The first time I heard the word ‘verbatim’ used to describe an art form was in reference to theatre. A drama teacher I was shadowing in my PGCE year was encouraging her A Level students to produce pieces of verbatim theatre by reading through transcripts of historic court cases and shaping them into performances. *As a side note, a shout out must now go to Alessandra, Bao Vi and Yeon Kyu, my former AS Level English Lit students, who may or may not still read this blog. All three of them got an A in their English A2 result (so another shout out must go to my friend and their teacher, Emma). If you’re reading this girls, CONGRATULATIONS, YOU MADE IT! And let me know how you got on in your other results!!* Ok, side note over. The definition of Verbatim Theatre is as follows:
a form of documentary theatre in which plays are constructed from the precise words spoken by people interviewed about a particular event or topic.
To be honest, I didn’t get the point of it. To me, it seemed lazy: a way of spoonfeeding students a ready made story line and script in the absence of real creativity. But then I saw my first piece of Verbatim Theatre and changed my mind.
In 2012, the National Theatre staged a production of ‘London Road’: a verbatim MUSICAL, no less, about the Ipswich murders. Sounds ridiculous, doesn’t it: a script drawn entirely from interviews with the residents and prostitutes living and working on London Road, and which aspires to be both hilarious and tragic. Every um, every er, every accidentally misspoken word would be preserved in the script. I went because I loved the National Theatre, but I wasn’t expecting much.
To my surprise, it really worked (and not just for me – it’s since been revived, transferred to other theatres and even turned into a film). The moment though that, for me, really crystallised the value of verbatim came towards the end. After a busy, cheerful string of show tunes about flowers, town hall meetings and other innocuous aspects of suburban life, the lighting dropped to a single spotlight and a single woman, alone on the stage. In a wavering falsetto, in a tiny circle of light surrounded by all that darkness, she sang:
“I mean, sounds awful, doesn’t it, but they’ve. They’ve um, done us all a favour, haven’t they, really?”
The ‘they’ she referred to? The murderer Steven Wright. The ‘favour’ he did them? Improving the class of her neighbourhood by murdering five prostitutes.
After that line, the spotlight cut to black and three women (representing the prostitutes who lived on to mourn their friends deaths and fear for their own lives) stepped onto a balcony, their faces lit from below. They stood for maybe three minutes, utterly silent. No one in the theatre made a sound. Three minutes of silence to reflect on whether you’ve ever felt like that spot-lit woman. Three minutes to realise that those words were really spoken, by a real human. Three minutes of silence to remind you that these women’s voices were never invited into the conversation, so there are no lines to give to them in a piece of verbatim theatre. That was the moment that this art form first made sense to me. Sometimes, the power of art is not in creating something new but in casting fresh light on something which already exists. Verbatim theatre can do just that.
So is Verbatim Poetry a concept? Why yes, yes it is! Although it’s often called Found Poetry instead, as sometimes the art is in noticing that the poem already exists, whole, if you look at it the right way (as opposed to constructing something artificial from things that already exist, as with the London Road script). Google Poems are a great example of these, in which Found Poetry lovers screenshot Google’s predictions from half typed searches. The results are sometimes hilarious, sometimes profound. Here are some fun examples…
So this morning, for my poetry writing warm up, I decided to write some verbatim poetry after getting the following poetry prompt:
Grab the closest book. Go to page 29. Write down 10 words that catch your eye. Use 7 of words in a poem. For extra credit, have 4 of them appear at the end of a line.
Since I’m in the library with Pete today, the nearest book to me was ‘Principles and Practice of Surgery – 6th Edition’. And page 29 is all about ‘transfusion of blood components and plasma products’. Yay. As I was reading through to pick my ten words, trying to think how ‘immunoglobins’ or ‘coagulation’ could be embedded into a poem that I might be able to both write and understand, I decided to make that the focus of the poem: applying random scientific phrases to the topic poets normally seem to write about: LOVE. As a result, I ended up with these: two short, silly verbatim poems which list commonalities between blood components/plasma and love.
Hopefully the informative nature of this post will make up for the flimsy nature of the poems. =]
Enjoy! If you’d like to try some verbatim writing, why don’t you try writing your own poem listing commonalities between love and something? You could use any kind of non fiction book: a recipe book, a text book, a travel guide… as long as it’s page 29!
Ruminations on The Principles & Practice of Surgery (6th Ed)
1) Commonalities between Love and Fresh Frozen Plasma
Available for use in children
Can be removed
Can be removed from a unit of whole blood
Associated with severe bleeding
2) Commonalities between Love and Human Albumin
No compatibility requirements
No clear advantage
There is increased vascular permeability
There is a risk of acutely expanding the intravascular space and precipitating pulmonary oedema