Verbatim Theater: Empathy, Suspicion, and the Desire for the Political

By: Briana Johnson | Date: January 17, 2023 | Tags: Author Post
Verbatim Theater: Empathy, Suspicion, and the Desire for the Political

This guest author post  is from Ryan Claycomb, author of In the Lurch: Verbatim Theater and the Crisis of Democratic Deliberation , from the University of Michigan Press. This book is available in hardcover, paper, and open access.

Performer and playwright Anna Deavere Smith has been as visible in the past three years as at nearly any point in her career. The 1996 MacArthur Grant winner, whose 19-work series On the Road: A Search for American Character might collectively be one of the greatest achievements of American theater, has become to some observers something of a model for how our cultural divisions and this moment of increasing political polarization might be addressed. Her method involves locating a particular moment of cultural pressure, interviewing both people with lived experience and those with deep expertise, curating and collaging these interviews into a rich rumination on that cultural pressure, and then re-performing these interviews as a series of monologues, acted with an astonishing virtuosity. While her method is complex, it might be best encapsulated in her own brief description of acting as “the travel from the self to the other.”

When scholars talk about verbatim theater – a term we might use to describe Smith’s performances – and other forms of “theater of the real,” we tend to talk about its claims to truth and authenticity, its journalistic impulses, and its approach to theatrical representation. That these forms are political has often been tacitly understood, as has the idea that they are participating in theater’s long history in the public sphere and, more recently, in democracy itself. In the Lurch: Verbatim Theater and the Crisis of Democratic Deliberation steps back to examine these premises and asks, “If these theatrical forms are participating in the public sphere, what vision of the public do they imagine?” and “What kinds of interventions into democracy are they making?”

This last question, how theater participates in democracy, has seemed especially urgent since I began writing this book in 2019. What I’ve found is that especially in western liberal democracies, performances like Smith’s Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992 , Moises Kaufman and Tectonic Theatre Project’s The Laramie Project , and many verbatim performances by Ping Chong + Co. in the US, Tricycle Theatre Company in the UK, and Porte Parole in Canada, are all modeling their own visions of the public sphere for audiences to witness.

These visions are not entirely uniform, and performances take on different approaches, but what they tend to have in common is an understanding of the theater’s space for artistic representation is also a space to model political representation. They also understand theatrical space’s “emptiness” as a clean slate to imagine a kind of deliberative utopia, even when the place being performed is a site of horrific violence. These performances also tend to take the public sphere’s typical configuration as a space for rational debate and interject the notion of empathy as a crucial missing element. Empathetic listening can occur when the interviewer listens to the initial interview subject; it’s what the performer models when performing onstage; it’s what theater-makers hope these performers will teach their audiences. Popular and scholarly criticism alike have often held up verbatim theater and other forms of, the real, as what Jenn Stephenson has called, “rehearsal for democracy.” Taken together, “travel from the self to the other,” “empathetic listening,” and “rehearsal for democracy” explain Anna Deavere Smith’s current role as a kind of sage for our divided cultural and political moment.

I call this moment “the lurch,” referring specifically to the rightward lurch of liberal democracies since 2015. Yet during this period, new verbatim performances have received lukewarm audience reception, fielding complaints that these performances are tepid in their gestures to even-handedness, or alternatively, unethical in their choices around how and even whether to represent certain voices on the stage. For these performances’ typically middle-class, liberal-leaning audiences, those out-of-bound voices are suddenly those from the hard right. These figures are often depicted in context as extreme, yet they are also granted an additional platform to spread these extreme views by virtue of their very inclusion in the representative space on the stage. Instead of empathy and listening, the reception of these performances have more recently been colored by suspicion and mistrust. In her work on reading novels, literature scholar Suzanne Keen has identified suspicion as disabling readers’ empathetic impulses, and I suspect that the same effects of suspicion similarly nullify the utopian impulses of verbatim theater.

I see this burgeoning suspicion leading to having three different consequences. First, it has changed the tenor of newer verbatim performances; they are more pointed and combative, and are tending to model dissensus rather than empathy. Second, this regime of suspicion has called into question the political effectiveness of these performances in the first place. They seem to enact a version of Lauren Berlant’s idea of “cruel optimism”: a hope for something that is actually an obstacle to our thriving. Berlant and others have spoken, for example, about how the warm feeling of empathetic witnessing might deactivate our impulse to take further action toward change, rather than motivating those impulses, satisfying “the desire for the political” without actually doing any politics.

And third, because of the first two reasons, this suspicious moment seems to have driven audiences toward revivals of now-classic verbatim theater entries, new productions of performances that were urgent - when they first appeared in the 1990s. Yes, these performances feel relevant, because we are dealing with many of the same issues – police brutality, violent responses to activism, hate crimes against those who have been historically marginalized. But by displacing these concerns into the past, they also reveal a kind of nostalgia, a romanticized longing for a time when liberal pluralism felt desirable or even possible. Among the many varieties of nostalgia, this one seems particularly cruel.

Yet Anna Deavere Smith, whose work animates this book, continues to be a source of wisdom. Her work has recently devoted less time to giving voice to those who would wield violent power and more to foregrounding the voices that have been abused by that power. She continues to advocate for empathetic listening across identity and ideological differences, and she is still doing so in the search for “American Character,” a character that, in her telling, is still the promise of democracy.