Theatre is a place to talk about truth
Truth is another thing
But just because it’s fiction it doesn’t make it lie.
I once copied this quote down after watching a documentary about P.L. Travers (who incidentally famously wrote Mary Poppins) and I thought about it a lot while writing this blog.
Over the years that we’ve been theatre makers, we’ve found that theatre, an art form where truth is much more mutable than the news media, is the perfect means for exploring the relationship between truth and the press.
As far back as ancient Greece, theatre has been a way to reflect the truth through storytelling, rather than to disguise it.
The P.L Travers quote was scribbled down on a chocolate wrapper and promptly lost, and so when we then used it for the flyer of the Dutch opening of our show ‘Life is too good to be true’ at the Edinburgh festival it could have been very wrong, and I’m ashamed to admit we never checked it. Maybe it became the quote I wanted it to be. There is an old Chinese saying that goes something like this: “A person’s longing reveals their true face.”
This is especially pertinent, as last week staff writer at The New Yorker, Jonah Lehrer, resigned over fabricating Bob Dylan quotes for use in his new book. Jonah Lehrer’s rise and fall is typical for the kind of journalism that has become increasingly common. The hyperlink generation is so used to blurring boundaries and thinking across genres that journalistic fact becomes ever harder to keep clean-cut.
As theatre makers, we compose our scripts out of texts that were originally never meant to be used in the theatre. We create fiction out of the debris of today’s reality. And we relish that P.L Travers, quote, because, for us, for performers, it is true that “Just because it’s fiction it doesn’t make it a lie”. We apparently seem to think, paradoxically, that we can find truth in fiction and theatre. Since theatre blurs the facts more than the average journalist, it sometimes then, strikes us as strange that while the press must report only fact, theatre can be thought of as a place where truth can be rediscovered.
If this all sounds very theoretical and cerebral to you, we have to say that it really speaks to us as actors, and therefore it is something that could mean something to anyone who watches plays, films or TV. Revealing “truth through art” isn’t just posturing and theory; it’s actually very practical and it relates to the actual physical experience of experiencing a performed event, especially when it comes to theatre.
Indeed, Glenn Close said of live performance “In our society we have the TV screen, the computer screen and the movie screen. It’s not real and not human scale. More and more I am starting to think that theatre is becoming more and more relevant as far as keeping us connected. As a culture and as a society.”
We wholeheartedly agree with this sentiment – it relates incredibly closely to our own experience of live performance. Theatre regains relevance and its power because it is unmediated, in a fiercely mediated world. And this is almost the exact opposite of the rules that govern the modern press.
Perhaps this is why, in the media-run globalized world, we seem to constantly rejoice in Schadenfreude when other people are exposed as fraudsters and tricksters. It pierces through the layers of mediation between the truth and our reception of it. We find it sensational when an athlete is caught doping, an academic is proven to fix his scientific data, or a politician is found to have fake degrees on his CV. Our society has proven that, despite our fascination and acceptance of a doctored version of the truth, we are still morbidly fascinated when we discover things are not what they seem.
We believe that a theatre show about truth has the power to make us think about the way we personally present the truth and variations of it. In this most direct of mediums we hope to confront individuals, personally and pointedly, with their own deceptions. After all, we all lie a little while composing our Linkedin or Facebook profiles or our resume, preferring to represent to the world, not a sensationalist and false news story, but at least a slightly better version of ourselves. Theatre is a great place to get real because of the strong, visceral connections between the actors and audience allowing for storytelling and the truth to become one and the same on stage.
However, in our exploration of this theme, we tend to be a little flexible with the truth ourselves. Theatre is fiction, and we have no journalistic ethic at all. For example, all the quotes in this article are truthful except one. The Chinese proverb early on in this blog was completely made up. But, as we all know, just because it was made up it doesn’t make it a lie.
Life is Too Good To Be True. Edinburgh Fringe Festival until 13 August, 11.35am @ Underbelly, Cowgate.
The piece explores the role of truth in contemporary culture, in part inspired by a similar story about journalist Stephen Glass who famously fabricated the news.Tagged in: Arts, Edinburgh Fringe, journalism, theatre
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