Accepted paper:

'Verbatim' documentary theatre as a means of ethnographic representation in Staffordshire and London


Nicholas Long (London School of Economics and Political Science)

Paper short abstract:

This paper argues for the value of Anna Deavere Smith’s ‘verbatim’ technique of documentary theatre as a means of anthropological knowledge transmission, outlining the technique’s potential, the obstacles that it has encountered in practice, and some possible ways in which these might be overcome.

Paper long abstract:

Documentary theatre is a genre in which the actual words of real people are edited into a script and performed on-stage by actors. In some cases, the company 'builds characters' around this script. In others, the company uses the 'verbatim technique' pioneered by Anna Deavere Smith, in which the original recordings of interviews and conversations are played back to actors through earpieces and imitated as closely as possible. While Fritz et al (2011) suggest that the verbatim technique 'risks nullifying an actor's art and skill' and that one 'might as well be… watching a documentary on the telly', I will argue that Smith's approach represents an significant new modality of ethnographic representation, with distinct advantages over both monograph and film. The actor's skill is not 'nullified'; it is reconceptualised. No longer does s/he 'build' a 'character'; instead s/he recasts a person in a new dynamic matrix of relations with the audience. This unique capacity of verbatim theatre to create what might be called an 'ethnographic sociality' affords important opportunities to express and move beyond 'cultural critique' in an anthropology that has undergone the affective turn. However, as case studies of verbatim theatre productions in Staffordshire and London illustrate, it can prove difficult to realise such potential in practice. The ethnographic and affective promise of verbatim performance is undermined by audience expectations of theatrical convention, and (usually misdirected) critiques from the Left. The paper concludes with some thoughts on how a more radically affecting 'verbatim' performance ethnography might be achieved.

panel G50
'All the world's a stage': the social and political potentialities of theatre and performance