Heart of the City: Verbatim #whatnow puts a human spin on #MeToo

Marisa Emma Smith and Amber Barton codirected the show in which actors perform words that they hear through earbuds

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      Alley Theatre artistic producer Marisa Emma Smith came up with the idea for her group’s latest production more than a year after taking a workshop on “headphone verbatim”. This approach to theatre, pioneered in the 1990s, involves artists performing edited interviews that they hear through headphones or earbuds.

      The performer says the words, matching the cadence and pauses of the voice in their ear. When Smith was partnered with a man at the headphone-verbatim workshop, she was astonished by how she felt hearing him repeat what she had said.

      “He had this strong masculine energy on-stage as he was saying my words—as I was awkwardly telling some story about working in the restaurant industry,” Smith recalled in a phone interview with the Straight. “There was something so humanizing about him saying my words—my exact speech patterns—knowing he had the feeling that it was a woman’s story. There was something about it that didn’t matter.”

      When the #MeToo movement erupted in the wake of a 2017 New York Times exposé on Hollywood kingpin Harvey Weinstein, Smith thought about how headphone verbatim could elevate empathy for victims of sexual assault.

      “I’m a sexual-assault survivor myself, as many people are,” Smith said. “On the one hand, I was moved and excited that so many people were sharing the truth and by how brave they were. It felt very monumental.”

      On the other hand, she added, the hashtag movement could be polarizing, so she was seeking a safe, inviting way to talk about consent.

      In 2018, Smith came up with the idea of interviewing local sexual-assault survivors and then presenting their viewpoints on-stage with actors using headphone verbatim. But she realized that this production, called #whatnow, would be very “talky”. So she reached out to accomplished Vancouver choreographer Amber Barton to see if she would incorporate movement into the production.

      “I felt like I had seen shows that were about sexual assault and always came away, as a sexual-assault survivor, feeling worse,” Smith said. “I wanted to create a show that was both healing for survivors [and] educating for people who might have done harm or were just not aware of the issue.”

      In addition, Smith aimed to convey a feeling of hope and a sense of what “consent” really means.

      Marisa Emma Smith is the artistic producer of Alley Theatre.

      Codirector Barton, who was also on the call with the Straight, acknowledged that it wasn’t easy figuring out how this could be expressed through dance.

      “It’s not about cool, sweet moves,” Barton said. “It’s about supporting the space and also having the actors situated in such a way that the audience also feels comfortable and feels that they can trust this experience.”

      Barton had an epiphany after the actors were gathered for the first rehearsal, testing out the headphone-verbatim approach while sitting on chairs. It dawned upon her that chairs could become an essential element of the production.

      “I just started incorporating how they’re sitting on chairs, moving chairs across the space, and then creating images with these chairs and shapes—and trying to basically…give some energy but not detracting from these very, very important stories,” Barton said.

      Smith had several challenges of her own: finding interview subjects, ensuring they represented a broad range of people (including those who identify as trans and nonbinary), and editing their words down to an 80-minute production.

      Alley Theatre partnered with the nonprofit Good Night Out Vancouver, which helped Smith find people willing to speak about their experiences. She ended up with more than 70 hours of tapes from more than 40 interview subjects.

      Then she went back to the interview subjects to ensure they were comfortable with how their stories were being presented.

      In doing so, Barton described Smith as a “hero”.

      Amber Funk Barton codirected #whatnow.
      Richie Lubaton

      “It’s been edited umpteen times with consent, making sure the pacing is right,” Barton revealed.

      Smith and Barton described #whatnow as a multiperspective interdisciplinary production incorporating theatre and dance.

      Three #whatnow performances will have gender-specific audiences. October 31 is reserved for female audience members; November 3 is set aside for trans and nonbinary people; and November 4 is restricted to male audience members.

      Smith promised that all shows will be presented cabaret-style, offering ample room for physical distancing.

      “It’s a weird time for people to be going out to a live event but at the same time I think we’re all yearning for connection,” she said. “This piece has so much humanity.”