The Document as Music

Exploring the musicality of verbatim material in performance

David Roesner and Bella Merlin



In March and December 2016 we, Bella Merlin (University of California, Riverside) and David Roesner (LMU Munich), funded by the Centre for Advanced Research (CAS, LMU Munich),[1] embarked on a series of explorative workshops on the relationship between documentary material and its music-theatrical treatment.

We had several research imperatives, not least of which was the exploration of practice-as-research and/or practice-led research. Often referred to with the acronym PaR, practical research into performance often foregrounds visceral and experiential explorations over empirical and positivist (scientific) research. PaR has been gaining currency in the UK over the last twenty years, and its value in North American academies is also evident, with ‘creative activities’ for humanists (exhibitions, films, compositions, performances, etc.) considered a normal correlative to books, articles, patents, etc. Practice-led research is arguably less accepted as an academic methodology in Europe, where in many countries it is, for example, impossible to undertake a PaR MA or PhD project. It was, therefore, with immense gratitude that — courtesy of the CAS — we were able to create in Munich a four-week laboratory environment in which to test various ideas regarding the human voice and the musicality of daily speech through embodied and music-based études. The collaboration remit from CAS placed intellectual dialogue and artistic experiment at the heart of the research, and we were encouraged to privilege experimental process over performance result. Simon Jones’s description of his own research fellowship into Performing Documents at the University of Bristol echoes the premise of our experience: ‘We were clearly being invited to use the space as a laboratory, to try things out that were conceptual in the way that they were framed, coming from a position where we did not know what the outcome would be.’[2] Our own laboratory space facilitated, for us as artist-scholars, a liberating playfulness, if not a certain whimsy in our experimentation.

Fundamental research questions

As practice-based scholars, we were intrigued by the relationship between the content of human expression (what we say and how eloquently or otherwise we say it) and the naturally musical form of that expression (tempo, rhythm, melody, repetition, etc.). As music-based performers, we were also curious about the use of sound, less in terms of underscoring or musical accompaniment, but more in terms of its textural contribution to the experience of language both for the actor and for the audience. At first glance, it might seem that using strategies of underscoring, setting to music, sonically reworking, or adapting and morphing interview material sit uncomfortably with the ethics of seeking to use first-hand accounts on stage — often referred to as verbatim theatre (see below). In collating our research material, we were mindful to inform our interview participants (all of whom were friends or family) that we were exploring the ‘human voice as instrument’ and that their words might contribute to generating sonic scores and atmospheres rather than extensive documentary narratives on particular themes. In other words, it was not so much what they said as how they said it sonically and rhythmically that was guiding our practice-based exploration. (That said, it should be noted that they all generously provided fascinating answers in their interviews, and were extremely positive in their responses to our final études.) Our main research question was: how can musicalisation (see below for a definition) function in relation to interview material in performance and what findings can we observe in the process of experimenting with these? 

We had previously made some inroads toward this theme: in 2010 we had collaborated on a one-woman piece, Tilly No-Body, which Merlin had written and performed and for which Roesner provided sound design.[3] The play was based on actress Tilly Wedekind’s troubled relationship with famous and domineering playwright Frank Wedekind (writer of Spring Awakening, 1890-1). Merlin incorporated extracts from Tilly’s autobiography, words from Wedekind’s plays, and letters between the married couple, transforming the material not only into a monodrama, but also into a series of cabaret songs, inspired by Wedekind’s seminal introduction of this form of entertainment into Weimar Germany.[4] Merlin had also been part of several theatre productions, which fall under the categories of verbatim theatre and fact-based drama including David Hare’s The Permanent Way (2004) at the National Theatre and Lightwork’s Sarajevo Story (2008) at the Lyric Hammersmith, London.[5] Furthermore, we had both been impressed and inspired by the National Theatre’s bold production of London Road (2010),[6] which unusually brought together a seasoned verbatim practitioner (Alecky Blythe) with a composer (Adam Cork). This piece was based on first-hand interviews with the community in the town of Ipswich, responding to a series of killings of local sex workers in 2007. These verbatim interviews were transformed by Blythe and Cork, along with director Rufus Norris, into a genre-defying musical language.[7] Another important touchstone was Ted Hearne’s ‘modern-day oratorio’ The Source (2015), based on documentary material related to the Iraq War, to which we shall return. 

Finally, we had both noted a resurgence of practices and discourses surrounding documentary theatre or ‘theatre of the real’[8] in recent years, quite possibly in response to the tendencies of increasingly virtual and digital interactions with our Lebenswelt (‘lifeworld’, in Husserl’s sense[9]) in everyday life. We were attracted by the seeming incongruence between the ideas of truth and authenticity closely connected to the verbatim ethos[10] and that which is artificial, stylised, emotionally manipulative, perhaps even fake when associated with musicalisation, particularly in its popular form: the musical.

Before detailing our project, a few terms need clearer distinction. We use a non-essentialist notion of ‘music’ as an umbrella term that is historically and culturally contingent, and which can be summarized by Luciano Berio’s succinct yet slippery definition: ‘music is everything that one listens to with the intention of listening to music’[11] Considered in this vein, musicality is not a normative term used to describe someone’s creative/perceptive ability; nor is it what Mary Louise Serafine in her cognitive theory of music refers to as ‘music as trait’.[12] Rather, it is a dispositif referring to discourses, cultural practices, organisational structures, etc. that are musical or pertain to music. The term is not unlike the notion of theatricality in relation to — but not limited to — theatre.[13] Musicality thus points us to aesthetic forms, as well as modes of perception, cognition, or embodiment, that are informed by notions of music, while remaining well aware that these notions differ depending on historical and cultural context.[14] In a wider sense, musicality can be a quality of creating, with which one might approach any material. (Kandinsky’s approach to painting or Beckett’s approach to writing are examples of this.)[15] However, it may also be a quality of perception to be discovered or unearthed in phenomena, like John Cage hearing the New York traffic as music. Finally, musicalisation will be used here as a term to describe a conscious and intentional process of bringing forth or superimposing musical qualities — such as recognisable rhythmic or melodic qualities or distinct formal structures — in material, which is not conventionally seen as music per se: spoken text, gesture, movement, noises.

