The concept, when you first hear it, is a bit weird.
First you interview a whole bunch of people on a topic. Then you transcribe what they said, word for word, including the ums, ahs, likes, coughs and stutters.
Then you take your stack of transcripts, pick out the juicy bits, edit them down into a script, hire some actors and put it on stage.
It’s called verbatim theatre, and Yukon’s Open Pit Theatre is giving it a try.
This weekend, Open Pit is bringing up a seasoned verbatim artist for a workshop series on how to produce and perform verbatim theatre.
The workshops are part of a bigger project, that will eventually see a new piece of theatre performed in the Yukon, about the Yukon, using the words of Yukoners.
Since the summer the Open Pit team has travelled the territory and collected more than 50 interviews from Yukoners talking on the themes of land and home.
“It’s a really special way of connecting with people, and of creating art that isn’t just based on your own belly button,” said Genevieve Doyon, one of Open Pit’s artistic directors, who is spearheading the project.
“I interview First Nations elders and I interview immigrants and newcomers and kids. Everybody kind of has their own take on it.”
Doyon plans to spend the next week or so editing those interviews down to a first draft of a script.
And she plans to do it with the help of Joel Bernbaum, who runs a theatre company in Saskatoon.
Bernbaum spent more than a year interviewing 500 people living in Victoria on the topic of homelessness. He then turned that material into a play called Home is a beautiful word.
A lot of the verbatim theatre he had seen was presented as a series of overlapping monologues. But there are ways to create dialogue between characters without betraying the spirit of verbatim, said Bernbaum.
One way is to do group interviews. You can then have actors recreate the resulting discussion on stage, word for word.
Another way is to use the gift of time to generate real dialogue between people who have never met, he said.
Using his work in Victoria as an example, Bernbaum described interviewing a 94-year-old, and asking them to ask questions as if they were talking to a homeless person.
Later, when interviewing a homeless person, you can give those questions to them verbatim.
You might say, “This question came from a 94-year-old who lives in a senior citizen’s home, they want to know, ‘Where do you go to the bathroom?’ Can you respond to me, as you would respond to that question?” said Bernbaum.
“All of a sudden, you get a totally accurate, authentic, verbatim response to a verbatim question, and you have an exchange that happens between two people that live in the same community but never have interacted, except on stage when their transcripts are combined.”
People are attracted to the authenticity of verbatim theatre, in the same way we feel more invested in a movie or book when it’s based on true events, said Bernbaum.
Part of the magic of verbatim is the way it holds onto little eccentricities of a person’s speech, he said.
Speech pathologists call those ums and ahs that break up our thoughts “speech disfluencies,” but Berbaum prefers “verbal deliciousnesses,” a term he borrowed from a verbatim playwright in Toronto.
“Those verbal deliciousnesses are the gems that enlighten us as to what a person is feeling or thinking,” he said.
“When someone laughs, pauses, stutters, stops, cuts themself off, what does it mean? And you see, when it translates to the stage, how powerful those verbal deliciousnesses are.”
A clip from a performance of Home is a beautiful word can be found on YouTube.
In addition to helping Doyon edit her script over the next week, Bernbaum will lead three public workshops in Whitehorse over the weekend on producing and performing verbatim theatre. Visit www.openp.it for more information, and to register.
A journalist’s first foray into creating verbatim art
“Anyone who has a tape recorder and a sense of curiosity, which is innate in most human beings, can be a verbatim theatre artist,” says Joel Bernbaum, a journalist and theatre producer who will be teaching Yukoners how to make verbatim art at a series of workshops this weekend.
I, as a journalist, have a great deal of experience interviewing people, transcribing those interviews, and editing that material down into something meaningful.
I think to myself, “Why not give it a try? How hard could it be?”
So I challenged myself to write a short, verbatim poem, using only a 10-minute interview with Open Pit’s Genevieve Doyon.
Here are two things I learned:
* Transcribing for the purpose of creating verbatim art is very different from transcribing for journalism. It takes a lot of time and concentration to record all of those false starts, stutters, likes, ums and ahs that I would normally edit out in a way that feels authentic to what was actually said.
* Good, clean quotes make terrible poetry. Messy quotes make good poetry… Or passable poetry… Or bad poetry… I’ll let you be the judge.
Here’s what I came up with: A verbatim poem, comprised only of words from an interview about verbatim art.
Hard to say
by Jacqueline Ronson, with words from Genevieve Doyon
So it’ll be, you know, it’ll be, I, it’s… It’s not documentary, you know?
So it’s really – You know, some people call it journalism theatre.
I don’t like to call it that.
But I’m not creating someone who doesn’t exist, you know, that kind of beats the, w- what I, what, what, I…
So, for example, if I interview you and you speak about, uh, peaches, and then I interview someone called Josh who speaks about peaches, I’m not gonna like meld your w- your words together and create this character that doesn’t exist.
So, yeah. It’s hard to s- y’know. It’s hard to- y’know, it’s very different.
So, it’s, it’s, those technicalities that I yet have to … discover, but um, I have been looking at the transcripts a lot.
Contact Jacqueline Ronson at