Ubu Theater’s Ann Gallo reports on a recent oral history theatre workshop in London

This community based theater director in Tyringham plans a 2020 production

Have you ever encountered that feeling of relief when you accidentally stumble upon your Tribe? When you find yourself in a group of people with the same mindset, secret language and no need to explain what it is you are doing? Magically it happened to me whilst on a trip to London, attending a daylong workshop at the British Library entitled, “Transcript to Script – Use of Oral History in Theatre”. [1]

Having cued for a half hour outdoors on a brisk, spring British morning, finally we walked through the doors to one of the world’s most remarkable libraries. We all filed into this impressive building, casually walking past the room housing the Magna Carta, Beethoven’s original, hand-written score of his String Quartet in C sharp minor and the Gutenberg Bible, among others. From students to scholars everyone was quickly absorbed into the corridors, stacks of books, halls and secret rooms of the British Library. My destination was the National Life Stories headquarters in the Conservation Wing.

            After navigating the endless series of challenging automatic doors, traversing several floors and levels, I finally found myself in a muffled lobby with what I believed to be a few of my workshop-mates. And indeed they were. Being somewhat of an introvert I kept to myself but really, I was eavesdropping. Who were these people with the same odd need to be educated on turning an oral history recording into a script? How many of us are there on this planet? Well, about twelve…and mostly from the UK, except me. None of the awkward “nice to meet you” comments. Rather, “Have you read so-and-so? Did you see the production of such-and-such? Oh, where is the loo?” I knew these were my people.

At the stroke of 10 a.m., more doors opened, we were seamlessly ushered into a large window-less, beige room with tables pushed together to create a circle/square (it’s a theatre thing, sitting in circles). Of course everyone had already put their belongings down on the chairs farthest away from the moderator, therefore I ended up having to sit directly to his right. That was fine. I couldn’t hide.

After introductions and explanations on when lunch and tea would take place, the workshop began. We went ‘round the room introducing ourselves including the reason we were attending the workshop. Everyone…everyone was preparing to write a play based on oral history interviews they were conducting in their respective communities. One gentleman was going to turn his interviews into poetry theatre. Another woman was in the midst of interviewing refugees in her town after a recent racial profiling event that had made the national news. My turn came and I summarized my Women of Tyringham project. No one looked at me quizzically with raised brows or a follow-up question. They totally understood the project. I knew I was in the right place.

How common is oral history theater

The first part of the workshop covered the history of oral history theatre primarily from a UK perspective (no surprise there). Influencers, productions and theaters included Brecht (ok, a German guy), BBC radio ballads, Joan Littlewood’s “Oh What a Lovely War!”, “The Knotty” by Peter Cheeseman at Victoria Theatre at Stoke, the National Theatre, Colway Theatre Trust, and Age Exchange[2], to name a few. Frankly, this was an incredible list with oral history theatre origins spanning from the early 1900’s to the present…at least in the UK and Europe. In the U.S. one of the few theaters doing this type of work is the Tectonic Theater Project, based out of NYC. “The Laramie Project” is their most well-known play. Other than Tectonic’s work, oral history in the US seems to rarely make it to the stage. This continues to give me pause. Kudos to the Brits for their innate creativity. For the workshop participants, this dramatic treatment was normal.

Following the historical overview, we watched several short videos of dramatized oral history theatre plays. These proved to be invaluable visuals as they illustrated a variety of treatments one can choose when deciding how to dramatize interviews. I highly recommend watching the Youtube link found on footnote 2.

But the big question to ponder is why use oral history in theatre? The Oral History Society’s response is, “Authenticity of content…expression…giving a public voice to the participants…giving a public voice to those the participants represent more widely.”[3]

The Heart of it: the Forms

We were then introduced to what I found was the heart of the workshop, the eight Forms one can use to structure and write a script. According to the Oral History Society the Forms include using background information and some verbatim quotes; oral history acknowledged as basis of script with a mix of verbatim dialog and fictional characters; “strict” documentary drama in which the dialogue comes from the transcript or other sources with as few alterations as possible and real names are used. More options include unscripted productions where participants tell their own stories and these are then developed for performance through improvisation often times with both the interviewees and actors performing. And yet other Forms are somewhere between ‘strict’ and ‘fiction’ or hybrids. My takeaway as to determining which Form to use is selecting one which reflects and fits your artistic/creative aesthetic as well as faithfully and truthfully mirroring the participating community’s character and voice.

