Fictionalized Verbatim Theatre

On the ethics of representation

Part One: Who has the right to tell which stories and why?

In November of 2013, the Governor General award-winning playwright Colleen Murphy premiered her new play Pig Girl at the Theatre Network in Edmonton. The piece draws narrative roots from the story of Robert Pickton, the Canadian serial killer who has confessed to the murders of 49 women, many of whom were sex workers residing in Vancouver’s downtown east side. Murphy’s play staged extreme violence inflicted by a killer upon an indigenous sex worker he held captive.


As neither the playwright nor any of the original cast members were indigenous, the play, understandably, received stark criticism and spurred debate about the ethics of representation, “Who has the right to tell which stories and why?”   


I remember reading the criticism surrounding Murphy’s premiere back in 2013 and being deeply affected by the surrounding debate. It was affecting for me because, as a young playwright and actor, my own work was grappling with many of the same complicated questions surrounding her play.   


At the time of Pig Girl’s World Premiere, I had just finished my Bachelor’s Degree where I had completed my last course of study by writing a play called A Happy Kind of Therapy. This was a piece of documentary theatre staging monologues I had compiled by transcribing interviews with drag queens and drag kings in Montreal’s Gay Village. Inspired by the documentary theatre work of Anna Deveare Smith and the Tectonic Theatre Project, creators of The Laramie Project, I had big dreams for my foray into the documentary form. I imagined documentary theatre to be an all-powerful theatrical form capable of rendering clear that ever elusive concept: truth.   


I quickly came to understand the danger of equating documentary with truth. I imagined that by using real words spoken by real people, the documentary playwright would avoid the pitfalls Murphy experienced. Documentary was inherently ethical, or so I believed.   


Let’s clarify, for a moment, some terminology. Documentary theatre refers to theatre which performs archival material. This archival material can range anywhere from newspaper clippings, to late-night news broadcasts, to audio interviews, to the playwright’s own personal diary. With such a range of possible material, it is not surprising that documentary theatre pieces vary so greatly in their final forms. The Laramie Project, for example, takes an approach much different from Eve Ensler’s The Vagina Monologues. Popular under the documentary theatre umbrella is the use of verbatim theatre techniques. In verbatim theatre parts of a script are composed using text transcribed directly from audio recordings. Both of the pieces above utilize these techniques: having actors perform the words of real people interviewed for their projects.   


Now, why, you may ask, do I believe it is dangerous to equate documentary with truth? There can’t be something more truthful than performing a real person’s real words, right?   


In writing my piece, A Happy Kind of Therapy, I was struck by how much power I, as the playwright, had over the way my interviewees would come across onstage. I got to choose which words were cut and which phrases would make it into the final draft. If I wanted to make a point about misogyny, all I had to do was include a man’s anecdote about hating drag kings when he first moved to Montreal, and then be sure to cut his words from later in the interview where he would discuss how his opinions had changed since then. When you have a wealth of audio content, it becomes easy to pick and choose what words you’ll insert, whose story will we hear first and how will that influence the way we hear the next one. In a documentary theatre piece, the playwright has the ability to structure the words of their interview subjects to transmit almost any message they choose. Further complicating the issue, by using the real words of real people, a work of documentary theatre can project a veil of authenticity. A good documentarian will seek to pull back that veil, to reveal their own subjective limitations, to turn the camera on themselves, in a sense.   


When I first studied The Vagina Monologues and The Laramie Project I trusted the texts to be inherently truthful, or at least to carry more authenticity than the works of fiction we read in theatre history class. After writing my own piece of documentary theatre I realized that truth is a complicated concept.   


It was with this background that I encountered the debate surrounding Colleen Murphy’s Pig Girl. “Who has the right to tell which stories and why?”   


Predictably, Pig Girl’s World Premiere was criticized for staging an indigenous story about extreme violence written by a white playwright and including no indigenous people in the cast. I watched as the criticism rained down upon her and I couldn’t help but think that my piece, A Happy Kind of Therapy, wasn’t all that different. I, too, had written a script using lived experiences far distant from my own. I, too, staged a play about drag queens and drag queens which featured no drag performers. I, too, felt guilty for leveraging the stories of a community in order to benefit my own artistry. It is, after all, supposed to be the other way around, right? It was this debate that inspired a research question which would take me on a four year journey through the ethics of representation.   


