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Are you listening? Verbatim Theatre gives voice and ear to care-experienced young people

“I think I faced quite a few obstacles when I was starting off at university... you know student finance, if they were going to give me funding for the whole three years?”

These thoughts from a care-experienced young person might have been lost or disregarded. But the work of Maggie Inchley and the Verbatim Formula meant that the words were shared, listened to, and taken seriously. 

The Verbatim Formula (TVF) is a research project developed by Queen Mary researchers Dr Maggie Inchley (Drama), Dr Sadhvi Dar (Business and Management), and  Dr Sylvan Baker of the Royal Central School of Speech and Drama. Since 2015, the team has collaborated with cohorts of care-experienced young people, developing a methodology to help adults listen better and young people to be heard. 

Dr Inchley’s research has focused on the politics of voice and identity. Together with her co-researchers, she has explored some challenging questions: if we present authentic voices in verbatim performance  - that is, speaking the words exactly as they were said by the original speaker  - will this help unheard people articulate their experiences? What is the impact on the people who listen? 

One teenager, Maya (14), testified:

“I’ve literally become a catalogue of statistics, and just irrelevant facts and info. And it’s dehumanising to be honest. If adults don’t really view you as a human then how can you view yourself?… Right now, according to the system, kids have become just another number, another statistic, and it’s not whether a child is being cared for, it’s whether they’re being dealt with.”

Inchley argues this verbatim technique can serve as a tool of institutional change, particularly for groups whose lived experience is often unheard or stigmatised.

In May 2022, The Independent Review of Children’s Social Care published its final report, calling for a fundamental reset of the system to improve the quality of life for children, their families, and those that have been in care.

How the verbatim performance is created

The process is deliberately simple and low-tech, to make it accessible to all. A participant records what they want to say, usually on a phone. This is known as their testimony. Then another person – a performer or research participant− listens to the testimony through headphones, repeating aloud everything, word for word – verbatim. With everyone’s consent, these testimonies can be shared, either as a way of expressing how the participant feels, or as a tool to effect change, in meetings with colleagues, or managers. The original speakers remain anonymous, meaning that participants can speak freely without defensiveness, shame or blame.

Both the performers and those hearing the verbatim testimony are able to listen attentively, and without any preconceptions about the original speaker. They are thus forced to focus on facts and feelings, and possible ways to respond.

Initial workshops

In 2015, the researchers led a series of workshops for care-experienced young people at four universities in London (Queen Mary, Greenwich, East London and Goldsmiths). They captured audio testimonies from young people of their experiences of care. Since then these testimonies have become part of TVF’s constantly evolving ‘living archive’, and have been shared at events around the country.

“When they are heard respectfully, and with care, people talk to each other afterwards. And they listen. Through our Verbatim method, the person who gives the testimony becomes anonymous and feels safer.”
— The Verbatim Formula researchers

How has TVF helped change the perceptions of people in care?

Developing professional practice

TVF has helped care professionals better understand the challenges that young people in care and care leavers face.

The project ran two training programmes for Wandsworth Children’s Services. Fifty staff members participated in each programme. As a result of the training, a team who are responsible for nearly 500 looked-after young people made changes to their practices of care.. 

Care-experienced people became ‘Verbatim Champions’, sharing their stories with children’s service managers. Individual social workers also noted that they had changed their own working practices after having heard the testimonials. 

In 2018, the Department for Education (DfE) invited TVF to share testimonies from care-experienced young people with the Minister for Children and other senior officials. The researchers also trained the Director for Fair Access and Participation and 40 staff at the Office for Students (OfS). TVF testimonies are being used by the OfS in their work to support care-experienced students.

TVF has led workshops and offered expertise to other local and national government bodies in London and in Scotland.

“It is not good enough to assume we know what is the right approach […] We need to hear what they are telling us instead of assuming we know what they are saying.”
— Senior Policy Officer at the Department for Education

Making things better for young people in care

Young people who participated in TVF have been able to articulate their experiences and thoughts. Working as part of an intergenerational community using creative practices, they have developed trusting creative practices, and worked as a team to create impactful arts events.

They have been able to convey their affective experiences of care, supporting their agency to ask adults to change their practices in ways that will make young people’s experiences of care better.

The young people working with TVF have felt more socially included – those who had felt isolated when they entered care found support and comfort in discovering they had experiences in common with other young people.

Improving self-esteem, aspirations and ambitions for Higher Education

The participants were able to freely express their hopes and dreams, and eighty percent said that taking part in TVF gave them new confidence and affirmed and enabled their aspirations. These impacts extend to areas such as higher education, where care leavers are typically under-represented. Nationally only six percent of care-experienced young people attend university, but TVF increased the participants’ enthusiasm for university, and, as one girl said, ‘I realise that I can achieve my dreams even if they are big’.

Increasing public awareness of the experiences of young people in care

TVF continues to raise awareness of young people’s care experiences through events, videos and press coverage. These have included:

  • A Wellcome Trust Late Night Care event
  • Performances at the Being Human and Inside Out Festivals 
  • Media coverage in the Guardian, BBC Radio Three’s Freethinking and a podcast linked to Steve McQueen’s Small Axe series 
  • A recent performance of The Verbatim Formula at Battersea Arts Centre which explored the positive potential of foster care through creative practices
  • Informative videos from the project, introducing the techniques and encouraging young people to become involved
  • The Verbatim Formula created Can You See Me Now, an audio-visual arts exhibition where children in care from Wandsworth created poems, recordings and artworks to express their experiences

With AHRC follow-on funding, the People’s Palace Project is working with the Verbatim Project to create More Than Skin Deep: A Film for Foster Care, which will include care-experienced young people in making a short film to inspire more people to become foster carers. 

There are ongoing projects with which will include a summer event with Manchester’s Contact Theatre and a showcase/launch event later in the year, as part of the Being Human festival.

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