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. 

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