Show artwork for Making theatre from real life
David Williams in Smurf in Wanderland (2017). Photo: Brett Boardman

Making theatre from real life

Playwright, director and sometimes-performer David Williams discusses the process of creating verbatim theatre piece Only Players.

By David Williams

As a playwright, director and sometimes-performer, most of my stage works can be described as verbatim theatre, being based on various types of ‘real-life’ found materials such as interviews, archives and transcripts of public inquiries.

Each of my plays has sought to explore diverse political and social issues, ranging from workplace cultures in hospitals (Grace Under Pressure), the place of religion in public life (Quiet Faith) and the complex ways in which football fandom and geographic belonging shape identity (Smurf in Wanderland). The ideas explored in each of these plays might sound dry, but in creating them I am always deeply invested in shaping surprising emotional journeys for audiences. I absolutely want audiences to be provoked to think in new ways, but I also want them to be entertained and be moved by my plays as well.



From 2017-2021 members of my company Alternative Facts and I conducted a series of interviews with English teachers in Australian schools about their experiences of teaching Shakespeare. The age and experience ranges of these teachers were diverse – some retired, some newly graduated, some from privileged 'elite' schools, and others from struggling outer-urban schools and small rural schools. Edited transcripts of these interviews were then intercut with Shakespeare soliloquies selected by the interviewees that help to frame a discussion around a specific memorable moment from their teaching practice. The teachers interviewed were articulate and generous with their time and ideas, and offered a range of fantastic perspectives on the experience of teaching Shakespeare in diverse schools. Their specific insights and their overall thoughts about the future of education in Australia were fascinating.

 In creating Only Players I hadn’t intended to create a work about Shakespeare. Similar to my 2017 play Grace Under Pressure (co-written with Paul Dwyer), I had envisaged that Only Players would be a ‘sociological portrait’[1] about the work and lives of English teachers, the pressures of teaching the humanities in the age of standardised testing, and the ways in which learning about the arts can produce transformative experiences for students. I had wanted Only Players to be a work about the potential futures of the arts within education systems, and had considered the Shakespeare focus as a kind of Trojan horse that might enable conversations across the ideological spectrum. But as the play developed through drafts and readings, it became clear that the emotional drive within the play came from power of language to create moments of magic and transformation. The stories of teacher’s work lives in the play are rich and fascinating – sometimes amusing and sometimes sad – but the moments where Only Players really came to life in the rehearsal room were when teachers and students grappled with the complex joys of Shakespeare’s plays. For me, working with verbatim materials always creates surprises, and the creative journey of Only Players has certainly been full of surprises.



Way back in 2013 I was collaborating on a project for the Australian Theatre for Young People called Quay to the City, initiated by the director Janice Muller. The project was a site-responsive promenade work about the complex histories and speculative futures of The Rocks, a historic area of Sydney. Janice’s vision for Quay to the City was inspired by her recent experience of working with the acclaimed ‘reality theatre’ company Rimini Protokoll, whose work I also found inspiring. The company refers to their process as creating works with ‘experts of the everyday’[2], and their works build complex portraits of communities and cultures at pivotal moments of transformation.

Throughout the process of creating Quay to the City, Janice and I often chatted about our shared interest in creating theatre experiences through conversations with ordinary people about their lives and work. We were excited about the opportunities that such theatre projects might offer to illuminate unseen stories, celebrate the contributions of often-overlooked workers, and perhaps even heal open wounds within communities and cultures. Through these conversations, I started to write a proposal for a play based on conversations with teachers about education and the arts called Only Players.

In late 2016 I was successful in obtaining a small grant from Arts NSW, and started to develop the play, conducting the first call-out for participants and an initial set of ten interviews. Other production deadlines saw work on Only Players paused for the next several years. During the 2020 COVID-19 lockdown, Alternative Facts used the time in isolation to conduct a further series of interviews for Only Players, and then a series of readings of new drafts of the play via Zoom. By this stage, the play featured interview material drawn from over 20 completed interviews with teachers. In 2022, the Seymour Centre came on board as a commissioning partner, and contributed funds to support a script workshop of Only Players in February 2022, hosted by MTC Education. This workshop resulted in a warmly-received reading of draft 10 of the play, and we hope to be able to present the finished work to audiences in 2023.

 Only_Players_development_Photos_by_Stacey_Brown.pngCreative development for Only Players. PHOTOS: Stacey Brown


It's not unusual for my documentary or verbatim plays to take multiple years from the initial idea to production. Even the first steps of the project – developing the concept and gathering the resources (arts grant funding or other partnership support) – can take anywhere between six months and three years.

