How is verbatim theatre like a live rock concert?


In his book Liveness, Philip Auslander cites Lawrence Grossberg who writes:

the importance of live performance lies precisely in the fact that it is only here that one can see the actual production of the sound, and the emotional work carried in the voice. It is not the visual appearance of rock that is offered in live performance but the concrete production of the music as sound. (204)

He goes on to say that “the concert answers the question raised implicitly by the recording” (Auslander 83). It is a fascinating idea to separate the aural and the visual in terms of how these two channels carry authenticity markers differently. Grossberg argues that live sound is characterized as authentic for a number of possible reasons. First, that sound is the principal context in which rock is made available to the majority of its fans. Also in phenomenological terms, sound is immersive and inescapable in a way that the unidirectional visual is not. By contrast, “the eye has always been suspect in rock culture, after all, visually, rock often borders on the inauthentic” (Grossberg 204). Inauthentic here is, I think, intended to be read as ‘theatrical’ or ‘highly exaggerated’ or ‘unnaturally bold.’ (See Gord Downie’s flamboyant pink metallic leather suit above.) In a kind of oxymoron, visual authenticity in the rock genre lies in acknowledging the inauthenticity, owning the fact that authenticity is itself a construction, and any image is as good as any other consciously created image. “The only authenticity is to know and even admit that you are not being authentic, to fake it without faking the fact that you are faking it” (Grossberg 206). Grossberg calls this “authentic inauthenticity” (which I think is awesome in its meta-ness).

So back to the original question (which sounds a bit like one of those riddles: How is an elephant like a loaf of bread?): How is verbatim theatre like a rock concert?

Verbatim theatre, like the rock concert, is founded on the principle of authenticity. The primary attitude of the audience is desire for contact with something authentic. Moreover, the position of that authenticity in the two genres, I would argue, is the same in that verbatim audiences also locate transparent authenticity in aural elements and hypermediated authentic inauthenticity in the visual presentation. It is fascinating actually that verbatim/documentary theatre has elected to focus its attention on the verbal/aural. (Even to the name ‘verbatim.’) From its point of creation, the primary mechanism of making documentary theatre has been to transport verbal testimony to the stage where it is replayed/re-performed by the actors. The technology of choice for documentary theatre makers has been the microphone and recorder, rather than video camera and screen. (The only documentary theatre piece that I can think of that is dominantly visual rather than verbal is Lemon Bucket Orchestra’s Counting Sheep where video documentation of the 2014 Maidan protests in Kyiv is continuously projected on the back wall, providing the ‘text’ for the action that is replicated by the live performers and audience as it unfolds.) Once brought to the stage, the goal for the performers has been to replicate the collected sounds as accurately as possible, often reproducing not just the semantic sense but also non-semantic utterances, including filler noises (‘um’s and ‘ah’s) and pauses.

By contrast, little effort has been made in verbatim performances either in casting or in scenography to reproduce the visual aspects of the document. To some extent this is the result of the initial collection processes which prioritize words — both collected live in interviews, but also archival sources which are print (or at least they are print when they are ‘captured,’ like court transcripts which were oral at one point).

Two verbatim plays — Seeds (Porte Parole) and 300 Tapes (Public Recordings) — uphold this same pattern of authentic aurality and authentic inauthentic visuality, but perform these positions in different ways. In both plays, it is communicated to the audience that the text is ‘authentic’ being reproduced live from recordings made prior to performance. One marker of this authenticity is the marked visibility of the recording devices themselves. Annabel, the playwright/journalist character in Seeds and the three autobiographical speakers in 300 Tapes all hold recorders as their primary prop. For Annabel, the recorder exists in ‘the past’ featured in the re-enactment of her original conversations. For Frank, Joe, and Brendan, they hold their own player/recorders throughout as they are needed for the auto-reciting playback performance, but also like Annabel’s they function as fictional placeholders of the original moment of first recording. (There is lots more to say about strategies invoked by the plays to promote the sense of real-ness regarding the text.) Also it is worth noting particularly in 300 Tapes, the technique of auto-reciting also directs intense focus to the material aural qualities of the textual sounds and to the machines and actual analog magnetic tapes that store the sounds. The visibility of physical effort connects directly to Grossberg’s observation about the “emotional work” in the “actual production” of the sound in rock concerts.

With regard to the visual elements, the same pattern plays out as authenticity is generated through authentic inauthenticity in verbatim just as in a rock concert. One way this is accomplished in Seeds is through cross-casting. The real-world figure of Dr. Vandana Shiva is played by Bruce Dinsmore in a sari and earrings, and farmer Wesley Niebrugge is played by Mariah Inger in a bulky jacket and ball cap. It is a minor point but it speaks to the notion that the visual ‘owns’ its inauthenticity/theatricality and so redirects the authenticity to the process of theatre making. This same authentic inauthenticity is generated by the set, carpeted in green astroturf and populated by white coated lab technicians, rolling chairs, workbenches with swing-arm lamps, illuminated racks of yellow flowering canola seedlings, computer monitors, shelves with glass vials, and so on. All the trappings of a science lab. Seeds is not shy about displaying its theatricality as theatre. (Again so much more to say about this especially re: the authentic inauthenticity of the green screen technology used in the production . . . but no space here.)

300 Tapes takes a different approach to the authentic inauthenticity of the visual. The central device of this production is the ‘live’ auto-reciting of short autobiographical recordings/texts by the three actors. The scenography is completely stripped down exposing the theatre as theatre. The actors are wearing ‘street clothes,’ they sit in ordinary ‘found’ theatre chairs, the floor is just black-painted masonite. Arranged in the round (actually a triangle), we can see the audience members on the other side. By staging ‘not a set design,’ 300 Tapes taps into the authentic inauthenticity of performing a sort of slacker scenography of “not trying too hard.” (This is not all I want to say about the set design which is in many ways reminiscent of the inside spokes of a cassette tape and the tape itself but . . .)

Having made this connection between the transparently authentic aural and the hypermediated authentic inauthentic in verbatim theatre and rock concerts, the next question for me is about affect and ideology. How does the intense affect and ideological value of authenticity of rock concerts transfer to verbatim? Do the fans/audience desire the same thing? How do these different groups value authenticity? What does authenticity do differently in these different milieus? What ‘work’ is authenticity (and authentic inauthenticity) doing?


Works Cited

Auslander, Philip. Liveness: Performance in a Mediatized Culture. London and New York: Routledge, 1999.

Grossberg, Lawrence. “The Media Economy of Rock Culture: Cinema, Postmodernity and Authenticity” Sound and Vision: The Music Video Reader. eds. Simon Frith, Andrew Goodwin and Lawrence Grossberg. London and New York: Routledge, 1993. 185-209.




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