From Oral History Transcript to Theatrical Script (blog 5)

From Transcript to Script (blog 5)

“The collection of transcribed interviews is the raw material and the art lies in the imaginative structuring, editing, sifting, and shaping of this material into a coherent and performable script.”
- Pam Schweitzer, Reminiscence Theatre, p 46.

I have been reading Pam Schweitzer’s Reminiscence Theatre: Making Theatre from Memories (2007) over the Spring Break. The book is the culmination of her 23 years experience as artistic director of Age Exchange Theatre in the United Kingdom, creating 30 original reminiscence theatre productions during that time. The book provides a useful ‘how to’ taking us from original concept, interviewing, scripting, rehearsal, and public performance. What I found most interesting about her approach is that she includes actors in the interviewing process and interviewees in the rehearsal process. As part of the scripting and rehearsal process, for example, actors take scenes back to the interviewees as a group. This reciprocal relationship strikes me as a promising way to extend the shared authority of the interview through the “Oral History and Performance” process.

As I understand it, Reminiscence Theatre differentiates itself from Verbatim Theatre in so far as its focus is on the elderly who are both the source community of the stories being told and the public audience. The stories are recorded during “Group Reminiscence Sessions” which resemble the “memory workshops” that oral historians sometimes conduct with small circles of interviewees. The groups here (20-25) are larger and usually occur in homes for the aged. Music and projected slides of old photographs are used to prompt remembering and to create a relaxed atmosphere. Common memories quickly emerge and there is great joy in remembering. Reminiscence Theatre seems to have been influenced by drama therapy, as the therapeutic value of remembering is emphasized.

Schweitzer notes that the recorded stories are often chalk full of dialogue, as workshop participants perform their stories in a he said/she said kind of way. For Schweitzer, “The switches they made between narration and approximately remembered dialogue were so natural that I could readily imagine transforming the types of recalling into a performable play text, with story-telling and enactment side by side.” (p.24) In other words, people often remember in direct speech – making it considerably easier to translate to the stage.

The script takes shape from the transcribed “key stories” recorded during these Reminiscence Sessions. According to Schweitzer, “We met up to talk about what they’d found, and on huge pieces of wallpaper lining paper, we all noted down the stories we thought would make the strongest scenes.” (p 30) These scenarios are then integrated into a script with a strong central narrative, much like storyboarding a digital story. Among the strategies discussed by Schweitzer are (1) looking for fragments of dialogue in the transcript when interviewees remember in direct speech, (2) flashbacks, (3) the incorporation of period music or photos, and (4) direct storytelling – “Sometimes a very effective use of verbatim speech is simply to have a piece of monologue in which a whole story is told by one performer in character direct to the audience.” (p47)

One of the added values of this participatory “transcript to script” approach is that it enables us to retain the life history context. Just as oral historians have counselled us against simply “mining for quotes”, but to listen for the deeper significance in people’s lives, it is important that our performance-based inquiry work on many levels to explore our shared humanity.

Cheers, Steve High