Alice Troy-Donovan chats to Alecky Blythe about verbatim plays, the London Riots, and the ubiquity of three pound cappucinos.
Alecky Blythe’s show London Road first appeared at the National Theatre in 2011, returning the following year due to popular demand. It brought Alecky and her innovative ‘verbatim’ methods to the forefront of British theatre. She founded ‘Recorded Delivery’, which creates plays using verbatim techniques, in 2003.
I met up with her in the Almeida Theatre during the run of her latest show Little Revolution, which explores the impact of the 2011 London Riots on a small community in Hackney, East London, using verbatim accounts from local residents.
How does verbatim theatre work?
Verbatim theatre is theatre created from real-life conversations. There are different levels of it, and I would put myself at the most extreme, purest end: nothing in any of my work has been fictionalised or made up in terms of what is said.
On the other hand, someone like David Hare, who has also used verbatim techniques, works at the looser end of the spectrum to me. Sometimes context or action is changed in my plays, but the actual words are the words said by those real-life people. I then edit those conversations and during the show the actors speak those real words.
Traditionally in verbatim theatre, and in London Road and all my shows, the actors wear ear phones during the performance and copy the exact words of those interviewees [the ‘recorded delivery’ technique]. The idea of the earphones is to stop them from falling into their own speech patterns – they copy every ‘um’ ‘ah’ and stutter, every non-sequiter.
Why do you think you’re on the ‘purest’ end of the verbatim spectrum?
For me the advantage is the authenticity, which is first and foremost – I would find it difficult to write with that kind of truth and honesty. To me pure verbatim theatre is brilliant, joyful, and illuminating. There are frustrations with it – I find myself thinking ‘oh, gosh, if only they’d said that’, when things don’t link into the narrative. I’m at the mercy of what they say.
How central is the ‘recorded delivery’ technique to your performances? Do you think people come to watch for the story or the unusual method?
The plays are a combination of the technique and a good story. Up until my first show, Come up Eli, I’d worked on group projects: I’d take a theme like ‘love’ and go and interview people about it. The pieces were anecdotal – lots of talking heads, no narrative through line. It was just lots of funny different stories – very much about the technique.
Once my project was on ‘fear’ – there was a siege going on up the road from where I lived in Hackney . I had unwittingly walked into a story. I had, not by design, captured it – beginning, middle, and end. That project really put the technique out there purely because it had a story.
How do actors cope with adapting to the ‘recorded delivery’ technique?
People often ask what kind of actors you need for verbatim theatre and I say, just good actors. The performance is all plotted out for the actors: they’ve got to laugh there, do a sigh there – they have to, because it’s in the tapes. However, it takes more than just being a good mimic: if there’s a laugh, the laugh has got to be sprung, it’s got to be connected. It’s got to be felt. In a way they can’t control their emotions because they’re at the mercy of the tape.
It’s a very weird thing to think you can actually speak and listen at the same time, but most actors realise they can do it, despite being white with fear when I first introduce them to it in the rehearsal process. It’s harder with actors who have made a name for themselves and want to deliver a line in their own way to get a laugh or a certain reaction, when in fact I want them to deliver it exactly as it sounds on the tape. There’s something very liberating about giving yourself up to the tape and there’s less room in your head for actors’ thoughts like ‘oh that was really crap’. As soon as you start thinking about that you’ve missed the next line. Actors really love it – it can really lead to very ‘in the moment’ acting.
Do you see your verbatim method as a kind of reporting, like an alternative news gathering tool?
Yes, in a way it is. Although I would always say that I’m a dramatist before a journalist; it would be wrong and breaking all sorts of journalistic rules if people were to take too many factual things from my plays.
I do manipulate the material and there’s always the challenge of getting the balance between being faithful to these interviewees and thinking in dramatic terms. For that reason I always say when I’m interviewing people that I work in quite a journalistic way but it’s not, first, journalism.
You said in a recent interview that your area in East London is being overrun with ‘coffee shops selling cappuccinos for £3’, and that your show highlights the gap that has emerged between rich and poor. Do you see evidence of this divide in the demographic of your audiences?
I think the best audience we can hope for is not all three-pound-cappuccino drinkers but a mixed audience. These things take years and years to reach a wider audience. The best shows are when the audience reflects the cast we have on stage. I think Little Revolution went over my parents’ heads: ‘you don’t get voices like that in Suffolk’.
Do your plays have a social goal?
I suppose they do. They’re political with a small ‘p’ – I’m interested in the human experience more than why something happened, for instance the reason for the London Riots. I’m interested in ordinary people in extraordinary situations, because that’s when we really reveal our true colours.
You had to put yourself in some risky situations whilst interviewing for your play Little Revolution. Do you think verbatim theatre is revolutionising the concept of the playwright, out on the front-line rather than tucked away in a study?
Sometimes when I meet people they say ‘Oh, I didn’t expect you to look like that’. People think that playwrights are nerdy and introspective, but actually you have to be very bright if you’re going to get people to talk to you. I seem to slip into an interviewer persona in trying to get people to talk to me. I try to create an environment in which people don’t feel they’ll be judged and feel at ease.
You’re making a film of London Road, aren’t you?
Yes, it’s written and shot already. The film is much more active than the show of London Road; the first thing the producers told me was: ‘You don’t have long conversations in film Alecky – it’s all action, action, action’. So I had to kill lots of babies and make it very active. It still has a sort of theatrical quality – sort of like a documentary.
What do you think of other recent verbatim theatre?
I think the one that really stood out for me was The Permanent Way by David Hare, which came out around the same time that I was making my first play. I think what was exciting about it was that Hare didn’t know where he was going with it when he started. I think those are the interesting ones, rather than somebody waving their political agenda and stamping their opinion all over it. It’s much more interesting to go in not knowing – you discover it as you journey through, and allow all those voices to speak.
Alecky Blythe’s film London Road will be out next spring