Crouch Touch Pause Engage, the new verbatim play by Robin Soans, tackles the subject of Welsh rugby legend Gareth Thomas coming out as gay, as well as exploring the infamous spate of youth suicides in the player’s native Bridgend. In this blog, Robin acknowledges the pressures and responsibilities of telling someone else’s story, and admits that this style of documentary drama can provoke suspicion and unease in some.
It has been a recurring theme since I started writing verbatim theatre that certain guardians of the young and vulnerable in whichever location I end up, have suspected my intentions of being commercial and exploitative rather than humanitarian and sympathetic, and of using the stories I find to promote my own career rather than trying to widen our knowledge of a particular syndrome and hopefully persuade my audience that there is more to it than might immediately be apparent. During the workshop for A State Affair, I was in a bail hostel in Leeds, and the undermanager, having serious doubts about my intentions, said to me, ‘Never forget it’s someone’s life.’ Those words have resonated with me ever since, and are at the back, or even the front, of my mind whenever I conduct interviews or construct the text. I really don’t want to exploit the people who have given their time and stories for the enlightenment of others, but it still remains a suspicion among the gatekeepers that my motives are selfish and at worst could make the situation worse rather than better.
When I arrived at a theatre in Burnley during research for Mixed up North, there was a young cast… a mix of Asian, Caribbean and white… getting ready for the dress rehearsal of their play. One girl stood alone in the corner of the foyer holding her wrist. If anyone went near her, she would move away, and although she went through the motions during the dress rehearsal, she was clearly traumatised. Over the next few weeks I got to know her, and one day she said she would like to tell me her story. I went to her care worker and asked if this was ethical… I said I didn’t want to interfere or tread on anyone’s toes or exceed my brief. She said, ‘Oh no, that’s fine… if she wants to talk to you, that’s fine.’ I said, ‘Do you want to sit in with me on the interview… and tell me if I’m being unnecessarily intrusive?’
‘Oh no, no… I’m sure it’ll be fine… she’ll tell you what she wants to tell you.’ The girl and I went into the kitchen of the youth centre, I made her a cup of tea, gave her a biscuit, and asked her if she really wanted to tell me the story. I hardly asked another question… it came pouring out… how her relationship with her mother had soured, how her stepfather had abused her, and how on the way home from the theatre the day before I arrived, she had been raped by two boys in the corner of a dark street… and that had reopened all the trauma of what her stepfather had done to her.
Her story, heavily disguised to protect her identity, appeared in the final script… and the very people from whom I had sought permission for the interview said Social Services were thinking of contacting the police and asking me to answer charges of exploitation. My initial reaction was one of frustration, especially when it was reiterated at post-show discussions, but actually on reflection it is perfectly understandable… in the bleak post-industrial landscape where I look at life, everyone is pigeon-holed by the coalition of press, politicians, and big business, everyone is robbed of identity and dignity and understanding, and you can understand their point of view as much as anyone else’s. There’s a line in Crouch, Touch, Pause, Engage… Alfie says, ‘If you’re the first person to do something, you have to be prepared to take the shit for it.’ Verbatim writers are pioneers… they are the first to look deep into the heart of matters, and the truth is they must be prepared to take the shit for it.