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Edinburgh Fringe: verbatim takes centre stage

By Andrew Thomas

Updated on 08 August 2010

As Edinburgh Fringe festival kicks off, over 2,000 shows will be performed daily between now and the end of August. Comedy, music and fictional drama are the mainstays, but Andrew Thomas finds another genre is becoming increasingly common - the 'verbatim play'.

Edinburgh Fringe kicks off this weekend, with a month of performances ahead (Image: Getty)

Verbatim theatre is a form of documentary theatre in which plays are constructed from the precise words spoken by people interviewed about news events in which they were involved.

It has had success on the London stage with plays like Deep Cut about suicides at a youth detention centre, and Black Watch - the National Theatre of Scotland's play about soldiers in Iraq.

The genre is now prevalent at the grassroots level of theatre too.

As Tim Dibden of The Stage says: "Verbatim theatre has been around for donkey's years [but] in the last five years it's come into prominence; this year it's entered the vernacular of the playwright."

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The Fringe Festival's organiser Kath Mainland points out that despite the Fringe festival having no central programming policy - its open-access - trends do appear:

"It is interesting how themes or similar kinds of work quite often emerge as having a place in a particular year, and I think that's probably true of verbatim plays this year."

This year's festival boasts eighteen plays describing themselves as 'verbatim'.

Pedal Pusher tells the story of Lance Armstrong's rise to the top of the cycling world and his battle against cancer.

Writer and Director Roland Smith says: "Living in the information age, you can access those moments in time immediately. During our rehearsal period, when we were recreating the actual races on stage we would actually call them up on YouTube, look at the physicality of the cyclists, look at the news reports, look at what the cyclists said in news conferences afterwards.

"We can do that from the rehearsal room on a laptop...that access to the information and the archives of the real events means this work is easier to produce."

The Day the Sky Turned Black is a part-verbatim piece about 2009's Bushfires in Australia; among others, actress Ali Kennedy-Scott plays a television reporter who she interviewed about her experiences: "It really struck me that these people's stories were so powerful that they stood on their own as a theatrical piece" she says.

Lockerbie: Unfinished Business is David Benson's portrayal of Jim Swire, whose daughter died in the 1988 terrorist attack: "There are certain transcripts from the trial that I use, which are much more shocking when the audience knows that they are verbatim.

"It is almost unbelievable that some of the exchanges that took place in court were allowed to pass and that Megrahi t was convicted on the strength of these really quite laughable exchanges in court".

Alecky Blythe, a pioneer of verbatim theatre, is directing Do we look like refugees?! which describes the experiences of those fleeing the war in Georgia in early 2009.

The actors in her production wear headsets on stage through which they hear and then repeat the exact words of interviewees: "It just becomes very powerful when you realise that these are the real words of people. And it's evident that they the real words because they've got all the stutters - you simply wouldn't be able to write like that. So it's just very effective and immediate."

Molly Naylor's play is purer still. She was in one of the tube trains that was blown up on July 7th; in Whenever I Get Blown Up I Think Of You she is both actress and interviewee. 

With so many productions on every day, the need to stand out from the crowd is paramount at the Edinburgh Fringe. Those involved in verbatim plays hope their format will do it.

The 2010 Edinburgh Fringe runs from 6-30 August. The Fringe Box Office opened Friday 11 June. Tickets can be booked at www.edfringe.com or by calling +44(0)131 226 0000.

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