Bonsai Songify: the verbatim playwright as ‘App’.

August 22, 2011

Most of us know songify. It’s an ‘app’ that allows you to speak any old crap into your phone, which is then magically transformed into a song with a range of generic backings. It “…turns speech into music, automatically!” Devised by Khush and popularised by  the Gregory Brothers, certain examples of songify have gone viral, though some of them are fake, or reworked in such detail that they sound way better than the simple version you can get on your iphone.

Can't hug every cat

Is that what a playwright working in verbatim form does? Turn any old chat on any given topic, by any given group into something that both maintains and transforms the qualities inherent in the original? (and what’s the ‘original’ anyway?)

Or is it like floral design? Certain elements (blooms, stems, leaves) are removed from the place where they’ve organically grown, and are arranged into a “pleasing and balanced composition” in a new space, in a new vessel, becoming something that resembles, but is clearly not, the ‘natural’. It is ephemeral. It will look great for a little while, but will wither and die.

The raw materials of verbatim, are, by definition, apparently not good enough to stage on their own, unaltered, and yet the process of their transformation mustn’t kill them, so are we talking bonsai?

One of the first examples of Japanese literature from about the year 970 comes the first lengthy work of fiction in Japanese,Utsubo Monogatari (The Tale of the Hollow Tree), which includes this passage: “A tree that is left growing in its natural state is a crude thing. It is only when it is kept close to human beings who fashion it with loving care that its shape and style acquire the ability to move one.”

..or is it time to stop using  wiki-metaphors and start talking about what writing processes actually occurred in the writer-led (rather than group-led) transition of ‘Please Be Seated’ from Draft 1 to Draft 2?

The Process: Draft 1

In the weeks after the performance, one of the devising cast put together a script, post performance, drawing on rehearsal room notes, written transcripts, exchanges in the group’s social media and the video of the performance. She did it in her holidays.

This focussed on the verbatim text, with brief staging notes intended for somebody who was already familiar with the work. This was about 15 pages long. When read out loud, text-only, it took 12 minutes.

New interviews

New interviews were collected, based in some questions I had prepared, which focussed on early experience of romantic love. I felt that if I were to take carriage of the next stage as a writer, the work needed some kind of direction. Therefore I chose to further the ‘love, adrenalin and transitions’ with a chronological approach – formed into around 10 questions – what were their recollections of  these three phenomena [‘love, adrenalin and transitions’] in their childhoods, early adolescence, and current experience?

And, getting closer to the ‘now’, what of times in relationships when things were going OK, or ‘on the turn’? These questions aimed to fill in gaps, or open up new possibilities for the play to explore.

5 of the original cast of 12 got involved in these interviews, which they conducted themselves, in two small group sessions at which I was not present.  It resulted in around an hour’s audio.



Unlike last time, I transcribed the interviews, with a playwright’s ear. Time didn’t allow transcription in their entirety, so I listened to all the audio, looking for responses that worked as ‘chunks’ of storytelling. I noted as I listened that the group picked and chose which questions they would respond to, and felt no need to address all that was being asked of them. So the editing of the work has begun.  I also noted a familiar type of  intimacy and trusting rapport they had with each other. These interviewees knew each other well, and knew what might happen to the material. I also noticed they said the word ‘like’ a lot.

More interviews would have been handy, I guess, but I thought it made sense to work with (former) students who were intrinsically interested and had time in their schedule, than young people who either weren’t interested, or didn’t have the time. Others contributed material or encouragement later on via Facebook. I had permission to organise and develop the material, but I had no playwright’s vision as far as a ‘dramatic meaning’ went, and little opportunity to further consult the devisers of the source text.  Naturally I suspected the movement from the past to the ‘now’ would provide some momentum, and the style of intimate personal storytelling had the potential to be valedictory. But I wasn’t sure.

Making Scenes: Sorting and grouping the verbatim material

It was now my task to combine and sort material that came from the interviews. Following on from the initial devising process, I felt no need to group these according to a predetermined ‘moral’ or narrative thrust, so I just took a chronological approach: early experience to more recent experience. There’s a natural implication that one may influence the formation of the other, but exactly how I left to the material. I’m always thinking of Erik Erikson’s stages at times like this, but not in a direct way.

I gave the sections working titles. The ‘chair’ sequences were used to mirror and frame these sequences, including and developing old ones as well as introducing new ideas. I felt freer with these sections, that my duties as writer/director could be exercised more freely in providing the best possible platform for the verbatim material. Like a nice vase can lift a floral arrangement, perhaps. OK, stop with the metaphors.