“Who has the right to tell which stories and why?” Surely Murphy does not have the right to tell a story of violence inflicted upon an indigenous woman because Murphy does not have comparable lived experience. But, then, if this is the rule, where do we draw the line? What amount of lived experience is enough to allow someone to write a character? As a woman, should Murphy be excluded from writing male characters? As a Canadian, should Murphy be prevented from writing British characters? As an artist should Murphy be prevented from writing the character of a banker?   


I would like to note that while the above paragraph is intended to point out a problem in the logic that “we should not write those whose experiences are outside our own,” my end goal is not to issue a carte-blanche dissolving any attempt at developing an ethics of representation. My end goal is to shift the conversation in a more productive direction. I do not believe that the question, “Who has the right to tell which stories?” can be answered simply by examining the proximity of a writer’s identity to their character. Rather, I think the right to tell a story depends on the writer’s process of engaging with that identity foreign to their own.   


If I step back and try to view representation from a distance I believe that all writing, with the exception of autobiography, involves writing an other. Any character will inevitably have a certain degree of distance from the writer. Debate surrounding the ethics of representation will often focus on writers representing people whose identities and lived experiences are too far away from their own. I want to examine how we build a bridge across that distance. How do we meet an other face to face, listen, empathize, and share that story to the best of our ability, acknowledging our limitations? Isn’t that the motto we hear these days anyway? Build bridges, not walls.   


“Who has the right to tell which stories and why?” The question itself is limited. For me it is not “who” and “why”, but “how”. How do we, as people in positions of authority, with access to time and resources and creativity, how do we ethically write characters outside of our own experience?   


I do think there are a number of possible methods for ethically writing the other. Observational fieldwork, research, and collaboration – all of these offer possibilities for us to better understand those we’re trying to write about. I believed that documentary and verbatim theatre offered the possibility to build that bridge across to someone else and share their story in an ethical manner. In fact, I still believe that these forms offer this possibility, but I am of the belief that documentary and verbatim theatre, as well as theatre based on observational fieldwork, academic research, and collaborative processes, all run the risk of misrepresenting others or telling their stories for our own personal gain.   


A scholar named Dwight Conquergood, well-known in the field of performance studies and performance ethnography, penned an essay speaking directly to the ethics of representation. Ethnography is a term borrowed from anthropology referring to the study of human cultures. Conquergood wrote about what he called the four pitfalls of ethical representation. These pitfalls occur when a person has either too attached or too detached from their subject, or feel they identify too similarly or too differently with their subject.

from Dwight Conquergood's "Performing as a Moral Act: Ethical Dimensions of the Ethnography of Performance" (1985)


In Conquergood’s model, the goal should be dialogic performance. In a dialogic method the playwright is in conversation with those they are studying. As much as the resulting performance displays the community being studied, it also displays the playwright’s process of studying. The veil of authenticity is lifted to reveal the playwright’s own contributions to the process of study.   


“How do we ethically write an other?” Conquergood’s writing on the subject suggest that there is no single method which will ensure ethical representation. Rather, whichever method a playwright chooses, be it documentary theatre, verbatim theatre, or a fictional piece based off a true event, like in Murphy’s piece, the method should be dialogic. It should include opportunities to conversation and dialogue where the individual or communities being represented have the opportunity to speak back to the playwright.   


What does a dialogic theatre process look like? I’d like to tell the story of my development of a writing method I call fictionalized verbatim theatre. This method grew out of my desire to develop a dialogic method of writing. I don’t think it’s perfect. I actually believe that representation is never perfect – it’s not about getting everything perfectly right, it’s about trying to respect those whose stories you are trying to tell, it’s about ensure that dialogue is present and that you are speaking with rather than speaking for.  