The next step after determining the Form is Telling the Story. First step is the preliminary research and interviews. After the material has been collected and transcribed, it’s time to determine the story you want to tell. Don’t get too specific at this point. The process of writing a script and bringing in characters will cause the pending story to take on a life of its own. One should not pre-determine too much. Allow the creative process to form the story.

At this point shaping the script takes place. This entails taking notes on source material and then listing potential scenes pulled from the transcripts or other sources. Determining the appropriate venue/location of the play (I’m a fan of site-specific locations as they create a tactile, visceral space for both audience and performers). Other things to consider are potentially incorporating music, puppetry, projections, sound, props, movement or dance. How long a play? How many characters? Who will perform? Community or seasoned actors?

One key point is that oral history theatre is not naturalistic. It’s not the classic format we are used to seeing by the typical white male playwright. Rather, it’s more like a dance piece. People, places, things, encounters, tragedies, etc. happen in an improvisationally logical and time-transcendent way…if that makes sense. Telling the same story from many points of view is intrinsically fast-paced and often chaotic. To dramatize this variety of views requires elasticity, taking risks and a high level of trust that the audience has a creative imagination. Despite all this, what grounds this loosely Brechtian style of storytelling is that it is based on truth.

Speaking of truth, it was emphasized to the workshop participants that we must include in the production programs a contract with the audience. They must understand the process and nature of the story. (…not the story of… but a story of…). For example, explaining the use of direct quotes from interviewees, sourced references, fictionalized characters, etc. This allows the audience to experience the performance in the appropriate context and without confusion.

And finally, once a script is “ready,” in whatever form the playwright determines, the rehearsal process begins. This is where the magic happens. I was excited to hear that encouraging the interview contributors to attend or even participate in rehearsals was highly encouraged. They are living resources with whom the actors and director can turn to when (and they will) things go off the tracks. In my mind, better yet, have some of the contributors be actors in the production.

A surprise assignment

And the last portion of the workshop was hands-on scripting by the workshop participants. Before lunch we were handed several pages of transcribed text from four interviews of coal miners from the north of England. The transcriptions were pure, exactly as they sounded, not cleaned up to be readable. So, while eating a sandwich I read the handouts and eventually wandered back to the workshop at 1pm. What a shocking surprise awaited.

When we returned from our lunch we were instructed to grab several sheets of blank white paper and have a seat. Then, we were asked to hand-write a short script of dialogue including stage directions, set, music and/or projection notes using any dialogue we could extract from the handouts. This was to be completed within the next half hour. Imagine your having to read five pages of cockney text from several interviews with the mind-set of extracting some of the content and creating a short script of dialogue, oh, in thirty minutes. Panic set in. That exam, pit-in-your-stomach moment. Every last one of us felt this. After a few beats of silence off we went, scribbling away. But isn’t this why we all came to this workshop? Ahem.

With the writing stage over, we hesitantly handed in our quasi-illegible drafts. These were photocopied and handed back out. After hearing our script read out loud a peer/moderator critique would take place. The photocopies appeared and the pile placed on the table. I took a look and whose script was on the top of the pile?! Mine, of course. I assigned roles from my script to folks around the table.The poor souls proceeded to stumble through my draft. My script notes such as,  “Go to A on the back of page 2 and then go to B on the back of the same page” wreaked havoc but they got through it a second time. I don’t remember my critique as I was still recovering from the reading. I think it went all right. Overall everyone produced a combination of successes and failures. I guarantee every last one of us gained an incredible amount from that fraught exercise.

And then it was over. After the twelfth critique took place, workshop evaluation forms were filled out and we dispersed. No hugs. No long goodbyes. Just back to our regular lives. Not since I handed in my Masters thesis several years ago had I walked out of a room feeling so empowered. For months my thought bubbles (imagine Pig Pen’s dust or Eyore’s cloud) had been a celestial swirl of text, images, characters, set ideas and potential music. The tornado of content wouldn’t settle into place. After this workshop experience the pieces of my project “Women of Tyringham – Experiences of the Fifty-one Percent” are only now gently and slowing settling into a creative yet undetermined order.

Ann Gallo



[2] link to a documentary on the creation of Reminiscence Theatre  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5I9vfxyOmVY

[3] Handout outline for “Transcript to Script – Use of Oral History in Theatre” workshop, April 3, 2019. Oral History Society ℅ Department of History, Royal Holloway, University of London

Written by Judith

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