In the run up to the opening of the performances next week, Unknown Magazine checked in with the cast and creators of York’s newest documentary theatre, 9 Million and Counting. Focused on the theme of migration in the light of the ongoing Syrian refugee crisis, the three verbatim plays present a political and thought-provoking venture for all involved.
The scripts for all three shows are made from interviews with members of the public. To what extent does this help or hinder the writing process, and do you feel limited by it in any way?
Thomas Leadbeater, Lead Writer : In the case of verbatim theatre, the writing process is a unique and challenging one because relying on the words and testimonies of real people severely reduces the capacity for fabrication. Nevertheless, despite this obstacle the process has been arguably more validating. Whereas a writer would customarily worry over the legitimacy and authenticity of their writing, with verbatim this is less of an issue – it’s harder to call the validity of your material into question when you have the transcripts to support you. If at any point in the process we felt hindered by the nature of verbatim, it was always due in full to our failings during the research period, and there’s a beautiful honesty to that.
Elizabeth Jay Edevane, Lead Writer : Writing from found sources and interviews has been an incredible challenge – both in the sense that it’s been an amazing experience and in the amount of problems that it poses. As a playwright, you normally have so much power: everything about a character and everything they say comes from you and shapes the story. With [9 Million and Counting] there are no characters – everything has already been said and you can’t ‘make a story’ because it’s real life. And this does cause problems… [T]here have been times when someone on my writing team or I have created a really emotional moment, and I can see exactly how to use it, but that’s not the point of the genre. Verbatim theatre isn’t about entertainment, it’s about a political message, and so you can’t let your audience lose themselves in the way that you’d want with another play. That being said, a play comprised either entirely of monologues of testimony or countless interviews being performed on stage would be ridiculously boring, so another challenge is how to frame the material that we’ve got. In our play [The Swarm] we’ve got characters in a pub, in a live news debate and all sorts of places. It’s fantastic what you can create when your medium is limited.
For many of us in the western world, we have never experienced anything like the refugee crisis as a first hand account. How does this lack of experience impact the direction and performance, and to what extent do the accounts from refugees help aid this?
Harry Elletson and Bethany Hughes, Directors : Like any theatre process, no matter who you are playing and who you are portraying, it is only a matter of doing appropriate research. Luckily we have been able to talk to people first hand and receive immediate responses to this crisis. This has proved invaluable in both educating us as students, and also creating a piece of theatre that is well informed.
Joseph Hayes, Actor : At the end of the day I’m just performing the words from a script and some of the words are spoken by real people who are arguably better informed about the crisis than me. I have to have an open mind because of this and listen to all sides of the story. The accounts made by some of the interviewees are very insightful and helped me to understand in greater detail the severity of the refugee crisis.
Serena Brymer, Actor : We’re constantly ‘checking our privilege,’ as we’re aware of how lucky and fortunate we are to be born, living and existing in a country where we feel safe and secure. Living without the threat of the tragedies and disasters is a privilege the refugees haven’t received in their own country. Therefore, we’re aware that although we’re creating a political piece of theatre, and addressing the current topic of migration, we are still living in a world the refugees only dream of… [As a result] 50% of our proceeds are going to Refugee Action York, so that our play can directly aid and help the refugees. As an actor, the accounts of the refugees are horrific and a tragedy to hear. Therefore, in our performance, we hold great sympathy and compassion to the lives and experiences of the refugees. We aim to accurately portray their accounts and give them a voice they might not otherwise have.
The issue of refugees and migration is a highly politically charged and sensitive topic. How do you manage any personal stances you may hold towards the topic in your directing or performance?
Joseph : I try not to let my personal stance impact my acting choices because I’m playing such a broad range of characters with different opinions. However, as I’m quite a liberal person I find myself using my own take on the situation to shape the ‘liberal’ characters I’m playing. But I think it’s more on a subconscious level.