From our respective specialist perspectives and interest, we sought to explore this relationship of form and content through practical études based on a range of techniques and approaches. These were short improvisations or studies investigating different interplays between words and music, between live performance and recorded material. We filmed these experiments with the additional help and contribution of actor Miles Anderson (who had also directed Tilly No-Body) and presented them at a symposium Singing and Acting the Document on 16 December 2016 in Munich. In the following account, we will first of all outline the nature of our project in more detail, and then examine four of our études and their implications. Finally, we will aim to draw out some findings that derive from this study.

About the project

Early on, we realised two things: that we needed a theme for our practice-based explorations and that we wanted to generate original interview material. Rather than focusing on a particular community, event or social issue, as is often the motivating focus of fact-based or verbatim dramas, we decided to look at the theme of generations, their labels and their perceived characteristics. We were interested to find out how representatives of the three most recent broad demographic cohorts, namely the so-called baby boomers, Generation X and millennials[16] would speak to a range of topics. Given our respective backgrounds (Merlin is British and lives in the USA; Roesner is German and has lived in Britain), we also sought to find interview partners from each generation in each of the countries with which we were most familiar. In approaching the material that we generated, we had in mind the premise of narrative research as Ruthellen Josselson described it: 


We work with what is said and what is not said, within the context in which life is lived and the context of the interview in which words are spoken to represent that life. We then must decode, reorganise, recontextualise, or abstract that life in the interest of reaching a new interpretation of the raw data of experience before us.[17] 


From the outset, therefore, we were sceptical of the essentialist idea that an interview represents a lived experience that can be truthfully reported and interpreted. Instead, on the one hand, interviewees ‘are performing with us particular constructions of themselves in response to how we seem to them to be and what we have asked them to tell us about’,[18] and on the other we, ‘as researchers, “coproduce” the worlds of our research’.[19]

In our project, this meant that we were primarily listening for the musicality of voices[20] rather than seeking an emerging narrative (as touched upon earlier, and as was the case with Hare’s The Permanent Way or Blythe’s Come Out Eli). While, of course, we were intrigued to see if there were synchronous motifs or contrapuntal perspectives, our initial focus was on 'the individual instruments'. We then devised a set of questions that we hoped would provide a snapshot into how our interviewees positioned themselves within the generalised profile of their generation. Questions ranged from the personal to the political, from those broad in scope to those inquiring into the smallest details. We touched on politics, technology, (pop) culture and ideology. Here are few examples:

  • Was ‘war’ present in your life? If so, which war?
  • Do you keep a diary?
  • Do you wear a wristwatch?
  • At what times, and in what way, do you listen to music? 
  • Who were your idols when you were growing up? What did they represent to you?

As stated in our introduction, the target was to generate material with which to experiment, rather than to devise a complete performance piece. This approach is explicitly mentioned in the ‘twelve assertions about the documentary’ by theatre-maker and curator Boris Nikitin[21]: ‘The documentary transforms reality into material’.[22] It is not, as one might think, exceptional to compose, edit, manipulate, and select material when working in a documentary mode: it is the norm. Or, as Hammond and Steward discovered with their study of verbatim theatre, many practitioners consider that ‘verbatim is not a form, it is a technique; it is a means rather than an end’.[23] In our case, it was specifically about the use of music, rhythm, and sound to interpret and present the material gathered, which is arguably a more self-conscious, more overt, but at the same time a potentially emotionally charged form of treatment.

Inevitably — as with all verbatim theatre — this raised questions of authenticity. Indeed, we were interested in experimenting with different degrees of loyalty in terms of how literally we would take the word verbatim. This exploration ranged from using the actual interview recordings, to enacting them, to improvising with the words and speech patterns, and structuring them into song lyrics.

This is best explored in more detail using four specific examples. Our first two studies — the ‘War Étude’ and the ‘Diary Étude’ — represent two almost polar opposites on this scale of loyalty.

Study #1: The War Étude

Our first experiment was, in some ways, the simplest in terms of creative process, and yet intriguingly textured in terms of its result.

Despite the fact that, in recent years, Europe and the USA have seen the most peaceful period in their history,[24] we were struck by how strongly the experience of war had inscribed itself into the lives of all of our interviewees, from 16 to 72 years old. Between generations and nationalities, the wars differed, of course (World War II, Vietnam, the Yom Kippur War, Iraq, Yugoslavia, the War on Terror, etc.), and the experience varied (from being immediately affected to witnessing a mediatised version in close-up). We were particularly interested in the tone of voice and general rhythm of how respondents would narrate the role that war played in their lives.

For contrast and effect, we edited together key statements from the verbatim interviews into a sonic montage. Two different versions of the montage were created, by underscoring the voices with contrasting accompaniments. In the first version, we aimed to foreground the voices almost as musical instruments, fitting a simple jazzy beat and bassline underneath. Listening back to this iteration, our sense was that the discursive content of what was being said remained present; at the same time, the musical quality of how it was being said, particularly with respect to timbre, cadence and rhythm, became more prominent. The surprisingly upbeat nature of one interviewee’s response that war had been present in her life ‘all the time’ was a contrasting lively motif to one teenager’s low, rumbling, and almost detached list of wars of which he was aware, despite his relative physical absence from the crisis zones. We did become aware, however, that the easy listening-style background music could trivialise the subject matter: was the juxtaposition of topic and music poignant or just inappropriate? In order to subvert subtly the ‘catchy’ idiom of the underscoring music, Roesner rendered it somewhat more alienating and unsettling by working in various irregular rhythms and shifts in bassline meter against the drumbeat. These subtle adjustments might not be noticeable instantly by the listener, yet might, in turn, have a subconscious effect in terms of their visceral response.

