Many of you know Dr. Doree Allen as the founding Director of Stanford’s Oral Communication Program. I first was introduced to her during my job interview with PWR by then Associate Director Zach Waggoner. “Doree is one of the most respected people at this institution,” he told me. “And you should also know, she is one of the most loved.”
While the truth of his words is felt by many, there are few who know Doree’s former life as an actor and writer (she has a Master’s degree in Film as well as a PhD in English from Stanford). For years, she used her background along with her expertise in the performance of literature and poetry, as a powerful force in the development and growth of the Oral Communication Program. As an administrator, however, her primary duties have been in service of the administrative responsibilities and the daily tasks of running the Program and supporting students.
“I have always had a deep love of theater, theater as political activism, theater as a way to draw our attention and help us to think differently about things,” says Doree. “But I also realized I had been compartmentalizing this part of my life for too long and I was paying a price.”
A desire to return to and nurture her roots was the motivation for her interest in a powerful new project: verbatim theater.
Although there are various methods of using and practicing verbatim theater, Doree draws her own definition from Will Hammond and Dan Steward’s book, Verbatim, Verbatim. In this kind of “documentary theater,” the words of actual people are “recorded or transcribed by a dramatist during an interview… or are appropriated from existing records such as the transcripts of an official enquiry. They are then edited, arranged or recontextualised to form a dramatic presentation, in which actors take on the characters of the real individuals whose words are being used.”
It is a kind of theater that can speak to the current social, cultural and political moment with a foundation in research and scholarship that ultimately culminates in a live performance.
“Its unique ability to chronicle the prevailing socio-political challenges, and casualties, of our times, and to bring unheard voices to the stage—this approach to theatre has rarely been more vital or relevant than it is today,” says Doree.
But it can also rewrite and re-perform history in meaningful ways.
“Historically, people have always been written out of history or misunderstood—this kind of theater can use archival materials to create a reconstruction of the past based on old letters, or other materials,” Doree says. “I’m particularly interested in researching primary source material that gets staged and exposes unheard voices into ways that might not have been heard before.”
Currently Doree is in the midst of a full immersion in the genre. She is researching its conceptual framework, including an exploration of the techniques, conventions, limitations and ethical issues. She plans to interview writers, directors and actors who make verbatim drama, read scripts and attend a range of verbatim plays. Ultimately she hopes to create a verbatim theater project of her own, perhaps one that centers the mental health of adolescents in an ensemble performance.
“Somebody doing a verbatim theater project on mental health might interview students with depression, parents, counselors, and other students interested in mental health issues,” she says. Such a theater project might be taken to college dormitories, to counselors, even to a PWR Program meeting. “I think these kinds of performances can educate and raise consciousness in a way that really moves people,” says Doree. “What if, instead of having a counselor from Vaden come in to give a talk to PWR, we could see this half-hour piece taken from the student perspective, with their real voices. This would also allow people who have experienced the issues personally to stay anonymous and not have to bear the burden of sharing in front of everybody.”
Doree credits Anna Deveare Smith, a pioneer of verbatim theater with inspiring her interest. “She talks about verbatim theater as a conduit for empathy. When you are interviewing people, you have to listen to their stories, and then find a way to reenact it in a performance. You have to feel what they are feeling, become a version of that person.”
This process and practice of building empathy is one element among many that makes this verbatim project well suited as a potential PWR course—which is also part of Doree’s plan.
“At the heart of a verbatim play is someone’s true story, but to create this type of theatre also entails the selection of a subject or theme, research involving a range of methodologies, the editing and creative arrangement of material, and the culminating physical performance and staging of the play—all to some extent familiar elements of the PWR 2 curriculum,” says Doree. “Because of verbatim theatre’s potential as an instrument of social and political change, a course centered on the creation of a verbatim play also aligns with our aim to integrate more community engaged learning into the curriculum.”
Doree plans to return to London, the hub and home to much of the world’s great theater, to continue to pursue her research and perhaps most importantly, to nurture her creative heart.
“I have always been drawn to the space this art form inhabits between life and art; between lyricism and dissonance. As an administrator dealing with what’s important and urgent for others, sometimes you lose what’s important in your own life,” Doree says. “Working on this project, I feel a part of my psyche coming back. Like a lost limb coming back to life.”