Building Character | Jeff Redman

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“Whose story gets told?” was the opening question as we started our final workshop, Verbatim Theatre. Verbatim is a form of documentary theatre that began to work its way into the mainstream with The Laramie Project by Moises Kaufman and Tectonic Theatre Project in 2000. As it sounds, Verbatim Theatre takes word for word accounts, either through interviews or transcripts and turns it into theatre. Verbatim isn’t simply about transcribing accurate statements though; it’s also about capturing the essence of the speaker.

Having encountered some foundational lessons from a colleague at a theatre conference, I knew Verbatim was something I wanted to try with high school students. I’ve never instructed Verbatim Theatre before, but the idea of using it as a tool to teach playwriting and acting was exciting. How would they respond to a style of theatre that asked them to transcribe and then re-create?

With YouTube and the Internet, information about Verbatim is just a few keystrokes away. Clips, news reports and background from London Road, The Exonerated, and My Name is Rachel Corrie, are available and were the first step in exposing the students to Verbatim.

After a task to research Matthew Shepard and his murder in Laramie, Wyoming, we watched The Laramie Project. Even though some of the production seems dated to the students, as they come of age in a time where we are legitimately discussing and making progress in the area of GLBT equity, they were entranced by the story and the theatrical treatment.

It was their turn. We began with the basics – the familiar warm up routine, some stretches, vocal exercises and some ensemble games and moved into very early Verbatim exercises.   They took turns telling simple stories – a favorite vacation, a time they felt alone – and then were to repeat them back as accurately as possible to their partner. For the students the early Verbatim exercises were a little off putting and some commented that it seemed too simplistic – just listening and repeating. How could we put together a whole production of just listening and repeating, they wondered. It was time to get to the focus of the studio portraying the story of another person.

They paired off and went to work. For five minutes one partner told a story about a time they felt vulnerable. The instruction for the other partner was simply to listen. Not just with their ears, but with their eyes and their body. At this early stage of the Verbatim process we’re less concerned with accurate transcription than being open to another person. As an actor it is the essence of creating a character.

Once they were done with their storytelling, they had a few minutes to sit down with their journals and transcribe everything they remembered. What was the gist of the story? How did their partner’s voice sound? What did she do with their hands? Where did she look? Could they read any subtext? Did she stall, stutter, or pause?

They then had a few minutes to mull over what they just experienced and as they worked I set a bench at the center of our space. I called the whole class over and we sat as an audience. I reminded them again that it wasn’t an exercise in getting every word exact, but about getting as many nuances of the story as they could.

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A leap forward
In past lessons I have had them read monologues, play excerpts, have seen them on stage in the fall production, but like many young actors in an education setting they are always a little bit stilted.  A little bit by the book and sometimes stereotypical, they are beginning actors after all.  So, I was surprised and fascinated with what happened next.

One of my grade 10 students, who is fearless at improvisation, took her seat on the bench and paused. She looked down at the ground and exhaled. Her shoulders relaxed and rolled back a bit as she leaned forward. Her head slowly tilting to the side as she raised her head. I had seen her perform a dozen different characters in the classroom and onstage, but this was different. Her eyes were different. Her face was relaxed; she was no longer trying to force an expression that she believed would generate the most positive response from her peers.

Slowly she began, her voice down an octave, telling a story about the time she was left alone in the apartment in Vegas as the police were going door-to-door looking for a suspect. She stopped and cleared her throat and began again. Pausing and repeating words, sometimes stuttering. Her shoulders and eyebrows twitching as she came to a particularly tense moment in the story. We watched her relive this moment.

The thing is, she has never been to Vegas, and she has never been terrified of the police finding her under the table in the kitchen. But we bought it. I could see it, she was no longer the girl who enjoyed playing multiple outrageous characters during improvisation, changing at the drop of a hat, she was an actress diving into a role. Observing and recreating, listening and portraying, looking for that spark that brings truth to the stage. She had become her classmate.

And it wasn’t just her. In one workshop, the span of 85 minutes, the transformation was remarkable. Student after student took the bench and began their monologue, some crossed their legs, some leaned back. There were pauses and a rhythm that I had not seen before. The level of focus and concentration was intense. Each and every one of them brought something new to that bench. I hadn’t given them that instruction and it wasn’t something I modeled, but it happened naturally.

When we debriefed the exercise, it was interesting to discover that they didn’t feel a fear of acting in front of the class as they normally do when they have to deliver a monologue. They felt a fear of offending or of not accurately representing their peer. The stakes had been raised and they no longer cared about being embarrassed they cared about not being…true.

“That was fun” I heard on of them say on their way out the door, “I know, right? I loved it, I hope we get to do it again tomorrow.”

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