Example 01: Talking about my generation: War — Version 1 (for best results, please use headphones)


The second version, based on the same montage of voices, explored the associative and intertextual power of music. Rather than underscoring the voices, we used short musical clips and riffs as sonic punctuation and commentary. Specifically, we collected iconic pop music samples for each generation, such as James Brown, Jimi Hendrix, Elvis Presley, Prince and U2. All these samples carry rich connotations of time, place, and social context. Some of the artists are deliberately chosen for being commonly linked with a particular war, such as Jimi Hendrix with Vietnam and U2 with the troubles in Northern Ireland. Because music, specifically popular music, is often so highly evocative, its use allows for strategies of irony, pathos, or juxtaposition to comment on the verbatim material. The editing choices — both with regard to the voice recordings and by embedding highly recognisable samples within the edit — enabled us to deliberately stage the material. This conscious staging charges the text that is being spoken: it amplifies its emotional impact, highlights salient points (such as the importance of a conflict coinciding with one’s year of birth), and connects the individual speaker with a pop-cultural echo chamber of songs, artists, films, even technologies. The conscious editing of the montage culminated in an excerpt from that very day’s news on the subject of the children of the Syrian war. In other words, in startling the listener with the omniscient contemporaneity of war, we foregrounded the immediacy and veracity of the material. All these editing tactics are deliberate and transparent: neither the music clips nor the current events quotation remain an ‘unheard melody’[25] or subconscious manipulation, but rather an overt comment with which one could choose to agree or take issue. In other words, this second version wears its strategies of mediation and montage on its acoustic sleeve, tugging at the listener and inviting discourse on the perpetuity of social violence. Such tactics may raise questions about the ethics of fact-based drama. Some verbatim practitioners keep authorial manipulation of real-life material to an absolute minimum in order to foreground immediacy and authenticity in their editing, as in Jonathan Holmes’s Fallujah (2007) which uses almost unaltered testimonies from soldiers and reporters in the Iraq war. Other practitioners — including David Hare with The Permanent Way — consciously seek the motifs and repetitions that occur across interviews, weaving them together to create a meta-text of associations within the audience’s imagination. The ethics of fact-based editing, particularly with dramas purporting to be verbatim, remain debated, with directors including Nadia Fall and Nicholas Kent emphasising the need for transparency and clarity of intention with subjects, and remaining true to the essence of what is said.[26] In this short edit of our recorded interviewees, we strove to remain within our conditions of transparency, intention, and truth given the research nature of the experiment and our close connection to our interviewees.

Example 02: Talking about my generation: War — Version 2 (for best results, please use headphones)


In many ways, our editing choices here resonate with an assertion made by Andreas Tobler on the ‘possibilities of the documentary’.[27] He criticises the assumption that (German) documentary theatre was mainly designed to prove its societal relevance, by turning to a non-theatrical reality and seeking to ‘capture it, represent it, or allow it to intrude’.[28] Instead, he suggests, it should ‘reflect its own reality, its own claims, conditions and possibilities’. Consequently, it would then become a ‘laboratory for reality, in which social imagination finds its rightful place — in specific aesthetic ways’.[29]

In brief, Study #1 explored (a) the form of the verbatim material (in terms of the musicality of montaged human voices talking on the theme of war) and (b) the content of that war-material as commented on by the strategic placing of iconic musical samples. We found ourselves questioning the underlying commentary we, as editors and/or musicians, might be making on our subjects’ original material.

Study # 2: The Diary Étude

Our second experiment challenged the authenticity of verbatim even more consciously. We edited and shaped the verbatim texts into a structured song, and there was a sense of tricksiness here, too. The particular question, ‘Do you keep a diary?’ concerned memory and the passing of time. The use of rhyme and rhythm — so apparent in songwriting, from nursery rhymes to hip-hop — helps us to commit material to memory. In other words, there was a kind of meta-musicality in what we were doing: asking our interviewees to recall aspects of their life and then converting those memories into easily memorisable structures for performers.

The instinct to turn the interviews into song lyrics was drawn, in part, from Merlin’s imitation of Wedekind’s “Mordballaden” (murder ballads) in Tilly No-Body. As a songwriter, she wanted to explore what would be the impact on a listener if our interviewees’ words were more formally structured and rearranged. Furthermore, how might we use melodies to comment on the personalities of the speakers? In London Road, Adam Cork strove to emulate almost note-for-note the speaking melodies of the interviewees, but we took rather more liberties. We sought to find a musical style — and consequently, a construction of the lyrics — that conjured up the personalities revealed in the interviews. One of our interviewees had a speaking voice that was naturally very fluid in melody, almost piccolo-like, and that was reflected in the song in which we used their material. Another one of our interviewees exuded the confidence of an American blues singer, so that quality was reflected in their song’s style. One of our millennial interviewees had a pleasurably teenage dourness in answering our questions. One of our Generation Xers has a very busy professional life and, to some extent we wanted their song to reflect that pressured relationship to time and memory. In other words, we were interweaving verbatim information from the interviews with performative characterisations of the speakers, again probing at the fact-fiction binary and ethical boundaries.

With Merlin’s songs written (however roughly), Roesner then crafted different instrumentations, and chose electronic or acoustic accompaniments, giving the interviewees’ voices yet another musical language. Once again, a meta-musical tricksiness came into play. Just as we were crafting — manipulating? — the original sounds, Roesner was similarly deceptive. He was interested in the experience of performative friction between the physical instrument being played and the sound it created. In other words, in his use of MIDI, the sounds Roesner creates are misleading, even disloyal to the instrument that he is using. What the spectator sees in Roesner’s hands is not what they hear through the speakers. This was another musical twist on the theme of verbatim and authenticity.

Once we had found both a singing ‘voice’ and an instrumental ‘voice’ for each of our interviewees, we then brought several mini-songs together into a whole. We were now working more concretely with narrative. When asked the question ‘Do you keep a diary?’, responses were usually an instantaneous ‘yes’ or ‘no’, which we wanted to incorporate into the musical structure of the piece.    