Part Two: 10 Steps for creating Fictionalized Verbatim Theatre

Over the course of two years, through 2015 through 2017, I wrote a piece of theatre called The History of Sexuality. The piece had a few sources of inspiration: First, I wanted to develop a possible method for generating ethical theatrical representations. Second, as a young gay man living in Montreal, I wanted to explore the stories and the perspectives of others who identified as queer or queer-adjacent. Finally, as is often the case with writing, I wanted to explore my newfound love for the French post structural philosopher, Michel Foucault, whose work seemed to permeate every sphere of my existence.    


Brought into notoriety through the 60s and 70s, Foucault is famous for complicating the concept of truth. Where many people view truth in a binary relationship with false: things are either true or false, black or white, right or wrong, Foucault understood truth through its relation to power. There is rarely one single, true perspective on an issue, rather multiple people, multiple communities will have a vested interest in being perceived as true, for the ones who control what we believe to be true hold the reins of power.    


This is a concept I took into my project from the beginning: there can exist multiple, contradictory truths within a society, a community, even an individual. This understanding of truth also complements a commitment to dialogue: there can be multiple, valid sides to every conversation.   


With this in mind, I created The History of Sexuality, a fictionalized verbatim theatre piece which explored the lives of queer Montrealers as their personal truths came in contact with one another. In opposition to many documentary theatre pieces, which aim to construct a staging of a true event, my approach was the opposite. I did not want my piece to be true, instead I wanted my piece to be written in such a way that it exposed multiple truths.   


Over the course of two years, I collected hours upon hours of audio tape, spent many endless nights transcribing text and writing and re-writing characters and narratives. I organized table reads, staged readings, workshops, conference presentations, and after months and months finally had the opportunity to stage the piece in September 2017. With the support of many amazing friends, artists, teachers, and the generous financial support of the Conseil des arts et des lettres du Québec (CALQ), we presented 9 public performances including several sold-out shows.    


Through the process, I developed my own methodology for crafting performance: fictionalized verbatim theatre. Like the documentary-styling of Annabel Soutar and Anna Deveare Smith, I started off by running audio-recorded interviews and focus groups with queer folks in Montreal and then transcribing segments of the interviews I found to be compelling. However, unlike documentary work, I spliced these verbatim words into fictional characters within a fictional narrative. The method allows me greater artistic control over narrative, while simultaneously acknowledging the curatorial power the playwright holds in any script-writing process.   


I’d like to take you through my 10 Steps to Creating Fictionalized Verbatim Theatre. Before you get into it, I will say that I am definitely not perfect, nor is this method. If you have comments, criticisms, feedback, I’m always open to hearing thoughts.  

Step #1 - Research, research, research!

So, you want to write a piece of fictionalized verbatim theatre? The first step is always research! This is going to vary depending on the topic you want to explore. My belief is that the greater the distance between yourself and the subject of your play, the greater the amount of preliminary research you will need to conduct. You want to write a piece about your grandparents’ life stories? You’re probably somewhat familiar with the subject, so it may not take too much research to be ready for an interview. You want to write a piece about the LGBT refugee claimant process for Nigerian asylum seekers? Unless you’re a Nigerian refugee, I’m gonna go out on a limb and say that you’re going to have a lengthy period of preliminary research. In The History of Sexuality I chose to study the queer community. I identify as part of that community myself, but I also recognize that there are so many different expressions of queerness. I thought this gave me a stake in the research as well as a limited understanding of the community being studied.   


I come from an academic background, so I get quite excited by research. There are so many approaches you can take! There are the less active approaches: reading - try to consult primary source texts as well as secondary texts by smart people (if you want to study it, chances are someone already wrote a thesis on it!), consulting other archival material - videos, audio, newscasts, clothing, music, paintings, etc. Then there are the more active approaches: observational fieldwork, participant observation - where the researcher actually participates in the cultural activities being studied, etc.   


