it can we trust?

There’s been a long-running debate about ‘truth’ in the news. Do we – should we – believe everything we see, read or hear in the news, or via our Facebook feed? In the current climate of ‘fake news’, that debate is hotter than ever. The line between ‘reporting’ and ‘opinion’ is not so much fuzzy as invisible.

I’ve come to believe that verbatim theatre offers the perfect antidote.

Hamlet famously advises the actors that the very purpose of playing “was and is, to hold, as ’twere, the mirror up to nature”. And arguably that has always been the theatremaker’s gift – to offer up a reflection of the world to their audience. But in the majority of cases it’s the playwright’s truth that is being reflected: truth filtered through their imagination, metaphor and craft. Of course the best playwrights offer a kind of truth: the accuracy of an impeccably researched historical drama, say; or the emotional or psychological truth laid bare in the behaviour of their fictional characters.

But verbatim theatre is different. By giving actors only the actual words of real people, verbatim theatre is the closest that theatre can get to objective truth – no dramatic licence required. It is neither imagined nor invented; its authenticity is guaranteed because it presents the testimony of those with first-hand experience.

Henry Wyrley-Birch as Neil in a 2015 production of Walking the Chains, commissioned to celebrate the 150th birthday of Clifton Suspension Bridge, written by ACH Smith and directed by Robin Belfield

It would be naïve to think, and wrong of me to suggest, that verbatim theatre is completely free of a ‘filter’. With this kind of theatre, the playwright usually serves as researcher, editor and dramaturg all at once; and in all three roles they are required to make active choices. As researcher, they are often responsible for gathering the material, choosing who to interview and what questions to ask. As editor, they make selections, choosing what to keep in and what to leave out. And as dramaturg, they give the material its shape, choosing what form to present it in, what story to tell.

The verbatim theatre practitioner is mouthpiece and censor all at once. And this is the beautiful challenge.

Little Revolution, Alecky Blythe’s recorded delivery play about the 2011 London Riots

I’ve worked with other people’s words for a long time, and had the privilege of watching and talking to others who have done the same. During that time I realised that, while there are some pretty firm rules which define verbatim theatre, there are many different ways of processing and shaping the raw material from which it is formed. In my book, Telling the Truth, I lift the lid on some of the key verbatim theatre practices, from Alecky Blythe’s ‘recorded delivery‘ method – where actors are fed the verbatim material ‘live’ via an earpiece – to the process developed by Ivan Cutting, whose work with Eastern Angles fuses verbatim testimony with fictional dramatic material.

I love working with artists and students who are new to this work, and over the past few years I’ve developed a number of activities to guide newcomers through the process of working with verbatim material. My book, Telling the Truth, is the realisation of all that work, combining my own experience with an exploration of recent verbatim theatre productions. The book also includes interviews from a number of different practitioners – actors, writers, directors and designers – all offering their insights into the rewards and the responsibilities of handling other people’s words.

Theatre will never entirely rid itself of ‘opinion’ or ‘agenda’. And why would it want to? Theatre of any kind, even verbatim theatre, is an art rather than a science. But at a time when we’re faced by constant cries of ‘fake news’, by the most outrageous distortions and misrepresentations across news channels and at the hearts of our democracies, we can rely on theatre – and perhaps especially verbatim theatre – to interrogate the truth and to help us understand our bewildering world.

The cast of Walking the Chains by ACH Smith, in a production directed by Robin Belfield


Telling the Truth: How to Make Verbatim Theatre by Robin Belfield is out now, published by Nick Hern Books.

To buy your copy for just £10.39 (20% discount), click here.

Also available in the Making Theatre series from Nick Hern Books: Creating Worlds: How to Make Immersive Theatre by Jason Warren.

Photographs by Toby Farrow.

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