Serena : In our initial rehearsals, as a company we discussed our personal stances regarding the refugee and migration topic so that we were all aware of each other’s opinions and points of view. This then helped us to establish and articulate our views whilst addressing a large group of people. We used that experience to understand our characters when they attempt to articulate their arguments. In terms of holding back our opinions, we’re often playing characters which have entirely different personal views on the topic to ourselves, and therefore our character’s stances are the visible opinions on the stage, not our own. Throughout our performance, we represent multiple opinions and arguments in light of our political theatre style, [so] our individual personal stances aren’t necessarily shown. During our rehearsals of the piece, we all attempt to hold back from discussing our personal views on the topic, as to keep the rehearsal space neutral so our opinions don’t get locked into the performance we are creating. As an actor, it’s part of the job to attempt to accurately and fairly represent the arguments that the characters pose, in order to make the authenticity and ethics of the performance fair and just. Whether we as individuals agree or disagree with the character’s stance, it is our job to fairly represent that character without posing threat or judgment. Ultimately, although in the performance they’re characters, the words and opinions are directly taken from real people who have had real life experiences. Therefore, they deserve to have the portrayal of their words represented fairly on stage.
A lot has been said about the refugee crisis in the media, and this is, indeed, the focus of one of the performances, The Swarm. Is documentary theatre another form of media? How does it attempt to differ from other portrayals of the crisis?
Thomas : If ‘media’ is any form of communication, then documentary theatre is definitely encompassed in that. We found in our research that in the wider media there is a tendency to present opinion and bias as fact. In this regard, we’ve tried to avoid this and make it blatant that every opinion and every testament has been adapted for stage through the lens of a university student. We believe, however erroneously, that by checking our privilege in this way we distance ourselves from other forms of media that are perhaps less frank about such a bias.
Elizabeth : Verbatim theatre is absolutely another form of media, what we’re trying to achieve with The Swarm is not to send the audience home thinking that they can’t trust anything – we want them to think. Verbatim theatre puts real voices into a new context and asks the audience to think about it. We’re not saying that our version is the perfect truth of what’s happening, but we’re not a news station: we don’t want to be absorbed, we want to provoke thought and provide a view that you might not have seen before.
To what extent does documentary theatre differ in direction and performance from other modes of theatre, such as a comedy or tragedy, or do they play into each other?
Harry and Bethany : In many ways it doesn’t. All theatre is storytelling, and comedy and tragedy are just aspects of life. Documentary theatre, at its heart, is designed to portray real life stories, and we as directors simply aim to portray these real people on stage with respect. If comedy and tragedy and all theatrical genres will help us do this, then that is what we will do.
Joseph : Documentary theatre is factual, objective, and actually a very sensitive mode of theatre, because the majority of the dialogue in documentary theatre holds truth and is spoken by real people. There are comedic and tragic aspects incorporated into the material, but as an actor it is always important to make sure the comedy doesn’t detract too much from the seriousness of the topic. Not all documentary theatre is necessarily ‘serious’, [but] just in the case of our piece.
Adam Bruce, Writer and Actor : What is most interesting to me about documentary theatre is how in tune it is with the world around us. It’s directly interwoven with the essence of real people, real thoughts and real opinions. It’s also incredibly versatile. As an actor and a writer, it’s been fascinating working with the material we have gathered as a company. We never set out to create particularly comedic or tragic moments – the material we have gathered speaks for itself, and contains its own comedic and tragic moments that we can shape into a piece of powerful, politically charged theatre. The words of real people are at the heart of everything. Throughout this project, it’s been a welcoming challenge to harness them and mine them for a relevant response to such a sensitive issue.
Serena : In a piece of documentary theatre, the first and foremost aspect of the play is the voices and words of real people with real life experiences. This is what a documentary theatre should aim to represent and reflect in their performances. Theatre is an accessible medium to address members of the public and encourage reactions such as sympathy, empathy, compassion, anger, laughter. Therefore, as a style of theatre, it differs from comedy and tragedy as the characters aren’t made up for dramatic effect, to get a laugh from the audience or make them cry. These views and experiences are real, and theatre gives the voices a chance to be heard. A comedy may cause a reaction for an entire three minutes if the gag is so hilarious. But a documentary piece of theatre should cause a reaction for life: to reaffirm or alter opinions the audience may already have on the topic which is being discussed, and this is something we aim to do in our migration piece.
9 Million and Counting is showing 5th, 6th and 7th May at 7.30pm at the Black Box Studio, University of York. Tickets are £5 each and can be purchased online here. Check out Unknown Magazine’s preview of the performances here.