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‘Verbatim Theatre’: Oral History and Documentary Techniques

  • Derek Paget


‘Verbatim Theatre’ has been the term utilized by Derek Paget during his extensive researches into that form of documentary drama which employs (largely or exclusively) tape-recorded material from the ‘real-life’ originals of the characters and events to which it gives dramatic shape. Though clearly indebted to sources such as the radio ballads of the 'fifties, and to the tradition which culminated in Joan Littlewood's Oh what a Lovely War, most of its practitioners acknowledge Peter Cheeseman's work at Stoke-on-Trent as the direct inspiration - in one case, as first received through the ‘Production Casebook’ on his work published in the first issue of the original Theatre Quarterly (1971). Quite simply, the form owes its present health and exciting potential to the flexibility and unobtrusiveness of the portable cassette recorder - ironically, a technological weapon against which are ranged other mass technological media such as broadcasting and the press, which tend to marginalize the concerns and emphases of popular oral history. Here, Derek Paget, who is currently completing his doctoral thesis on this subject, discusses with leading practitioners their ideas and working methods. Derek Paget teaches English and Drama at Worcester College of Higher Education, and has also had practical theatre experience ranging from community work to the West End, and from Joan Littlewood's final season at Stratford East to the King's Head, Islington.

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Notes and References

1. All Rony Robinson quotations are from an interview at his home in Sheffield, 21 January 1986.

2. Leading towards a Manchester University Ph. D. with the projected title ‘Documentary Theatre in England, 1963 to the Present Day: its Antecedents and Characteristic Techniques’.

3. Interview with Clive Barker at Warwick University, 18 September 1985.

4. All Peter Cheeseman quotations are from an interview at Victoria Theatre, Stoke-on-Trent, 27 March 1985.

5. The dispute referred to by Robinson was the struggle between the Shelton Works Action Committee and the British Steel Corporation over BSC's proposals in 1972 to close down steelmaking at the North Staffordshire steelworks. Use of taperecorded material for documentaries at Stoke actually dates back to The Knotty, first performed in 1966.

6. Several other writers and theatre groups seem to have made early use of verbatim material for plays, however. The entry on Hawes, Chris in the Directory of Playwrights, Directors, Designers I, ed. Itzin, Catherine (John Offord, 1983), p. 52, includes a 1969 Sheffield, Radio play ‘based on verbatim material’, and York Shoestring's Life in a Chocolate Factory used taped interviews with Rowntree workers in 1972 (see Drain, R., ‘The Chocolate Guerrilla’, Gambit, No. 23 (1973), p. 40–3).

7. While both Littlewood and MacColl worked in radio before the Second World War, MacColl's post-war work was more significant. It included the Radio Ballads and documentary films such as the Mining Review programmes.

8. Parker, Charles was producer and prime-mover of the radio ballads, the first of which, The Ballad of John Axon, was broadcast in 1957.

9. All David Thacker quotations are from an interview at the Young Vic, London, 12 December 1985.

10. All Christopher Honer quotations are from an interview at Derby Playhouse, 20 January 1986. The ‘Casebook’ on , Stoke'sThe Staffordshire Rebels, was in Theatre Quarterly, I, No. 1. (0103 1971), p. 86102.

11. David Edgar is a playwright who has made a good deal of use of the tape recorder when researching a number of his plays. His efforts since Events, however, have been towards a transmutation of source material in a more far-reaching sense than that of a verbatim dramatist. He says: ‘I think that what I've done is to move from writing documentaries to writing plays based on documentary sources’ (interview with David Edgar, 19 September 1985). He feels that Events needed ‘at least two more levels of abstraction’, and this ‘abstraction’ of taped material has been a feature of his work on, for example, Maydays (1983).

12. The One Day in Sheffield model has been copied at least once, Robinson told me, in Manchester.

13. Itzin, op. cit., p. 91. Ron Rose's view (telephone conversation, 21 April 1986) is that it is often better not ‘to stick rigorously’ to verbatim material. This ties in with his second belief that a writer is a necessity on a verbatim show whose job it is to find (and if necessary make) a telling context for the verbatim material.

14. Social Documents produced a pamphlet called Word of Mouth in 1983, in support of their proposal to Channel Four. This contains a great deal of information about Verbatim Theatre. The editor, Chrys Salt, is well-qualified to write on the subject, having herself written and directed verbatim plays (notably the 1983 Women's Co-operative Guild Centenary play Of Whole Heart Cometh Hope).

15. All Gary Yershon quotations are from an interview at his flat in Bristol, 5 February 1986. Interestingly, his Cheshire Voices song, ‘Henry Farrell's Mystery Tour’, can lay claim to being a verbatim song; the lyric was taken directly from a taped interview.

16. Chrys Salt allowed me to see The Rose video at Royal Holloway College, Egham, on 18 November 1985, and the actor Trevor Nichols gave me a sound tape of Cheshire Voices.

17. Lovely War had, of course, exerted a profound influence on the Stoke-style local documentaries of the late ‘sixties and early’ seventies, a fact acknowledged by Peter Cheeseman.

18. Although Verbatim Theatre does not appear to make conspicuous use of the full theatrical vocabulary of epic theatre (slides, film, placards, etc.), Gary Yershon pointed out that, as the M. C. figure in Cheshire Voices, his dramatic function was frequently that of ‘verbal placarding’.

19. See especially Older Learners, published jointly by Help the Aged and the National Council for Voluntary Organizations, edited by Johnston, Susanna and Phillipson, Chris (Bedford Square Press, 1980). Help the Aged have also published the collection of reminiscences used by Age Exchange for their Fifty Years Ago Show (1983).

20. 20. For example, while the General Strike of 1926 was sometimes not remembered at all, everyone remembered (and had strong views on) the abdication of Edward VIII in 1936.

21. Ron Rose was sceptical about ‘stories’, feeling that people's oft-rehearsed versions of events were far too unreliable because so well-rehearsed.

22. All Alwyne Taylor quotations are from an interview at her flat in Bristol, 6 March 1986.

23. All Chrys Salt quotations are from an interview at Royal Holloway College, Egham, 18 November 1985.

24. Editorial in History Workshop, No. 8 (Autumn 1979). p. i.

25. Ibid., p. ii.

26. Gary Yershon recalls this happening in the early stages of Cheshire Voices, but it was obviously a far more important technique for One Day in Sheffield.

27. Rony Robinson sees this lack of really good equipment as a matter of regret. Although the interview material for two of his shows, One Day in Sheffield and When Can 1 Have a Banana Again? has been taken into the local archives at Sheffield and Derby museums, he suspects that poor audio quality will prevent the tapes being used as much as they might be if their quality was good.

28. This speech was read to me from the script of Enemies Within by David Thacker.

29. See Bentley, Eric, The Theory of the Modern Stage (Penguin, 1968), p. 8586.

30. Evening Standard review by Murdin, Lynda, 15 11 1985.

31. Sunday Times review by Hewison, Robert, 17 11 1985.

32. Weiss, P., ‘The Material and the Models: Notes Towards a Definition of Documentary Theatre’, Theatre Quarterly, No. 1 (01 Mar. 1971), p. 41.

33. See Gooch, Steve, All Together Now (Methuen, 1984).

34. The Knotty (Methuen, 1970); Fight for Shelton Bar (Methuen, 1977).

35 This phrase is taken from a speech by the journalist in the second act of Falkland Sound/ Voces de Malvinhas (Royal Court, 1982).

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‘Verbatim Theatre’: Oral History and Documentary Techniques

  • Derek Paget


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