Phase 1: Gathering

For me, a new verbatim play always begins with a gathering phase – finalising the interview questions; identifying people to interview; building trust and conducting interviews; then transcribing and editing these interviews. The gathering phase usually takes the longest of all the stages, often between six and eighteen months.

For each new play, I have found that the questions asked of interviewees were pivotal in shaping the resultant performance, usually in unexpected ways. Often at the start of the project I would be convinced that a particular question would provide the core of a work, only to find when editing the interviews into something resembling a play, that my boring question (Do you like teaching Shakespeare?) received the boring answer (Yes/No) it deserved. In general, the more open-ended the question, and the more detailed and personal the response, the better potential material for a play might emerge.

For Only Players the questions asked of the teachers interviewed for the play included 

  • How did you come to teaching? How would you describe your journey through the profession?
  • What do you love about being an English teacher? What do you find most challenging?
  • From your perspective, how has the schools system changed (or not) during your professional life?
  • What has made you stay (or leave) the profession?
  • What has been your most memorable moment of teaching Shakespeare? Of joy or satisfaction? Of difficulty?
  • For you, what is the significance of teaching young people about Shakespeare? Why bother with this archaic language and old storytelling modes?
  • Please suggest your favourite Shakespearean excerpt (a soliloquy or scene)? 
  • Why do you suggest this excerpt? What do you remember about teaching (or learning) this?
  • What are your thoughts about the future of schools and the education system? 

These questions weren’t intended to be prescriptive, but rather frames to help shape discussion, and these interviews inevitably went on many fascinating (and not always useful) tangents. Audio recordings of each of these interviews were conducted, and each of these were transcribed – a time-consuming process even with the assistance of new AI-based transcription software such as Otter (

Phase 2: Shaping

When these materials are gathered, a shaping phase begins – weaving these voices together to create the initial drafts of the play. The shaping phase usually happens in a burst of focused attention, often around three to four weeks.

Through this process I take note of repeated themes that emerge across the interview materials, as well as noting counterpoint or contrasting experiences. I also try to understand what is not being said by an interviewee, the things they talk around or actively avoid. These silences and omissions can speak loudly within a play if I can clearly identify them. I try to be attentive to the quality of the voices that emerge on the page, their rhythms of speech, choice of words and unique phrasing. Often what I try to reproduce on stage in my plays are moments of ‘talking thinking’, moments where the characters imperfectly but earnestly strive to communicate their experience to the interviewer. I especially love moments when interviewees struggle to articulate complex ideas – the looping jumble of self-corrections and infelicitous speech that most clearly captures the real humanity of a character. Perhaps my favourite example of this is a paramedic in Grace Under Pressure (2017) who concludes her fast-paced story about an emergency resuscitation with:

NURSE /PARAMEDIC: Such a great – well for me it was, probably not for everyone. But for me, I love a good slap in the face sometimes. ‘Alright let's get going.’ I remember going home, and I was still living at home with my mum. She goes, ‘How was it?’ No, I called her after the job. ‘How's it going?’ ‘I just did CPR on someone!’ I couldn't get the smile off my face. Might be a bit sadistic, but it's just, I don't know.

Grace Under Pressure by David Williams & Paul Dwyer (Currency Press, 2017), page 7

The sentence structure in this excerpt is barely coherent, and the character’s memory demonstrably unreliable. Yet there is a warmth and sense of genuine excitement in this paragraph that is palpable, despite these confusing lines being an enormous challenge for an actor to memorise.

All of these stumbles and imperfections add to the sense of uniqueness or ‘voice print’ of each individual character. Throughout this process I’m constantly reading each voice out loud to find the speech rhythms and distinctiveness of each voice, as well as layering in a sense of musicality through the length of each line, the ways in which these lines sound up against each other, and the pauses or silences between them.

Phase 3: Crafting

After this comes a crafting phase – taking the early drafts of the play into a rehearsal room with actors and other creatives (including a dramaturg, set designer and sound artist among others) and testing out how the ideas, stories and characters in the play come to life. I’m always especially interested in how the play flows – the rhythm and musicality of the language – and trying to remain attentive to the emotional journey of the play as a whole.