There is a certain conscious naivety (even whimsy?) in the performance of this song, as well as even further trickiness in its engagement with the audience. Both Merlin and Roesner play themselves at certain points in the song, while Anderson interprets interviewees aged between thirteen and forty-five. What should the audience be expecting with regard to truth?


Examples 03-10: Diary Étude (Parts 1-8) (for best results, please use headphones)


In brief, by crafting the verbatim interviews into rhythmic and rhyming song structures, Study #2 played consciously with aspects of authenticity and veracity. Elements of character were introduced not only in terms of who was performing, but also through musical style and instrumentation. Loyalty to an interviewee’s vocal melody was exchanged for a musical style and an instrumentation that conjured up their personality (as perceived by the interviewers).

Study #3: The Ahem/Um Étude

One of the strategies of authentication in verbatim theatre is to leave the fillers and paralinguistic markers of everyday speech and communication unedited, distinguishing it from the written dialogue and polished rhetoric of traditional drama. But these fillers are also a strongly rhythmic element of everyday spoken language and constitute the individual or collective musicality of a speaker or community. This is evident in Adam Cork’s compositions for the aforementioned London Road. In insisting on a strictly verbatim use of text — with all its grammatical flaws, half-finished sentences and fillers — Cork and Blythe paradoxically create a sense of defamiliarisation: conventionally, we are used to dramatic language being more artificially eloquent. By setting much of the half-spoken, half-sung dialogue to music, the verbatim language is heightened and estranged. The composition follows and amplifies the musicality of the individual and local idiomatic colour of the interviewees, but it also occasionally violates the principles of linguistic coherence in its rhythmic stress on filler words or subordinate clauses (for example, the song ‘And That’s When It All Started It All Kicked off’[30] ends with ‘But uhm’), or in its extensive repetition of textual and musical phrases — as in one scene, where the phrase ‘And that’s when it all started’ is repeated and varied six times.

Indeed, this is an aspect of verbatim theatre-making to which Blythe herself is very dedicated. Writing in 2008, prior to the creation of London Road, Blythe refers her creative heritage to the methodologies of North American pioneer of verbatim storytelling, Anna Deavere Smith, who would:

record interviews with people and then learn them word-for-word, appropriating the speaker’s cadences and patterns of speech in very fine detail. She learnt the interviews by listening to them, phrase by phrase, through earphones and then by repeating each phrase exactly as it had been said, immediately after she heard it [...]. By copying their speech-patterns with such precision, the real person behind the performance shone through. [31]

Given Blythe’s own loyalty to the original interviewee, she became particularly attracted to the fillers. She makes sure that she transcribes each audio painstakingly:

with every ‘um’, ‘er’, stutter and non-sequitur lovingly preserved, because it is these that reveal the person’s thought-processes; there is always a specific reason why a person stutters on a certain word, and it is this detail that gives the characters such startling verisimilitude.[32]

We were interested in working with this idea: what do the non-discursive bits of spoken, informal language communicate? At what point do they turn from functional fillers — signalling a pause in the sentence with the intention to continue, or, in the case of modal particles in German such as doch, indicating slight modifications to what is being said — to pure sound? Therefore, rather than refraining from editing the fillers out of the overall linguistic fabric, we extracted only these particles. We were curious to see whether we could create a musical texture out of them and, if so, what imagistic promptings might this musical texture provoke for performers in an improvisation?

In preparation for Merlin’s second visit to Munich in December 2016 (after an initial preparatory week in March to brainstorm and develop the project and its methodology), Roesner clipped together a series of fillers with a primarily rhythmic intent, seeking out tonal contrasts. He began by arranging pauses and clusters, which then evolved into a beat. He was interested to explore how our perception of this montage might be steered in certain directions by underscoring it, tainting it, with four different basic musical structures. (See screenshot of GarageBand Arrangement.)

Roesner was hoping that each structure would evoke or make audible something else in the material once it had been stripped (mostly) of its semiotic meaning. In other words, if the paralinguistic ‘ahems’ and ‘ums’ could be turned into music, what kind of music might that be? How do we listen to the voice when it is confronted with some basic musical textures?

The first texture was a series of simple, underlying, and slightly undulating minor chords on the virtual Bebop Organ from GarageBand’s instrument library. The second texture was a more improvised set of brief melodic motifs played on a virtual marimba, which Roesner interspersed between and over the speech rhythms. The third experiment set the ‘ahems’ and ‘ums’ to the beat of an R&B band with drums, bass, and electric piano. The final étude deliberately used a sci-fi synthesiser sound (the Emerald Haze Pad) in no way reminiscent of an acoustic instrument and with a colder texture than the warm organ of the first version. For Roesner, this was predominantly a quasi-chemical exercise to see how these different elements would react with each other.

Roesner then played the constructed musical fillers, first to Merlin and subsequently to Anderson. Immediately and separately, they responded as actors to the implicit narrative associations, which had inadvertently been created. They both envisaged very similar given circumstances and dramaturgy, comprising two strangers in a café, striking up some sort of connection, then ‘trying the relationship for size’, before realising it doesn’t work and finding themselves once-again estranged from each other at the end of the encounter. Merlin and Anderson acknowledged the inherently whimsical, archetypal nature of this narrative; however, the emphasis throughout the whole research process was on visceral and experiential exploration and, therefore, none of us had any particular imperative to impede our spontaneous impulses. Furthermore, it was pleasurably serendipitous that Roesner’s montage of fillers could so vividly conjure up for both actors such a strong sense of space, place, given circumstance and narrative through-line. The interdisciplinary collaboration of composer and actors — each responding to sound from different imaginary positions — was undeniably gratifying and creatively mischievous.

Example 12:  Ahem_Um Étude (for best results, please use headphones)


The freedom of the laboratory experimentation afforded to us by CAS enabled us to wander along several blind alleys. At one point, Merlin and Anderson tried to react to Roesner’s score physically without lip-synching to the sounds. Yet it was almost counter-intuitive: they seemed driven to respond to the soundscape as precisely as possible, like a kind of soundscape ventriloquism. However, time limitations prevented us from matching the musical score with an appropriately precise physical score. And so that particular iteration of the étude was jettisoned.

