by Kate Hunter
Earshot was a verbatim theatre performance which used overheard stories gathered from the general public in cafes, parks and trams. Billed as ‘part live performance, part undercover surveillance operation’, the work was developed over three years in Melbourne, Australia. It premiered at fortyfivedownstairs, a classic inner-city Melbourne independent theatre venue in December 2017, and was re-mounted two years later for Due West, a Melbourne festival of contemporary art.
The work, which layered live and pre-recorded voices with amplified domestic appliances and home-made listening contraptions, interweaved multiple voices with voice-activated text projection to offer a fly-on-the-wall insight into the lives of others: personal, epic, comic and sometimes devastating. The performance drew on a musical approach to form, employing music stands with scored scripts and a series of analogue props which were variously mediated by microphones or spatializing technology. Various objects evoked the listening techniques of childhood (tin cans, long sections of grey water hose, red plastic funnels) or were simply incongruous items that happened to make terrific noises (a foot pump that played harmonics; kitchen implements like electric knives and coffee grinders).
Critically acclaimed, Earshot resonated hugely with audiences because of its highly relatable content and unifying eavesdropping experience .The work was critically acclaimed, receiving 4 and 5 star reviews, and was named by Alison Croggon in The Saturday Paper as one of the best Australian stage performances of 2019.
This project is part of a series of works engaged in the topic of ‘Disrupting Verbatim’. Verbatim and documentary theatre practices typically draw on testimonies from or interviews with non-actors to articulate a particular event, theme or social issue. The gathered verbatim material is transcribed, and performed by actors word-for-word. The focus of the theatre-making process is on the participants, their stories, and the courtesy norms that need to be provided. While formal experimentation in verbatim theatre practice has been expanding in recent years, material approaches to the use of verbatim texts are less commonly explored.
The performance pieces part of this research trouble the subjectivity of interviewee stories by approaching verbatim material as ‘sound objects’, disrupting the privileged place of participant testimony to create surprising and novel forms of audience engagement. Each iteration of the work used a novel material approach, including sound design, live harpsichord, real-time computer sequencing, and vocal pitch-shifting technology into a live theatre experience considering human speech as ‘noise’ alongside environmental, industrial, and found sounds. Together, the works demonstrate an innovative set of verbatim works that sit across thresholds of performance, recital, spoken word, and sound art.
ADDITIONAL MATERIAL FROM THE AUTHOR
NTRO research reporting does not acknowledge the iterative nature of practice-led research, and the contribution such iterative practice makes to knowledge, particularly in relation to theatre and performance research. Live works sometimes require extended development times and often produce more than one performance season. Significant shifts can occur between one public season and the next. These shifts can create entirely new research questions, and introduce innovations and techniques which generate new knowledge. New performance seasons might be quite significantly different, yet it’s rarely possible to include a repeat season within an NTRO reporting framework. In this way, the NTRO process limits researchers’ capacity to explicate the very particular kinds of knowledge-generation that embodied practice produces.
I have been through a number of ‘reporting iterations’ with this work to try and have the ‘development’ phases – which were funded – included as part of a portfolio of works that were part of addressing the same research question. The other stipulations around ‘peer-review’ and the reputation of the venues where these ‘development’ or ‘initial iteration’ works were performed, posed a problem for inclusion in the portfolio. They also posed a problem for reporting on their own as valid outputs in and of themselves.
I’m also not sure that artist websites are admissible as evidence; rather, tedious uploads of separate images and videos must be included. I’d argue that websites present wholistic and rigorous research narratives because they are a platform which can hold multiple relevant forms of documentation and evidence.
This is probably obvious, but I think there’s an additional layer of work required as a creative arts researcher which necessitates laying down the groundwork or contextualising the field for the review panel. We are outliers in the research academy, and must take the extra time to argue for significance and contribution by establishing the reputation/s of the venues, festivals and curated programs that our work is located in. Even as we make the work, we must explain the importance of embodied research and extrude the research question, which is not always straightforward.
Dr Kate Hunter is an interdisciplinary artist working across performance, improvisation, painting, and sound. Her work juxtaposes digital and analogue technology, storytelling and the live body, and employs innovative use of found objects, polyphonics and verbatim recordings to examine the complex interplay between hearing, listening, reading and speaking that is implicit in the ways humans communicate through language. Kate’s research investigates the ways in which performance methodologies, particularly spoken word, verbatim and documentary theatre methods, might be intersected with visual art practices. Recently, Kate has begun overlaying painted objects with personal narratives, sound design and writing to create works which experiment with notions of perspective, scope and size to bring into question our ocular-centric approaches to ways of being in the world. Kate is currently Lecturer in Art and Performance, Deakin University, Australia.
Main image credit: Kate Hunter, Earshot, 2017 photo credit: Leo Dale