What is the purpose of theatre? BIG question. There are, of course, multiple reasons why a production may take place: to entertain; to educate; to make an audience laugh, frown or cry. Nevertheless, there does seem to be something that all theatre sets out to do: to make us feel. A production seeks to provoke an emotional response in the observer, enabling us to personally connect with it.
I have written many times about how much I appreciate verbatim theatre and how I feel that this style of theatre can achieve an emotional response because it is created out of real life experience, and I still believe this. But I have recently discovered some of the limitations of documentary-style performance.
Sat in the lovely Little Angel Theatre earlier this month watching Passing On, I was surprised to come away feeling very little for the characters. As a verbatim piece that focuses on end-of-life care in an intimate theatre with few actors, I was expecting a bit of an emotional journey, but I felt more like I had looked in on someone’s life as an outsider rather than experienced it with them. Nothing about the production was of a poor quality – the piece was fluid, the puppetry was slick and the use of the space was quite good – it just did not touch me.
Speaking at a session as part of Devoted and Disgruntled 8 last month, Jessica Mordsley (Project Manager, Tinderbox Alley) states in her report on verbatim theatre that this kind of theatre “can never be an exact representation of reality” because “you have to select where you start and finish, and whose stories you choose to tell”. These choices determine whether your characters are believable or not. In Passing On, I thought the content was rich and informative. I certainly learnt about the shocking truth behind what happens to elderly individuals who are facing death and about the difficulties that their relatives face. But the characters too often spoke out to the audience – trying to make us feel involved – and these moments actually took me away from the action and the trauma of the characters. I felt like I was being told what to think.
Arguably, perhaps I felt this way whilst watching Passing On because I have not been through care for someone who is at the end of their life. I cannot personally relate. Many did comment in the Q&A after the show that the piece spoke to them because they could put themselves in the shoes of the characters, and others commented that moments of the piece were close to “word for word” what they had been told by health professionals. If you’ve been personally affected by a subject a production is dealing with then this inevitably makes it easier to relate to. But I don’t think it should have to. The characters should be stronger than that. I should be able to go on a journey with them, go through their hardship with them and, in some way, relate to their world because of this journey, whatever my own personal experience.
I love verbatim theatre because it is so real and so true, but as David Hare says, you need to “keep true to the spirit” and “use your skills to make the story” (Mordsley). If too much of it is done in monologue form, spoken out, or taken out of the context of action, we can actually feel further away from the story. It is a tough challenge for practitioners in any branch of theatre to create a believable world to invite the audience into, but perhaps, ironically, it is an even harder challenge for those constructing verbatim.