In order to counter the actors’ desire to illustrate rather than suggest, the next iteration saw them enacting the narrative to an entirely different piece of music. This strategy proved very useful in that, when they did return to improvising with the filler-soundscape, they were much less inclined to want to lip-synch, and much more inclined to respond to the fillers as a piece of music.

This experiment raised questions surrounding theatrical and aesthetic style. What were we actually doing with this particular piece of verbatim material? Were we trying to create something real? Something clown-like? Something stylised? Something suggestive, rather than literal? Each form inevitably brings with it a certain baggage. Indeed, what is that baggage that verbatim or fact-based theatre carries, both wittingly and unwittingly? Anderson and Merlin were able to explore — through their silent bodies in response to the interviewees’ articulate inarticulations — what Blythe refers to as ‘the gorgeously unwieldy nature of real speech’.[33]  

In brief, Study #3 revealed to Merlin and Anderson the imaginative stimuli behind Roesner’s score of rhythmic fillers. It was noteworthy how swiftly our collective minds wanted to make meaning out of the random utterances, montaged together and then fleshed out with different musical accompaniments. Communication and the desire for meaning seemed to be wired into our human DNA. Furthermore, the fact that the actors’ instinct was to respond to a human voice as utterance, rather than as musical score was intriguing, and the extent to which they felt the need lip-synch was curious. This study raised our awareness of how the inarticulateness of human speech has its own touching equivalence in the clumsiness of the human body. The two fictional characters, created organically out of the real-life non-utterances, emerged as equally fractured in their physical coordination as they were in their linguistic incoherence. The spontaneous, visceral and embodied research of Study # 3 revealed a poignancy about human communication that took us all by surprise. 

Study #4: Wristwatch Étude

The month of research was an experiment on all levels. As is true of all documentary-making, we had little idea in advance of the interviews of the kind of material that we would encounter. We did not know how we would deconstruct, reconstruct and performatively explore the material until we were in the laboratory space together. And we did not know until shortly before the December trip to Munich that Miles Anderson would be present to collaborate with us as a second actor in the experiment. To have the living resource of another actor was an invaluable part of the practical research, especially as one of our initial interviews had been conducted with two participants: so, now we had the possibility for live dialogue in our études. Furthermore, we were able to explore not only the dialogue between two onstage actors, but also the dialogue between live and recorded voices, as well as live and recorded instruments.

In the opening passages of Verbatim Verbatim, Hammond and Steward cite Albert Einstein who ‘once observed that “the secret to creativity is knowing how to hide your sources.” The creative endeavour […] of theatre-making commonly referred to as “verbatim”, does the opposite. Instead of adapting or repackaging experiences or observations within a fictional dramatic situation, a verbatim play acknowledges, and often draws attention to, its roots in real life.’[34] In this étude, we did both. We acknowledged and drew attention to our real-life source material by playing the actual interviews at the beginning of the study, and then we adapted and repackaged the experience and observation within a fictional situation.

Taking the words and rhythms of our two subjects, B and C, Anderson and Merlin gently morphed them into fictionalised versions of the subjects. As Anderson and Merlin played with both the repetitions of B and C’s words and the counter-melodies of their voices — using their lines and cadences as motifs with which to improvise — they began to feel closer (when performing) to Nell and Nagg in Beckett’s Endgame than to our two original subjects.

The performance was further refined as Roesner experimented with different instruments. In one iteration, he explored percussive accompaniments on the cajón, a box-shaped wooden drum. This brought a certain live edginess, and the actual drumming of fingers on the cajón resonated with the idea of the passing of time and the ticking of clocks. However, it was really once he began to layer his own live playing with recorded overdubs through the use of a loop pedal that all the reverberations of time, repetition, and cyclical patterns moved from the literal to the meta-musical to the poetic. It could be argued that almost all musical theatre uses forms of repetition: ours was a repetition of live loops featuring both voice and accompaniment. This technique also referred back to the subject matter, in that verbatim recordings of interviews often tend to be laced with repetitions (as was this interview), and with this specific extract, the dialogue focuses on notions of time, its significance or irrelevance, different cycles of time, and so on.

In terms of theatrical presentation, we also wanted to explore the idea of ‘musician as performer’.[35] By situating Roesner in the middle of the stage, the illusion of the real and authentic (from both the source material and the actors’ adoption of the interviewees’ North American accents) is contrasted with openly displaying the live fabrication of the musical atmosphere.

In this instance, the performance experience itself became textured and poignant. Merlin and Anderson are both well versed in the techniques of Konstantin Stanislavsky (among other disciplines). In simultaneously honouring the words of the real-life subjects, responding to the layering of Roesner’s live-played music, and subtly heightening the musical vocabulary of the human voice (all of which took place while improvising and feeding off each other as performers), a style much closer to postmodernism emerged. This stands in contrast with the hyper-realism often associated with verbatim theatre. Our experience resonated with Carol Martin’s observations, who states that:

[t]heatre of the real’s strategies are often postmodern, especially in asserting that truth is contextual, multiple, and subject to manipulation; that language frames perception; that art can be objective; that perspectives proliferate; that history is a network of relationships; that things occur by chance; that the performer can be a persona and not necessarily a character in the theatrical sense; that theatre includes the quotidian; that the then, now, and soon-to-be can coexist on stage. Most decisively, the playwright as a single individual is displaced and even replaced by an assemblage of selected verbatim texts that are also collectively devised. Most importantly, creators of theatre of the real assert that meaning is within reach even while using postmodern theatrical strategies.[36]

Example 13: Wristwatch (Two Versions) (for best results, please use headphones)


In brief, Study #4 explored various strategies for putting music to verbatim material to make acts of memory memorable through music. Our subjects, B and C, were talking about time, and we as performers were taking our time to talk about time, and using looped instrumentation to suggest the passing of time. This shifted the piece significantly from verbatim realism to a more poetic commentary on collective experiences of the passing of time. A certain sense of nostalgia became an inherent part of the study, another implicit commentary on time in a piece about time. The study also made deliberate use of improvisation, resulting in a performance as ephemeral as the moment of testimony. In other words, were we to perform the piece for a series of nights, its embodiment would inevitably be different every performance, thereby questioning the notion of the document as an unalterable given. Instead, like memory, it would be something that we would conjure up anew each time. 