During the research stage it is easy to get excited and filled with ideas. This is great - the flow of ideas and inspiration is an enriching part of any creative process. However, the key to ethical fictionalized verbatim theatre is aiming for dialogue! For this reason, you should try not to plan an entire plot line or complete characters during the research stage because you have yet to speak to your interviewees. Aim for developing questions rather than answers. For example, when I was researching for The History of Sexuality, I became interested in how queerness intersected with the different spaces of our lives: how do we express queerness in a classroom setting vs in a social setting vs in a sexual setting vs on public transit?    


I like to think of it as choosing vessels to be filled. It’s like you’re picking out a few vases from the store, in picking out the vase you are choosing a form to be filled, but you’re going to leave it up to your research participants to choose the flowers, or the sand, or the pebbles, or whatever they will use to fill the vase.

Step #2 - The Interview Process

You’ve finished your research! You know your subject back-to-front, at least until your interviews make you realize you know next to nothing. Now it’s time to set up your interviews!   


There are so many ways to arrange interviews that I cannot provide any sort of comprehensive review at this stage. You can do interviews in-person, over the phone, over skype. You can do one-on-one interviews, you can do group interviews. You can interview 40 different people for 20 minutes each, you can interview 4 people for 3 hours each. You can plan all your questions in advance and ask them one by one, or you can let your interview be free flowing and conversational. You can do one interview per person, or you can interview each person three times.   


For The History of Sexuality, I organized three focus group interviews, bringing together 4 to 6 people to discuss a certain topic. Then, I also organized a series of separate individual interviews. Most participants were interviewed once, though in a few cases follow-up interviews were organized.    


The art of interviewing is incredibly complex and there are many people much smarter than I, who have written about the subject. If you’re new to the interview game, I suggest reading up on interview methods. SAGE Publications have some amazing resources for this. Or, if you prefer a more creative approach, download some podcasts, turn on the news, and just observe how different approaches and different questions will elicit different responses from interviewees. Compare, for example, the casual approach Anna Faris uses in her Unqualified podcast versus the attack-dog stylings of Chuck Todd on NBC’s Meet the Press.   


A few pro-tips:  


● Be careful about leading questions. A leading question is a question that is built to elicit a specific response: “When this happened to you, I am sure you must have felt heartbroken?” This is a leading question as you are presupposing the interviewees emotional response to an event. “How did you feel when this happened to you?” This allows the interviewee space to answer based on their own response. 


● Make sure your interviewees are prepared. At this point, you should have a description of your project available, even if you’re not entirely sure about the final form. The interviewee should also know the general topic of the interview, especially if you are going to be dealing with intense subject matter, any discussions or retellings of personal trauma can be retraumatizing. Interviewees should be aware if the interview may go in this direction so that they can set their own boundaries and comfort levels in advance. 


● Don’t forget about transcription. In the next stage you have to transcribe your interviews. If you’ve never transcribed audio interviews before, please be aware that it will take up all of your free time for the rest of eternity. When collecting audio material, be sure to keep the amount of audio collected within a range that you will be able to adequately analyze.  


● Check your tech! What are you using to record? An iPhone? A Zoom recorder? A handheld? Make sure that it works beforehand and consider having a backup running too. There’s no feeling quite like running an interview only to realize your recorder didn’t work.   


Once you have enough material, you can start your writing process! You can definitely feel free to start transcribing and writing down some ideas before the interviews are all finished. Just be sure that you’re not planning too much in advance, you don’t want to fill all the vessels before you’ve spoken with all your participants.

Step #3 - Transcription & Writing

The not-so-fun and fun parts! Transcribing your audio interviews will be a drag, literally. It will drag on for days/weeks. But, at this point the ideas that have been swirling around in your head can begin taking shape. For The History of Sexuality, I ended up with about 15 hours of audio tape. I did not transcribe all of this. My approach was to play through the tape and transcribe the parts that I found inspiring.   


As you are transcribing you may feel plot or characters begin to synthesize. Write it all down! You can always change it later. Let the interviews feed into a kaleidoscopic brainstorm process. In fictionalized verbatim theatre you are not representing the interviewees themselves onstage. Rather, you are suturing their words into fictional characters. You had two interviewees who complemented each other nicely? Combine them into one character. You had two separate interviewees whose ideas clashed intensely? Maybe that can be turned into a fight scene.    


