Oscar Wilde once suggested that life imitates art far more often than art imitates life. In its drive to find expression, art offers life a way to do so with beauty and impact.
Dr Sarah Peters’ research in Verbatim Theatre, which uses the words of real people, rests precisely at this intersection.
A playwright, theatre practitioner and Senior Lecturer in Drama at Flinders University, Dr Peters came to Verbatim while doing her PhD in Toowoomba, Queensland, and was commissioned (with support of funding from the Regional Arts Development Fund and Medicare Local) to write a play for a medical conference.
“They liked the idea of how Verbatim Theatre starts by interviewing people about a topic or an event and recording those conversations and then uses those stories in the development of the play,” Dr Peters says.
“They were really interested in young people's experience of accessing mental health support.”
The result was a creative performance at a conference.
It was a hit, so much so that the Empire Theatre in Toowoomba commissioned a rewrite. The play called twelve2twentyfive performed a local school tour with the Empire and support from Headspace national youth mental health foundation.
The Verbatim experience became more personal with Dr Peters’ next play, bald heads and blue stars, about the female experience of alopecia, a hair loss condition she has.
“I had interviewed 15 women from across Queensland. I flew up to Cairns and Mackay, and I drove out to Longreach to interview them.”
Interviewing 15 people results in many thousands of words, a formidable challenge when crafting a play of an hour or so. Dr Peters gently rebukes the suggestion that it is an “editing” job.
“I think of my role very much as an artist and as a playwright even when working with people’s verbatim. When I sit down and have a chat with somebody, the questions that I ask and my demeanour and the way that I respond to their stories are all a part of my creative practice.
“It informs the way that they would tell me a story compared to the way that they would tell another person that story.
“And so, I feel like my hand, or my voice as an artist is present even from that initial community immersion.”
Dr Peters says that some dialogue does come straight from interview to stage via the page.
Slowly the medium is losing the stereotype of being minimalistic, a circle of actors sitting on chairs speaking directly to the audience.
“Now there are quite a lot of verbatim works that are highly theatrical – there's even verbatim-based musicals – but Verbatim Theatre methodologies do bring the sense of actuality. There's something about it that feels actual and real.”
She says the unifying aspect of her projects can be expressed in three questions: What matters to people? How can that be written into performance? And how does it help?
Currently she is working on community-engaged projects in Adelaide.
“I am working with young people and youth ensembles to figure out how they want to tell stories about themselves, and the things that they care about and the things that matter to them and what it means for people to be able to tell their stories.
“I also want to know what it means in the foyer afterwards, to be able to have conversations about those things that matter to them and their lived experiences and what that does to our sense of belonging and connection and understanding of our places in the world.”
Her works sometimes deliver powerful impacts to those involved. In the case of bald heads and blue stars, it helped people feel less alone.
“All of them expressed this sense of being aware that they were part of a larger community and that had a positive impact for them.
“Another impact is that there's something beautiful about art and how it can convey an experience and an emotion. And so that the burden of that doesn’t have to fall on those individual women. The play could take the burden.”
Oscar Wilde would have understood.
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