Transcripts never had so much fun

Michael Martin’s brainchild pokes holes in fame’s fa

Tatum Fjerstad

Michael Martin doesn’t know what prompted the madness behind “Verbatim Verboten.”

In 10 years the Minnesotan collected some 200 transcripts of private conversations between the famous and infamous. Actors now perform the conversations – word for word.

Although Martin can’t remember his inspiration, he now knows his project’s purpose.

Famous people “are by-and-large in control of how they are discussed,” Martin said. “There is a disconnection between their private and public lives, which continues to fascinate me.”

Although the conversations he uses already are in the public domain, his show takes the control out of the speakers’ hands.

“Verbatim Verboten” mixes and matches conversations thematically so each performance is different.

Actors perform roles in about 40 transcripts. Those parts range from a operator to a proud president. The most popular conversations involve Charles and Camilla, Texaco executives, President Richard M. Nixon and the mafia.

“If you don’t have mafia transcripts, you aren’t even trying,” Martin said.

But the show doesn’t limit itself to famous figures. Some tête-à-têtes are of the mundane but familiar, such as a transcript of two Aussie secretaries arguing over who stole the other’s lunch meat.

Martin collected the transcripts from Web sites, magazine, newspapers and other periodicals, but not all of them have been performed. Some, in relation to Katrina, Federal Emergency Management Agency and the Bush administration, will make their debut in Minneapolis.

To make it even more interesting, the conversations aren’t performed true to their original format. Actors are given mostly free reign to breathe new and unique life into the transcripts.

At times, it can be hard for Martin to stomach the new readings.

“I have a way they sound in my head,” he said. “But the stuff I hadn’t thought of is inevitably better.”

Legal, or not?

The play received international attention with the performance of a transcript of an illegally recorded conversation between Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman.

Martin found the transcript in tabloids and newspapers. But Cruise didn’t approve the release of the conversation in the first place. So when the couch-hopper got wind of the performance, he threatened legal action if Martin didn’t remove it from the lineup. Martin still includes it from time to time.

“Once it’s in print, it’s available,” Martin said.

Despite such expansive media attention, “Verbatim Verboten” is not a moneymaker yet.

“It’s like franchising fringe theatre,” Martin said. “I don’t mean to be poetic, but it will always be a fringe show at heart. It’s not meant for the mainstream.”

Bringing the show home

After boasting successful and lengthy runs in Seattle and Chicago, this weekend’s opening of “Verbatim Verboten” is the “first full Twin Cities production.”

In 2001 Martin’s show had a two-night stand at Bryant Lake Bowl. Actors rehearsed it in one evening, “broke for dinner and then put on the show.”

“It went like gangbusters,” Martin said. “I should have brought it back immediately, but other projects beckoned.”

Martin, a Minnesota native, now makes New Orleans his home. He is here to direct the show and host the first few weekends, then the cast of four men and three women will be on its own.

“The shows change character once I leave the room,” Martin said. “It’s good and it’s important.”

Dave Crady, a slam poet and an actor in the show, will fill in as host when Martin leaves.

The daunting task isn’t intimidating for Crady, who plays Paris Hilton and turns her transcript into slam poetry.

“Some things in the show intimidate me far more,” Crady said, “like playing a lot of roles in the course of one evening. And I’ve never had to portray anything that’s remotely close to a politician. I’m excited to do it.”

To make up for lost time, “Verbatim Verboten” has open-run status at the Bryant Lake Bowl, performing a few Saturdays a month. This idea worked in Chicago, where the show ran for more than a year.

“It’s completely about audience response.”

Most of the show is comical, but “at its heart it’s a serious show.” Martin strives to even out the straight faces and giggles coming from the audience.

“Striking a balance between a glorified blooper reel and a satirical drama is a night by night process,” Martin said.