In this phase I want to discover how space and time works to help make sense of the play. How do the actors physically relate to each other on the stage? How might the audience experience the stories within the play? This is hugely important for me as my plays don’t usually have a conventional narrative arc with well-rounded or fully formed characters. Instead, my plays are usually a collage of interwoven voices from my interview subjects, with actors playing multiple characters differentiated only by slight shifts in vocal energy or physicality. The language within these plays is conversational, and often delivered as direct address to audience – as if sharing an intimate moment in a public environment. So finding the right artistic frame or ‘container’ for this is critical in shaping the audience experience of the play. Often this frame emerges from the themes and ideas in the interview material itself. 

Precisely what the final frame might be for Only Players is yet to be determined, but during our recent script workshop at MTC, designer Isla Shaw, sound artist Gail Priest, dramaturg Damien Ryan and I began speculating and experimenting with a stage environment that appears to be a classroom, but steadily and surprisingly transforms to places dark, strange and magical. Hole punch detritus becomes snow, a whiteboard part of a forest grove, overhead projectors display threatening advancing shadows. Coupled with these scenic experiments, our actors played with abrupt transformations from everyday story telling about teachers’ experiences to highly theatrical Shakespeare characters. A teacher’s tale of classroom struggle with complex language becomes infected by the rhythms of Bottom’s transformation by Puck into an ass from A Midsummer Night’s Dream. A moment where a teacher discovers a student is subjected to parental violence at home is answered with an excerpt from King John, in which Constance forcefully articulates her justifiable rage. Something of the ‘rough magic’ of these transformations feels like a rich springboard for this developing play.



When I cast actors for my plays, I’m looking for actors who have a strong capacity to clearly communicate complex ideas and difficult emotional territory in a conversational, direct-address-to audience performance mode. They also have to have a strong capacity to play multiple characters each with a distinctly different energetic quality. They have to be able to learn challenging line rhythms replete with precisely placed ‘ums’ and ‘you know’. They also have to repeat these lines with a kind of hyper naturalism – as if they are the original speaker of these words. In some ways, acting verbatim might be viewed as a form of channelling – making present an absent original speaker for an audience. It can be a strangely ego-less form of acting – the actor has to unlearn their own personal speech rhythms and fully embrace those of the character. Perhaps this isn’t that different to creating a character in a more traditional narrative play, but certainly the actors I’ve worked with believe that the process of role-building in my plays has been a distinctly different experience for them.

Acting in my plays always has to be precisely attuned – the actor has to both exactly memorise the complex flow of verbatim text, but they also have to be very clear about the function of this particular section of the text within the play as a whole. I try to be attentive to the beats and micro rhythms within each section, how the focus and attention of the speakers shifts and what the perspective of this character adds to the bigger picture of the world explored within the play. I try and select characters whose perspectives and experiences diverge – approaching events from multiple angles to build complex pictures of often-complex problems. 

My most regular director’s note with actors is ‘think the thoughts’. What I mean by this is that the confusing jumble of words that comprises the text is in fact the way in which the character is trying to communicate their experiences to the interviewer. A kind of a ‘talking thinking’. All of the ‘ums’ and ‘ahs’ are not a gimmick. They are rather the vocalised process of the character thinking through complicated or emotionally difficult stories. This struggle to articulate, to find the right words to use is in fact the most crucial part of the play. This reminds us that these characters are in fact real people, communicating real struggles. Acting verbatim carries with it a responsibility to create empathy for these real people, and to do them justice. This is rarely easy to achieve, but when it works the results can be profound.


[1] This is how the Malaysian director Mark Teh of Five Arts Centre has recently described the mode of my interview-based plays Quiet Faith (2014) and Grace Under Pressure (2017)

[2] See for instance Dreysse, Miriam and Malzacher, Florian (eds) Experts of the Everyday. The Theatre of Rimini Protokoll (Alexander Verlag, 2007)


David Williams is a Melbourne-based theatre artist whose works open spaces for public conversation about political and social issues. David holds a PhD from UNSW, was the founder and artistic leader of the performance group version 1.0 (1998-2012), and is currently the director of Alternative Facts Pty Ltd. He was the Curator of the 2015 Australian Theatre Forum, and his theatre works have won Helpmann, Green Room and Drovers’ Awards.

Over the past two decades he has crafted evocative performances from found materials such as interviews, archives, and transcripts of public inquiries. His recent works include Quiet Faith, built around conversations with Australian Christians about religion and public life, Grace Under Pressure (co-written with Paul Dwyer), based on interviews with doctors and nurses about hospital workplace cultures, and Smurf In Wanderland, an autobiographical work about football fandom. Most recently, his solo performance Smaller (Take Over! 2020) was nominated for a Green Room award.

Further details:

Published on 4 July 2022

Explore More