Some thoughts on our findings

It would be foolhardy in such a process-orientated laboratory to offer firm conclusions on the nature of the document as music. However, we can offer some insights drawn from our meta-musical experiment, which was both about working with music as well as reflecting on music’s role and potential in documentary and verbatim theatre. Those findings, which used practice as the method of enquiry, are listed below under headings pertaining to the techniques we used, effects we observed, and problems we encountered.


Music and sound could be used to colour the documentary material through its power to foster conscious or subconscious intertextual connections and trigger personal or interpersonal associations. All three performers found that the interweaving of their disciplines — composition, acting, songwriting, dramaturgy, and directing — also added colour to the structure of the studies. In general, these colours lifted the direct resonances of the subjects’ words away from their contextual specificity towards a broader affectiveness. Colouring through the use of music seemed, at times, to be more pertinent to an emotional or atmospheric aspect of how we relate to the documentary material. At other times, specifically when the music was highly saturated by its context, it directly impacted on how we semantically make sense of an interview or co-construct the identity of its speaker. All four studies reflect this finding to some extent.


Musicalisation (in the form of rhythmic montage, composition, or musical commentary) could be used to interfere with the meaning and intention of what was said in the interviews. Through various musical means, we were able to emphasise or discredit statements, make them funny or poignant, or characterise their speakers. This is a powerful instrument for realising documentary theatre’s ‘utopian potential’,[37] which, for Tobler, consists in its ability to ‘reflect and deconstruct the truths of reality’[38] by, on the one hand, designing different ‘truths’ about reality and, on the other, playing with the contingency of our perception.[39] Utopian potential also requires great responsibility and ethical attention, as there is a fine line between utopian dialectic intervention and manipulative propaganda. Josselon’s use of a distinction made by Paul Ricoeur is useful here; she differentiates between a:

hermeneutics of restoration and a hermeneutics of demystification […]. A hermeneutics of restoration aims to be faithful to the text and restore its explicit and implicit meanings. The purpose is to absorb as much as possible the message in its given form and to present, explore or understand the subjective world of the participants or the social and historical world they feel themselves to be living in. […] By contrast, a hermeneutics of demystification regards the text as disguised. Signs are read according to some procedure of meaning-making, some pre-existing codebook. […] From the position of a hermeneutics of demystification, attention is directed to the omissions, disjunctions, inconsistencies, and contradictions in an account. It is what is latent, hidden in an account that is of interest rather than the manifest narrative of the teller.[40]

Rather than constructing a coherent narrative out of our material, we worked in the second vein, listening between the lines and using practices of embodiment and musicalisation as a codebook with which to arrive at some more latent meanings. These would lie not solely in what people said about their generational experience, but how they said it. Study #1 illustrates this finding, given its underpinning of easy listening (in the first iteration) and its interweaving of well-known musical reference points (in the second).

Composing vs. Improvising

There are both synergies and tensions between compositional and improvisatory approaches to musicalising verbatim theatre. While there are some examples of verbatim music theatre with elaborate compositions, notations, and recordings, it is much harder to find approaches that make the music as ephemeral — as (ultimately) unrepeatable, as unique — as the spoken word and the act of witnessing may be. Verbatim suggests a liveness, a sense of an unpolished reality in the moment, which is contradicted by elaborate, complex musical settings. We were interested in developing strategies and techniques to retain the sense of uniqueness, the performative and transitory nature of witnessing in its musicalisation. This was particularly potent in Study #4, given its highly improvisational form.


We noticed that the rhythms suggested by the verbatim material often caught us off guard and were at odds with our habituated musical expectations of even meters, clearly structured phrasing and forms. We take pleasure in seeing everyday language and sounds being transformed into familiar musical patterns for a Western audience (as is evident, for instance, by the lasting international success of Stomp), but verbatim musicality challenges us to find new forms and rhythms. Study #2 consciously worked with rhythm in its creation of song lyrics, while Roesner’s editing of paralinguistic utterances in Study #3 mischievously wrought rhythms to create the inspiration for a narrative-driven improvisation.


We found that, even at the étude level, our efforts to combine verbatim and music often led to genre-defying results. If we take other, more accomplished, examples as an indication, this seems to be an emerging quality of verbatim music theatre works. Cork and Blythe’s London Road has been labelled a ‘musical’ (although not by its creators!), yet it defies a whole range of criteria that would make it thus in terms of its dramaturgy, compositional idiom, or vocal delivery.[41] Other practitioners also work in-between generic conventions. For instance, Julia Roesler, Insa Rudolph and Silke Merzhäuser, who with their company werkgruppe 2 develop their performances based on extensive journalistic research and interviews, arriving at unique mixtures with elements of performance, devised theatre, epic theatre, and concerts.

Ted Hearne’s The Source (2015) uses the Iraq war logs and a chat protocol between Chelsea Manning (who leaked these classified documents) and hacker Adrian Lamo as its verbatim material. It, too, defies conventions of musical style or theatrical format. Its creators refer to it as a modern-day oratorio, but it also has strong resonances with an avant-garde concert, an alternative rock gig, or a video installation in an art gallery. There is an added twist to its verbatim formula: in addition to the documentary source material, which we hear both as recordings and sung to music, we are also confronted with acts of silent witnessing. In the direction and design of Daniel Fish, the large video screens that formed part of the performance (see production photograph by Stefan Cohen from the SF Chronicle review) show us a montage of citizens’ faces as they watch an 8-minute excerpt of an airstrike by Apache helicopters in Baghdad on July 12, 2007. None of them speaks, and their only communication is through facial expression.

It seems apposite that, particularly when the documents defy clear categorisation (as they did in our case study and the few examples above), the artistic forms to communicate them will also need to be re-invented. 

