I’m very interested in how we translate real life stories into theatre and performance. My ideas about this process were well and truly put to the test whilst developing ‘Lost in Memories’ (a performance about dementia). Working with health stories has raised many ethical and creative questions for me. I can’t claim that I have all the answers, but I hope that sharing my thoughts may help others working on similar projects.
Verbatim vs composite stories
During ‘Lost in Memories’ I thought a lot about the merits of verbatim stories (using people’s real words) vs composite stories (creating new characters or narratives based on elements of reality). There are definitely pros and cons to both approaches.
There is no doubt that the use of verbatim text lends a certain power and weight to a performance. Within health particularly, I have found that there is a degree of respect attributed to personal stories. Verbatim text also allows people to retain control over their own words. One issue with verbatim work is that it can be hard for people to retain their anonymity. During ‘Lost in Memories’ people were happy to have their stories attributed to them, however that isn’t always the case. Even when names are taken out of a story, other more subtle details may make it recognisable.
I would say that composite stories allow for a little more creative freedom. You are able to pick out themes and bring them to life with elements of truth, rather than faithfully retelling a particular event or story. One downside of this approach is that people may feel that their words have been changed too much, or that the new narrative does not accurately reflect what happened to them. The process of adapting people’s words is delicate and needs to be managed carefully.
It’s important to me that people feel comfortable with how their experiences are portrayed in my work. A couple of years ago I saw a great presentation by Dr. Helena Enright from Bath Spa University. She talked about giving her collaborators ‘right of red pen’ when it comes to their own stories. I’ve tried to stick to that principle too. Helena has written about her own practice when working with ‘other people’s words’. I would definitely recommend her work.
The only time I have been unable to use the ‘red pen principle’ was whilst working on the Severe Pressure Ulcer (SPU) study. The SPU project used anonymised, qualitative research data. The consent process did not allow for me to contact the person who had been interviewed. This made me feel a little uncomfortable. With this example we had to work very hard to ensure that we removed any recognisable elements, in order to truly protect anonymity. We had to be respectful of the original consent given and the boundaries of that consent. I also worked with a collaborator who had personal experience of the health condition which the data focused on. I believe that her personal experience helped to ensure that I remained respectful of a story which was outside of my own experiences.
People’s perspective on their stories can change over time. The way you tell the same story may differ as you reflect on events and experience new things. I once helped a group of patients write stories about their experiences of pain. One of those people later said that she felt slightly uncomfortable reading out her own story at a live event. Although she was originally happy with the written account, she felt that her perspective on that situation had changed as she moved further away from it. Even when people give permission for their stories to be shared via performance, it’s possible they feel uncomfortable with the version of themselves they see moths or years later.
Art is very subjective. Audiences can dislike a performance for many different reasons. I’ve been performing for a long time and it’s still hard when you get a negative response! Helen Enright also spoke about audience responses can have an impact on collaborators. I think it’s really important to consider this, particularly when people are sharing very personal stories. You can’t control an audience’s response, but you can help to prepare and support you collaborators.