Thursday, September 27, 2012

Verbatim theatre and the road to the truth

Now, as we all know, we often find ourselves on unfamiliar roads. Not sure how we got there, but fairly sure it will still take us to where we want to go.

I set out out on a journey to write a play about an event I think has played an important part in the consciousness of the community.

I thought the best way to do that was through an on-stage documentary, and I chose Verbatim Theatre as my form.

Verbatim Theatre is a specific type of theatre that involves interview people connected to a particular event, and then using those transcripts (and other ‘found’ materials like newspaper articles or court transcripts) to fashion a script. It’s an area that has long fascinated me, but I’ve never written a script before, so this has been a great opportunity to learn about it for me.

But here’s what I’ve discovered: the pyjama girl—the story I think needs to be told—is perhaps not best suited to the verbatim form. 

This is, in its simplest way, because verbatim depends on getting the words from people who experienced the event. This of course, is challenging because a) not many of the people who lived in the area at the time are still alive and b) how connected to the pyjama girl—the actual girl—are the residents of the Albury area anyway? It’s argued often that she wasn’t a local, and that the killer can’t have been a local, otherwise he would’ve known about the apparently bottomless pool of water a bit further down the road. A much better place to dispose of a body.

So what I’ve got is second hand information. It’s important to note that rumours were flying thick and fast and we, as human creatures, are all biased—even me, as a playwright.

One of the things Verbatim Theatre seeks to do (something that current affairs journalism often fails at) is to present information in a way that allows audience members to take away the truth.

But you’re seeing that through my filter.

So, what I’ve figured out is that this story needs a little bit of fiction in the way it is presented. I haven’t altered any facts about the pyjama girl, but I have invented a character to give us an idea of what the pyjama girl, whoever she was, might have been like. After all, she could have been anyone—and that’s one of the points I make in the current script.

My mentor, Colette, explained that in Verbatim Theatre, the playwright speaks ‘with’ not ‘for’ the characters.

But by creating a character, and constructing a voice for her (based on research), I am in fact, speaking ‘for’ the character.

Which means this play is not what we would strictly term Verbatim Theatre. It is, however, still research informed.

And I don’t mean this in the way Hollywood movies claim to be ‘based on a true story’.

The shape will change as I work with HotHouse to develop the play, but all the interviews I conducted with people in Albury and elsewhere, and extensive research I’ve undertaken, in libraries, museums—and of course, the Albury LibraryMuseum—have played a part in building the current script.

Ultimately, I want to use theatre as a way of getting to something truthful. But it’s unlikely there is anyone living who knows that full truth of the pyjama girl mystery. 

Saturday, September 1, 2012

ANOTHER overdue blog: Stockholm

And another international excuse.

I'm sure I project an image of a glamorous jet set life style, but I assure you this is absolutely not the case. In fact, I'm typing this from my couch with a snuggie blanket over my knees and my cat at my feet.

In August, I went to Sweden for the Women Playwrights International Conference. It was awesome. It was utterly inspirational, and in has indirectly changed the direction of this play. More about that next time.

Personally, I reckon I’m pretty terrible at networking. The very word terrifies me. Standing around in a theatre foyer gossiping or discussing the show I’ve just seen comes naturally, but tell me to sell myself or my work – in the same theatre foyer with the same people standing around – and I discover my gob suddenly glued shut.

In Stockholm though, I gained confidence in talking about myself and my work. Suddenly it was okay, because by being at WPIC, I felt I deserved to call myself a playwright. For me there are two reasons a) I realised how important it is to me and b) I felt my writing must be a little bit okay given my script was one of 100 selected from around the world to be presented there, though I was absolutely in awe of the people around me, particularly the enormously talented Australian contingent.

Swedish actors perform my play (not the pyjama girl)

Speaking of, I'm going to defer further description of Stockholm adventures to two other lady playwrights of my acquaintance, Zoe and Jenny, with whom I shared a squealing reunion on a cobblestone street in Stockholm)--go on, read their delightful blogs. 

Taking on my identity as playwright was a big breakthrough. Second major breakthrough was the realisation that we’re lucky in Australia. Sure, European countries have fabulously structured theatre industries, where actors have wages mandated by experience and in some places working in theatre is the type of career choice that won’t break your parents’ hearts. Necessarily.

BUT I realise how lucky I am to be able to create work just because I want to create it. Not because it needs to be created out of protest. Not because it is the only way to have an issue heard. Not even because it is a tool for education and community building. But simply because I have something I want to say.

Theatre is a wonderful tool for all of those things. Of course I can still write political theatre. But I can also write a romantic comedy if I want to. The freedom to be purely creative is not a luxury enjoyed by playwrights the world over, particularly female playwrights. Freedom of expression is another issue entirely.

We all know the power of theatre, and the conference theme, the Democratic Stage was apt.

As an emerging playwright from a non-metro city, I felt like a grade 6 moving to the big school—there is so much out there that I don’t know about the industry, both in Australia and overseas.

In Egypt, where theatre is telling the stories of revolution that journalism failed to tell; In India, where theatre teaches people that it’s okay to have a daughter, in the ten countries across the world participating in an international theatre project built around the shocking fact that domestic violence kills more women worldwide than cancer.

And this made me realise just how important it is to tell the story of the Pyjama Girl. 

I was lucky enough to attend a research-informed theatre workshop run by some wonderful Canadian playwrights. One of them, Tara Goldstein has written a book on it Staging Harriet's House: Writing and Producing Research-Informed Theatre. Now, back in Australia, nearing the end of the JUMP project, I've been reading this book as I redrafted the script and have come to an important realisation. The play I'm writing is not verbatim at all. It cannot be. 

And on that cliffhanger... I'll leave you until next time.