I received a lot of favourable feedback on one scene from The History of Sexuality. The scene was based off of two interviews I completed, one with a female stripper and one with a male escort. When I was transcribing their interviews onstage I found that their experiences were strikingly similar sometimes, but at other times they were markedly different. In the play, I wrote a duologue where they both spoke simultaneously, sometimes in unison, but sometimes with contrasting words about their experiences in sex work. This comes back to the idea of staging multiple truths as well.   


Everyone’s creative process is different, so give yourself a lot of space. Two pieces of advice I cling to are: (1) It will never be perfect. Accept that. And (2) Don’t be afraid to cut.   


Eventually you will arrive at something you want to share with others. It doesn’t have to be a complete two-act play. It can be a couple of scenes, or a monologue. At this point, we make our process dialogic.

Step #4 - The Feedback Process

With the goal of generating ethical artistic representation, feedback from your interviewees is essential. This is what allows you to create a dialogue between yourself and those you are representing onstage. Feedback can take a variety of forms. You can simply send drafts of your scenes and your monologues back to your interviewees for feedback. You can organize table reads where you have actors come in and read the script while your interviewees watch. Whatever works best for you!   


In my experience, it can be difficult to have interviewees read through an entire draft of a script on their own time and then write up feedback. Organizing casual get togethers seems to have elicited a better response. Organize a soiree, provide some drinks and snacks (I always like to provide food, especially if I am unable to pay my interviewees, it is a way of giving back), and do a read through of your scenes. Afterwards you can distribute some feedback forms and have your interviewees write something up while they’re there. This is usually easier than chasing them for feedback afterwards.   


I think it’s important to distinguish between feedback from your interviewees versus feedback from your artistic peers. If you have feedback from your peers, it is your decision to take it or leave it. No harm, no foul if you choose to toss it out. Feedback from your interviewees should be treated with more weight than this. These are the people whose stories you are sharing and you should respect their opinions. That said, you can come up with a system where you can prioritize your interviewees’ feedback. On your feedback forms or in your instructions, ask your interviewees to structure their responses as “optional suggestion” or “priority suggestion”. If you receive a priority suggestion, you should do your best to incorporate the feedback.

Step #5 - Writing!

Now you’re back to writing. Based on the feedback you’ve received, you might have to make some big changes! That’s okay. That’s what writing is all about. Most writing processes will involve periods of editing and revision, unless you’re that one annoying guy who writes a first draft and it’s amazing. In this process we are incorporating an artistic feedback loop where the writing authority is no longer your sole property. This means your process will likely involve longer, more intensive, and more frequent periods of editing and revision. Again, I reiterate my two favourite pieces of advice: nothing will ever be perfect, and do not be afraid to cut.   


Once you feel you’ve incorporated the necessary revisions, you’re ready for another round of feedback.

Step #6 - Feedback (again!)

The writing-feedback loop can go on ad infinitum. You can do as many rounds of edits and requests for feedback as you want or as the piece needs. I’m still incorporating edits to The History of Sexuality and our first run is finished!   


I’d like to share one example of feedback and revision from my process. In one of my focus group interviews, I had a woman share an experience of sexual assault. I incorporated this into one of the characters in the show. In the first draft of my script, I had poeticized this woman’s story, turning it into a poetic monologue about a tree surviving a forest fire. After my first round of feedback the woman came to me asking why I had turned her experience of sexual violence into an abstract poem. I had addressed so many other experiences of sexuality as real and human, but chose to make a woman’s rape abstract.    


I accepted her critique and asked if she would be willing to do a follow up interview where we discussed the details of her rape. She agreed and we met one on one for a follow up interview. I transcribed this interview and replaced the poetic monologue with a verbatim monologue using the words this woman spoke. At a later point, following further conversation with the woman, we actually incorporated audio from her interview into the sound design for the show, so audiences heard excerpts from our second interview. My intention here was to draw audiences back to the interview process in order to make them aware that the entire play they were watching was curated from these interviews. It acknowledges my own subjectivity and influence in the writing process.   