Within the scenes: Sequencing subsections

Now with the verbatim text tossed into around 10 ‘vats’ associated with a particular time or event (e.g. first kiss etc) I began to sort and sequence the material in order of appearance in each scene. Sometimes this was just about topping and tailing with something strong that might lead into or out of the adjacent section. Sometimes longer stories were broken up and ‘threaded through’ the scene, providing a point of focus for the scene. But really I just followed my instinct, in the knowledge that it was ‘a draft’ and could be ‘fixed* later’ if necessary. (*whatever that means)

I’d decided not to name the ‘characters’. I’m not sure that I could have done it accurately anyway as I wasn’t sure to whom, exactly, the first set of interviews belonged. This enabled the continuance of the ‘role protection’ – that the stories couldn’t be individually associated with the originating artists – but also lends freedom of interpretation to both the writer’s process of adaptation, and the next cast’s abilities as interpreters of the text. Therefore all the characters were named WOMAN, apart from certain sections where one story was threaded through – this was indicated with asterisks* And obviously the man was calledMAN.

The original script the nomenclature took a similar approach, coded by numbers, but significantly each female character was referred to as ‘GIRL’. I felt that, given the piece was intended for late adolescents/young adult performers (and now that some of the stories referred to early childhood), that WOMAN was a more appropriate moniker. The writer of a verbatim piece makes an executive decision, and not for the first time.


Lots of questions?

At this stage, the writer of the verbatim work is a special kind of custodian. There is a duty to honour the source material, and yet their ‘writerly’ duty is neglected if they don’t use their skills to organise and frame it well; for it to transcend what it was before. Where, then does the task of the writer begin and end?

Can the writer include transcribed audio from the interviews that wasn’t intended for broadcast? There were some natural reactions to the storytelling in the interview audio that were so lifelike and sparkling I felt that had to be included in Draft 2 of the script. Thus at certain moments duologue peeks in to the monologue’s domination. The characters ‘react’ to each others stories. I derived these moments wholesale from the audio, without editing them.

Can the writer include their own material in the work? During the devising process, sharing the stories on which the project was based, (and working as a co-artist with the group) my own stories naturally came into play from time to time. Occasionally the group deliberately put them on the agenda for inclusion in the performance, but I discouraged this, felt it wasn’t quite ‘right’. I’m in a completely different age bracket, and as I’ve noted before in this blog, there’s inequity in the power balance of our working relationship. Notably, the material wasn’t derived from interviews.  Is it more or less ‘dishonest’ for the writer to respond themselves to questions they’ve posed, and for the material to end up in the play?

Is the writer, by selecting a particular kind of structural conceit (in this case,  forward chronology) forcing their own agenda onto the work? I’ve been actively avoiding this, but I expect there will be other readings of the work, and assumptions made of the agenda behind it. If it’s any good, a play should inspire multiple readings.

The play has no ending. There is no time for more interviews. Should it be imposed, be suggested, or emerge? Actually Draft 2 has four endings. The original ending, a new one derived from a final question posed to the original devisers on Facebook related to the symbol of the chair, and a couple of other possibilities which are proposed, but not complete. I’ve designed these to allow the new cast to select and interpret the verbatim material of the original cast. In this way the verbatim theatre form can close in on itself in a final loop. The new cast act not only as interpreters, but as writer/editors of the source text. Potentially it could create a new kind of ownership, or it mightn’t work at all. I think I have to draw the line at the new cast injecting new material into the work.

Can the writer change the title of the work, after it has been agreed upon by the original group? Listening to the audio, and shifting around and reformatting the source text, it’s hard not to notice the number of ‘likes’ in the monologues. My computer tells me there are 206 of them (3% of the entire text) It’s a natural and contemporary verbal tic. We all use it, while we’re waiting for the next thought to drop in, and ensure that we continue to hold the attention of our addressee. Some use it,  like… more than others. “’Please be Seated’ is… like..about love.” Like love. “Like Love”… there’s a double meaning in the title, it’s sweetly reflexive. It’s pleasing to me as a writer and strikes me as a better title… but that’s one I’d better defer to the group. Maybe there are more important things to be going on with.

These questions (and the many to come) are answered by the writer’s own ethical framework, informed by the established agreement with the group (originators of the source material), and most importantly, the nature of the artwork itself, which has begun to take on its own character and behaviours. These complexities can be brutally simplified by time constraints. Draft 2 of ‘Please be Seated’ was completed in three weeks flat.  It’s 29 pages long. It’s been printed. It’s transformed trees into bleached paper with black marks on in that humans read.  It’s real. It’s about to be read by the new cast.  There’s not been time to stop and smell the flowers.



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