Semantics of Form

Musicalising verbatim theatre meant significant journeying between thematic and more formal concerns. But in addressing formal qualities, such as rhythm, repetition, tempo, timbre, and counterpoint, we also realised that they often presented or highlighted strong thematic strands in the material, such as ideas about memory, notions of time, preoccupations with technology, and models of identity. Verbatim theatre tends to downplay or disguise a formal approach, usually preferring more immediate storytelling, but we felt that a deliberate use of formal techniques like the transformation of the material did not result in pure formalism. Instead, it communicated our interpretation and/or response to the experiences with which we were presented. Study #4 illustrates this experiment.


Putting verbatim material to music and consciously rendering the documentary both aesthetic and stylised meant that the resulting performances openly show that they are a form of mediation. This deliberately undermines or complicates a more straightforward (and probably naïve) sense of authenticity. It interrogates what authenticity is: we felt that a case could be made for an authenticity of experience, rather than authenticity of the factual. In other words, a musical treatment may well encapsulate an interview’s atmosphere, sentiment, or intent more accurately than an unedited and faithful rendition by an actor. Carol Martin quotes Janelle Reinelt to this effect, who writes that the documentary is ‘not in the object but in the relationship between the object, its mediators (artists, historians, authors) and its audiences’.[42] Given the shifts in dramatic context inherent in the verbatim technique — from what someone might think or say, to recording onto tape for an interviewer, to that interview then being dramaturgically put into the context of other interviews, to it being performed by an actor in a theatrical frame for a paying audience — there is no possibility of an unmediated performance anyway. This resonates with Joan W. Scott’s observations on the problematic status of experience in historical research. She critiques:

When experience is taken as the origin of knowledge, the vision of the individual subject (the person who had the experience or the historian who recounts it) becomes the bedrock of evidence on which explanation is built. Questions about the constructed nature of experience, about how subjects are constituted as different in the first place, about how one's vision is structured — about language (or discourse) and history — are left aside.[43]


Our argument here is that this ‘constructive nature of experience’ is specifically highlighted through the self-referential musical treatment. Musicalising the material makes these acts of mediation and interpretation of documents of experience arguably more tangible and transparent. The song structure of Study #2 particularly provides insights into interpretation and mediation.

Loyalty, or otherwise?

This leads to interesting aspects of ‘loyalty’ to the material. As we’ve already noted, it is customary in some practices of verbatim theatre (including Alecky Blythe’s frequent working practice), for actors to wear headphones during the performance and speak along to the original interview material, ensuring that they stick to its wording and delivery as closely as possible. In London Road (and potentially other examples), this loyalty is transferred to the score: the rigorous precision required by the notation of pitch, tempo, phrasing, and rhythm means that the actor cannot take liberties with the musical form, since the composer has built it around the interviewees’ words.

This echoes the demands of an early revolutionary of the theatre, Adolphe Appia, as theatre historian Marvin Carlson explains:

By means of music ‘the living human body throws off the accident of personality and becomes purely an instrument for human expression.’ […] Clearly the actor as an original artist is demoted in this system, subordinated to the artistic ensemble expressed in the master score (the partitur), and controlled by music.[44]

Appia’s concern was not verbatim theatre, but how to preserve the playwright and composer’s work of art in an age of celebrity actors and singers prone to abusing the text in favour of a maximum of virtuosic effect and theatrical self-promotion. But the notion of music as a safeguard of loyalty, discipline and the greater good of the overall dramatic aesthetic and impact, the ‘essence’[45] of the artistic experience, is still a relevant idea in this context.

It also questions notions of loyalty or veracity as essentialist concepts: in her essay ‘The Evidence of Experience’, Scott problematises the argument ‘that experience is the “irreducible ground” for history’ and suggests instead one should be ‘focusing on processes of identity production, insisting on the discursive nature of “experience” and on the politics of its construction. Experience is at once always already an interpretation and something that needs to be interpreted.’[46] 

Approaching the evidence given to us by people from three generations describing their experiences is something we inevitably interpret and transform in co-constructing their identities. Doing so performatively, through musicalisation, embodiment, imitation, sonification, and personification, is a form of ‘reproduction, transmission — the communication of knowledge gained through (visual, visceral) experience’.[47] We respond to their account of lived experiences by transforming our experience with their interview as a document by constructing a layered performative text including gesture, voice, sounds, lights, etc. This acknowledges what Josselson calls ‘the multilayeredness of the text itself and the multivocality of human experience’.[48] Consequently, as she continues, ‘there are always interwoven layers of meaning in any interview text.’[49] Loyalty then perhaps means to avoid giving the impression that there is one accurate account, one faithful representation of it, instead presenting the audience with an interpretation that is multilayered and multivocal. All four études experimented with degrees of loyalty and creative licence. These études are by no means accomplished realisations of this endeavour, but they do strive to point to where we might go further.

[2] Cited in Riley, Shannon Rose and Hunter, Lynette (eds.), Mapping Landscapes for Performance as Research: Scholarly Acts and Creative Cartographies (New York and Houndmills: Palgrave Macmillan 2009), p. 19.

[1] In addition to the generous funding received by the CAS we would like to thank the international doctoral programme MIMESIS (LMU Munich), the theatre department of the LMU Munich and the interviewees, who allowed us to use their memories and stories as material.

[3] The show can be seen in full here.

[4] See Georg W. Forcht, ‘Frank Wedekind auf dem Montmartre’, in Frank Wedekind, ed. by Georg W. Forcht (Heidelberg: Centaurus Verlag & Media 2009), pp. 10–24.

[5] Derek Paget defines this, as early as 1987, as ‘a form of theatre firmly predicated upon the taping and subsequent transcription of interviews with 'ordinary' people, done in the context of research into a particular region, subject area, issue, event, or combination of these things. This primary source is then transformed into a text which is acted, usually by the performers who collected the material in the first place.’ In Derek Paget, ‘“Verbatim Theatre”: Oral History and Documentary Techniques’, New Theatre Quarterly (1987), pp. 317-36 (p. 317).