This feedback process was long and emotionally intense. It required extreme vulnerability from the woman being interviewed and I do not think many would have agreed to that. However, I think the scene resulting from that process respected her story and enabled the piece to carry an important message about sexual violence against women.  

Step #7 - Workshop

Your script has now gone through several periods of editing and revision. You have something with which you are satisfied. Well, relatively satisfied, because you’re never going to be completely satisfied. Before investing your time and resources into a full blown theatrical production, I recommend organizing a workshop. If you have yet to see your piece on its feet, words being performed by real actors, then seeing this may completely change your opinion (and the opinions of your interviewees!).    


When creating The History of Sexuality we have the privilege to receive generous financial support from the Conseil des Art et des Lettres du Québec (CALQ) which funded a workshop process. During this process, I witnessed problems points with the piece and finalize a few edits with the interviewees.    


Again, a workshop is very flexible in form, so do what works for you. Perhaps you have a scene that just isn’t flowing? Get a couple of great improvisers and have them work through the scene together, maybe they’ll be able to improvise some dialogue which flows a little better. Perhaps you have two possible endings and you don’t know which one you’d prefer? Or you’re not sure if you want those two characters to kiss in Act One, Scene Three, or if it would be better if he got punched instead? All things to get up and on their feet before finalizing your script.  

Step #8 - Feedback (yes, again!)

It should come as no surprise that I’m adding in yet another moment for feedback. As I want to stress the possibilities for ethical generation of representations, I believe that any relevant changes made during the workshop process should be circulated to the interviewees who may be affected. I’ll reiterate that in fictionalized verbatim theatre, the playwright rescinds their position as the sole authority over the script and this means a greater inclusion of interviewees throughout the editing process!

Step #9 - Performance Draft

Once you’ve addressed any remaining feedback from your participants you should have a script that’s ready for performance! I hesitate to call this a final draft, because you are going to want to change some things once you see your first public performance, trust me.

Step #10 - Performance Draft

Now you’ve got a script, it’s time to get it produced. This is another challenge completely. If you’re an emerging artist there may be a festival or showcase where you can feature your work. Fringe festivals often provide a platform for performance which is financially accessible. You can circulate your script to local artistic directors in the hopes that someone may be inspired and want to direct it. Or, you can mount the production yourself independently.    


We chose to pursue the independent production route with The History of Sexuality. I launched my own company, called Talking Dog Productions, and we produced the show at the MainLine Theatre in Montreal - which has relatively affordable rates. An independent production is a significant financial investment, so do be sure you’re ready for the risk that comes along with such a venture. As well, consider closely your own role. The playwright-as-director will affect an entirely different process than passing your script to a director for your production.   


At this stage, as well, give yourself a little pat on the back. You did it. You made a show where there wasn’t a show before. You took the stories of real people and worked with them to share these stories with the world. That’s no small feat. You’re basically Meryl Streep and Meryl Streep is a boss.

I hope this overview may have inspired some of you in your own work. Whether you are inspired and now plan to try out your own fictionalized verbatim theatre process, or whether you’ve just paused to consider the ethics of your own writing process, I hope you’ve learned something from this. We’re at a point in time where there are many opinions circulating public conversations. I, personally, am of the mindset that we need less opinions and more stories. In order to create progress, we have to be willing to listen to the story of where we’ve all come from.   


Dane Stewart is a multidisciplinary artist and recent graduate of Concordia University’s Individualized Master’s program. He is the founder of Talking Dog Productions in Montreal. His work spans queer identity, research-creation, and the ethics of representation. As an academic he’s had the pleasure of lecturing at McGill and Concordia, among others. His first full length play, How Exile Melts, was produced by McGill’s Department of English in 2014. As an actor, Dane has performed in Spring Awakening (Centaur Theatre’s Brave New Looks 2014), Godspell (Beautiful City Theatre), and MainLine’s The Rocky Horror Show. He also spent a few marvellous years touring around playing keyboard with Montreal-band, Motel Raphael. Dane is an educator and public advocate for alternative sexual practices and lifestyles.