BA (Hons) English and Drama student, Clarice Montero, tells us what it was like to join The Verbatim Formula:
On Wednesday the 27th of March I was part of a team of nine London-based drama practitioners and students armed with silent disco headphones, laminated sheets of paper, paper plates, colouring pens and some ipods who found themselves in an office conference room in Bristol with an audience of around thirty office workers.
The team represented The Verbatim Formula (TVF), a collaborative participatory arts project founded by Maggie Inchley (Queen Mary University’s Senior Lecturer in Performance) and Sylvan Baker (lecturer at Royal Central School of Speech and Drama). Aiming to ‘make listening visible’, TVF specialises in sharing the stories of young people in (social) care and care leavers, including those in Higher Education.
TVF utilise the method of Headphone Verbatim in which to carry the life experiences and testimonies of young care-experienced people to a variety of audiences, most notably to the authorities that have the power to shape the care and education systems.
On this occasion, TVF were visiting the Office for Students (OfS), a newly formed body responsible for the regulation of Education across England. To put it simply, they are the Ofsted of Universities.
Headphone Verbatim requires a performer to listen to an audio recording of a testimony through headphones while saying what they hear out loud as accurately as possible. It’s a technique that requires focused attention but for those listening to the performer, the experience is very impactful; the performer becomes a vessel through which the idiosyncrasies of the original speaker add an authenticity to the speech.
The technique allows the voice of the care experienced to retain its potency and personality without their physical presence making them a fetish-ised object for the audience. When utilised in business and corporate contexts, this technique can serve to transform young people from numbers into people, hopefully reigniting the urgency and intensity of TVF’s ultimate aim; to improve the lives of the care-experienced.
The event took place during the office workers’ lunch break. In the space of one hour the TVF team introduced themselves by explaining what belonging means to them (an important theme from university related testimonies), encouraged the workers to reflect on their own experiences of belonging and not belonging (which they wrote down on paper plates) , explained the aims of TVF, performed over ten testimonies using Headphone Verbatim, and then allowed the office participants to join the facilitators in a Verbatim Chorus in which they too got to attempt Headphone Verbatim.
As a third year student it’s great to have been part of this process. Getting to be part of the testimony collection process and to perform with TVF’s amazing team has taught me so much. I’ve wanted to experience the powerful potential of participatory theatre since I started my degree but when I first informed Maggie that I was interested in getting involved with her project I didn’t imagine getting stuck in to something so deeply important so quickly. If this project has taught me anything it’s that: a) Great experiences are only a chat with your lecturer away and b) well intentioned projects like TVF really do have the power to affect change. The expressions of concentration and empathy on the faces of our audience proved just how powerful listening can be.