Is it ok to perform a real story on stage?
Your dad just died. You've accidentally recorded the last conversation you ever had with him. Do you:
a) Delete it.
b) Play it to your mum.
c) Turn it into a piece of verbatim theatre called Laughing Matter.
The theatre is a type of game - why do you think we call it a play? It's a game that's played between us on the stage and you in the stalls. We stand there and tell imaginary stories about things that never happened and people who don't exist. You sit there and suspend your disbelief and get carried away by the story. Nobody gets hurt. It's all quite fun.
But what if your story is true? What if you want to make a play that involves real people, real words, real grief - and you're not interested in playing?
Verbatim theatre is like a documentary on stage. The words in the play are taken exactly - all the ums and ers included - from real conversations with real people. In some verbatim plays actors wear earpieces during performance, listening live to the original recordings in an attempt to recreate it precisely.
But as soon as the story you're telling really happened - as soon as the things we say on stage are real, the morality of what you can do begins to get muddy. My mum doesn't want me to make my play. And, sure, verbatim plays follow certain rules. If you use someone's words, they need to know; if you tell someone's story, they need to give consent. But where do you draw the line? Why is it unethical to watch an ISIS execution but fine to enjoy the blood wedding in GoT? What's the difference between a story I make up and one that actually happened?
Today, more than ever, we are surrounded by stories. The story of your life you tell through Facebook, the stories in the news about foreign wars and mass migration, the stories politicians tell us about who deserves and who does not, the stories adverts tells us about the type of person we could be or the life we could have, the stories we tell ourselves about the type of person we are and the life we do have. The way we interact with the world is through sets of stories - so many, in fact, that our reality is constituted by them. Our life is a bit like a play.
But this complicates things for verbatim theatre. Because if verbatim theatre makes its stories out of reality, what happens if reality is just another set of stories? Verbatim claims to be authentic: not realistic but real, not lifelike but life. But maybe you're not so sure that there's any difference between the stories we make up and the stories that make up reality.
Besides, what if the real words you have recorded belong to someone who's dead? And what if that person is your dad? Then what would you do?
You can see what I did in my new play Laughing Matter, at the King's Head Theatre, 22 June - 16th July. Come play?