[6] See: Alecky Blythe and Adam Cork, London Road (London: Nick Hern Books, 2011). The production has since been made into a feature film starring Olivia Coleman and Tom Hardy, also directed by Rufus Norris (2015).

[7] See Demetris Zavros, ‘London Road: The “Irruption of the Real” and Haunting Utopias in the Verbatim Musical’, in Twenty-First Century Musicals: From Stage to Screen, ed. by George Rodosthenous (London: Routledge, 2018), forthcoming; and David Roesner, ‘Genre Counterpoints: Challenges to the Mainstream Musical’, in Oxford Handbook of the British Musical, ed. by Olaf Jubin and Robert Gordon (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2017), pp. 651–71.

[8] See e.g., Carol Martin (ed.), Dramaturgy of the Real on the World Stage (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2010); Boris Nikitin, Carena Schlewitt and Tobias Brenk (eds.), Dokument, Fälschung, Wirklichkeit: Materialband zum zeitgenössischen Dokumentarischen Theater (Berlin: Theater der Zeit, 2014).

[9] Edmund Husserl, The Crisis of European Sciences and Transcendental Phenomenology. An Introduction to Phenomenological Philosophy (Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 1970 [1936]).

[10] More generally, Carol Martin asserts that ‘inherent in the very idea of documentary is an anxiety about truth and authenticity’ (Martin, Dramaturgies of the Real, 1).

[11] Luciano Berio, Remembering the Future (Boston: Harvard University Press, 2006), p. 49.

[12] Mary Louise Serafine, Music as Cognition (New York: Columbia University Press, 1988), p. 7. See also: Mary Louise Serafine, ‘What Music Is’, The Journal of Aesthetic Education (1989, 23/3), pp. 31–37.

[13] See David Roesner, Musicality in Theatre — Music as Model, Method and Metaphor in Theatre-Making (Farnham: Ashgate, 2014) for a more comprehensive exploration of the notion of a musicality dispositif.

[14] Catherine Bouko, for example, speaks about ‘jazz musicality’ in her article ‘Jazz Musicality in Postdramatic Theatre and the Opacity of Auditory Signs’, Studies in Musical Theatre (2010, 4/1): pp. 75–87.

[15] See e.g. Sara Jane Bailes and Nicholas Till (eds.), Beckett and Musicality (Ashgate, VT: Burlington, 2014) and Konrad Boehmer (ed.), Schönberg and Kandinsky: An Historic Encounter (Amsterdam: Harwood Academic, 1997).

[16] In popular culture, these have been frequently compared, e.g., in this YouTube video, books like Douglas Coupland’s Generation X (1991) or Ben Stiller’s film Reality Bites (1994).

[17] Ruthellen Josselson, ‘“Bet You Think This Song Is About You”: Whose Narrative Is It in Narrative Research?’, Narrative Works (2011, 1/1), paragraph 2.

[18] Josselson, paragraph 42.

[19] Josselson, paragraph 23.

[20] Bouko distinguishes 'Voice as Sound vs. Voice as Discourse' in her article (Bouko, p. 31).

[21] Boris Nikitin, ‘Der unzuverlässige Zeuge. Zwölf Behauptungen über das Dokumentarische’, in Dokument, Fälschung, Wirklichkeit, ed. by Niktin, Schlewitt and Brenk, pp. 12-19 (p. 12). Nikitin has master-minded and organised three international festivals of documentary theatre in Basel (CH) to date, entitled ‘It’s the real thing!’.

[22] Ibid.

[23] Will Hammond and Dan Steward (eds.), Verbatim Verbatim: Contemporary Documentary Theatre (London: Oberon Books, 2008), p. 9.

[24] See: Steven Pinker, The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined (New York: Viking, 2011).

[25] See: Claudia Gorbman, Unheard Melodies: Narrative Film Music (London: BFI Publishing, 1987).

[26] See: National Theatre Discover, April 29, 2014 ‘The Ethics of Verbatim Theatre’.

[27] Andreas Tobler, ‘Kontingente Evidenzen. Über Möglichkeiten dokumentarischen Theaters’, Dokument, Fälschung, Wirklichkeit, ed. by Niktin, Schlewitt and Brenk, pp. 147–61. Translation by DR.

[28] Tobler, p. 147. Translation by DR.

[29] Ibid. Translation by DR.

[30] Blythe and Cork, pp. 26–8.

[31] Cited in Hammond and Steward, p. 80.

[32] Cited in Hammond and Steward, p. 97.

[33] Cited in Hammond and Steward, p. 102.

[34] Hammond and Steward, p. 9.

[35] See, e.g., Philip Auslander, ‘Musical Personae’, TDR: The Drama Review (2006, 50/1), pp. 100–19; Falk Hübner, ‘Entering the Stage — Musicians as Performers in Contemporary Music Theatre’, New Sound (2010, 36), pp. 63–73.

[36] Martin, p. 3.

[37] Tobler, p. 161. Translation by DR.

[38] Ibid. Translation by DR.

[39] See Ibid. Translation by DR.

[40] Josselson, paragraph 24.

[41] See Zavros ‘London Road’ and Roesner ‘Genre Counterpoints’ for a more detailed discussion.

[42] Cited in Martin, p. 2.

[43] Joan W. Scott, 'The Evidence of Experience', Critical Inquiry (1991, 7/4), pp. 772–97 (p. 777).

[44] Marvin Carlson, Theories of the Theatre: A Historical and Critical Survey, From the Greeks to the Present (Ithaca, N.Y. /London: Cornell University Press 1993), p. 295, original emphasis. 

[45] See David Roesner, ‘Appia – Musicality and the Inner “Essence”’, in Musicality in Theatre — Music as Model, Method and Metaphor in Theatre-Making, ed. by David Roesner (Farnham: Ashgate, 2014), pp. 23–56. 

[46] Scott, p. 797, original emphasis.

[47] Scott, p. 776.

[48] Josselson, paragraph 20.

[49] Ibid.