A blog about Non-Fiction Theatre and the early development of the headphone verbatim theatre technique.
Recently I saw Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992 at the Gate Theatre in London. It’s a timely revival (created by Anna Deavere Smith from recorded interviews) that asks pertinent questions about race and prejudice. It was the first time I’d seen Anna Deavere Smith’s work in performance and it also reminded me that my verbatim work with Non-Fiction Theatre (1999 onwards) and the development of the headphone verbatim technique sprang from the methods Anna Deavere Smith explored in workshops with Mark Wing-Davey. When I googled Non-Fiction theatre I didn’t find much on-line, in fact Andrew Haydon in his chapter “Theatre In The 2000s”, Modern British Playwriting 2000-2009, edited by Dan Rebellato, calls us-
the little-known, little documented Non-Fiction Theatre company
So this blog is therefore an attempt to document (and a celebration) of Non-Fiction Theatre Company aided by the documents I kept during that time. Director, Mark Wing-Davey ran a series of workshops at the Actors centre called ‘Drama Without Paper’ and I attended one of these in 1999. For a group of actors, it was an opportunity to make theatre from interviews and aural recordings. We interviewed members of the general public, recorded them using mini-discs, edited the recordings on the minidiscs and then performed the interviews without transcribing. After the first workshop we continued meeting and developing the method supported by Mark and the Actors centre. What made our group unique was Mark’s insistence that we keep our headphones in during the performance thus relaying the exact timings and speech patterns of our interviewees as explained in the programme of a first performances at Tristan Bates Theatre.
Our first performance of mainly monologues was well received and we continued to develop the technique as outlined in these notes (thanks to Stacia Keogh for taking notes)-
October 8th 1999 -“Following from positive response from First Monday performance at the TBT Theatre Mark Wing-Davey is keen to pursue and expand Drama Without Paper projects…Mark noted that the duologue scene was highly effective -due in part to the interaction of characters.”
October 16th 1999 – “Mark is interested in assisting us to carry on the work going forward and concentrating on conversations with a life event…we also discussed the nature of the work and it’s importance to us and the Actors centre-developing a new art form–taking it further…focusing on life events; lifting the lid to reveal the extraordinary about these events (as opposed to traditionally held views)…creating new work-work that gives voice to those members of society that are not usually heard from.”
October 20th 1999 – “We decided on a name for the group – The Non-Fiction Theatre Company”
Jan 2000 – “Mark especially encourages us to gather conversations.”
April 2000 – “…as an audience we want secrets and the discomfort and humour of people’s situations.”
We began developing duologues and group conversations, we used headphone splitters and plugged into the same mini-disc so we were performing from the same recording; the technical movement of plugging and unplugging became part of our performance. We gathered the interviews collaboratively, we interviewed alone or in groups, we didn’t necessarily perform our own interviews although mostly we wanted to. Aswell as showings at the Tristan Bates theatre, we performed at the Museum of Me (Oxo Tower, London) performing as live exhibits and creating a piece that was specific to the museum. At this stage we were a group in flux, Mark often invited new members to join and as we were actors too, sometimes members left to pursue other work. Members during this time include (and apologise to anyone I have left out) me, Louise Wallinger, Lexi Strauss, Rita Davies, Stacia Keogh, Georgia Fitch, James Albrecht.
In 2001 we took our first show to Edinburgh Festival, Sex 1 Death 2 premiered at Pleasance Courtyard, Cellar with actors Rachael Spence, Louise Wallinger and me. The piece centred around themes of birth, sex and death as outlined in our programme fringe entry-
Three young ladies channel the voices of sex workers, funeral directors and tanning girls (among others), using digital technology. “The most exciting, witty and imaginative approach to theatre that I’ve seen in a long time” – Jonathan Pryce.
Our press release release for Edinburgh describes our method:
“Employing a form of theatre only possible in a post”walkman” time NFTG present recorded interviews, channelling the subjects with the assistance of mini-disc players and earphones…Under the direction of Mark Wing-Davey, NFTG has developed and modified non-text performance techniques…NFTG uses recorded speech gathered by the actor through a series of interviews with ‘everyday people’. Once collected, the material is edited for time, but presented verbatim – scrupulously recreating intonations, pauses, vocal ‘quirks’ and dialect. Although intensely rehearsed, the material is never scripted… the actors speak at the same time as the recording. Without characterising or theatrically commenting on their subjects, the performers ‘channel’ the voice and stories of their subjects in ‘real-time’ creating an immediate, selfless, and exacting portrayal of people unusual in traditional theatre. This method explores the dramatic tensions that exist between content and expression in the patterns of everyday speech: the NFTG performers leave it to the audience to determine a speaker’s conscious intentions and unconscious revelations.”
Sex 1:Death 2 had a sell-out run in Edinburgh and transferred to Pleasance London, BAC and Soho theatre.
In 2002 Non-Fiction Theatre (Louise Wallinger, Rachael Spence, Jo Harper) created We Haven’t Said a Porky Pie Yet (Edinburgh Pleasance, BAC, Soho theatre) which further explored the verbatim technique, this time around the theme of deception; by now we had dual microphone recorders so we could record two people talking at once and reproduce Churchill style overlapping speech.
“This little theatrical experiment is engrossing – like being engaged in a study of human behaviour…Someone talks about his research into how we deceive ourselves and others. Then we hear from an array of people, from an dishonourably discharged gay soldier to guys chatting about smuggling ecstasy tablets up their bums. The speech rhythms, ums, ahs and pauses are curiously riveting. The audience constantly gauges the reliability of the speakers….the project is a reminder that everybody has a story to telling that verbal quirks betray us asmuch as our words.” Scotsman 2002
“a discussion of the art of deception – which is thought provoking and well realised comedy….the characters – or perhaps subjects -themselves are well-expressed, bringing out the nuances in each that relates to the narrative.” Fest 2002
In Contemporary British Drama, David Lane writes “The work of Non-Fiction Theatre…has centred around the conceit of actors recreating the voices of members of the public”. I believe it is that conceit that when working best with the headphone verbatim technique, allows the audience to see the real character through the layer of a performer, when the performer is selfless the real character is revealed and it is the surprising juxtaposition between the content and the expression, (between the words and the perfomer) that invites the audience into an unusual and thrilling understanding of and reaction to character.
Non-Fiction Theatre company were commissioned by Soho Theatre to create a new verbatim piece and performances included See-Through Soho (Soho Theatre) and A Wedding (Soho Theatre). I performed with them again but I wasn’t part of the interview process (maternity leave) so my notes are sparse. After 2005, the group fragmented. It is exciting to note how many of the creatives who were involved in the original Drama Without Paper workshops and productions continue to develop the method; Alecky Blythe created her company Recorded Delivery and pioneered the method in incredible award-winning directions (as well documented), Roslyn Oades developed the method in Australia I’m Your Man, Hello, Goodbye & Happy Birthday, Rachael Spence used the method in No Idea, Louise Wallinger creates solo verbatim shows including Neighbours and co-created The Trouble with Asian Men with Tamasha theatre.
I would like to thank the wonderful Mark Wing-Davey for pioneering the headphone verbatim method and supporting us….and Iain Gillie for producing Non-Fiction Theatre’s productions. And finally, here’s a clip from an interview/performance in Edinburgh 2001 for Sex 1:Death 2.
Louise Wallinger, Rachael Spence and Jo Harper.
The penultimate line is for Helen, a woman who once had an extraordinary weekend and the last word in Sex 1 Death 2–
HELEN What did you do at the weekend it was like…found a dead body.