Gathered in Confidence is a documentary Drama produced as an Advanced Production Project by level 400 drama students at The University Of Otago's Theatre Studies Department. The play ends it's too short run today, so few of you will be able to see it, which is a shame, as it is one of the most compelling pieces of drama I've seen in a long while.
The production of the piece was complex. Twenty two Dunedin people, representing a wide mix of age, gender, ethnicity and social background were videotaped as they answered the questions, What frightens you? and What comforts you? The people were interviewed in their home or work environments or in some other congenial location. The resulting 22 hours of footage was then edited into a 50 minute script which the actors performed using, as far as they could reproduce them, the words, intonation and body language of the original subjects. Staging was minimal: a layered set was used, with seats placed on differing levels and the actors, who each acted 2 or 3 of the subjects, denoted their characters and the characters' location by sparse but effective use of clothing and props. The play took place in darkness with each actor spotlit as they spoke. Each actor used an MP3 player and earbuds to listen to the soundtrack of the original interview as they performed their part. Great lengths were taken to protect the privacy of each of the participants, and they were, without exception, treated with dignity.
The performers were not typecast as to age and gender, so there was some initial incongruity, as for example, a young man acted the voice and mannerisms of an elderly woman, and a young Pakeha woman spoke as a very testosterone fuelled young Maori man. Incongruity didn't last long however as over the course of an hour each of the characters became convincingly and movingly real. Some of it was delightfully funny, some loaded with pathos. I was intrigued at how much the characters had exposed themselves in the course of their interviews, and how touchingly, vulnerably human they all seemed as the play concluded. The editing had been done very intelligently and the play felt very well paced. A loose thematic thread connected the segments and gave a strong sense of narrative. The use of music was particularly effective. Two songs were sung in the course of the play to good effect and the opening and closing music was a quite haunting piano improvisation on one of the songs, composed and performed by Corrie Huxtable, one of the actors.
In discussion after the play, it was asked why bother to act this at all? Why not let the original subjects just say their thing? Why not just watch the original edited videotape. I think that it is the incongruity I mentioned above which answers this. The acting was, without exception, flawless and the characters each shone through; but given the gap between the character and the person portraying him/her, we in the audience were each required to make the usual suspension of belief and enter the world created by the drama. We were always aware that we were watching people playing parts; and this raised , for me, a philosophical point: for just as the actors were playing parts, using words and gestures supplied from elsewhere, so too were the characters they played. Each, like all of us, was playing a part, responding to circumstances generally not of their making, and using words, ideas and perceptions which had been given them by their environment. The play thus passed the one criterion of all true art: it spoke a truth. It was this truth telling, artfully and skillfully handled which made Gathered In Confidence such satisfying drama.