Posted 10 March 2020
Theatre: Fact & Fantasy – Rosemary Waugh
Don’t tell lies. That’s the rule, right? I can’t remember precisely when I internalised that as an inviolable part of the code of personal conduct but I do remember the sharp and overwhelming pain of first being on the receiving end of someone else breaking that rule. It involved a toy stegosaurus (mine) and its theft by a classmate. I think the pain of the event was as much shock at his ability to tell barefaced lies and, as at extension of this, the coercion of a teacher whose opinion I was powerless to change.
I think that when, as adults, we hear people – especially the leaders who are meant to fulfil on some level a pseudo-parental role – tell obvious lies, we feel a version of that original pain of first being exposed to liars. It’s not necessarily, or not entirely, the content of the lie that matters, but the act of lying itself and how this violates such a key rule. And it’s also the powerlessness, how there’s nothing you can do to stop the liars from telling their lies and gaining their rewards.
Here’s something else I remember from early childhood: being praised for having a ‘great imagination’. When I painted and wrote, I was actively encouraged to be as wildly unrestrained by reality as possible. In fact, I remember thinking it was one of the only things I was good at: making things up.
Now I’m older, I don’t make things up that often anymore. I’ve largely given up fiction and imaginary creatures for criticism, a strange form of journalism that loiters uncomfortably between fact (objectivity) and fiction (subjectivity). But I do spend a lot of time in other people’s imaginary spaces. On average, at least three times a week I step off the real-world streets of London and into the dark, open confines of a theatre, hoping to be engulfed by whatever new world has been temporarily created in that otherwise empty space. This doesn’t mean I always see theatre that would wholly be considered ‘fiction’ – or, while we’re at it, that it’s always in a traditional theatre-like space.
Theatremakers have varying relationships with factual, real-life experiences. Two highlights from LIFT in recent years, Lola Arias’s Minefield, a LIFT co-production from 2016 and Anna Deveare Smith’s Notes from the Field from 2018, were both grounded in verbatim testimony and lived experience – Arias’s through the experiences of war veterans and archive footage, and Smith’s through the reality of America’s ‘poverty to prison pipeline’ – but both combined these facts with other, more recognisably theatrical aspects of live performance. In the case of Notes from the Field, which is based on interviews with hundreds of Americans living in poverty including many with direct experience of the criminal justice system, the verbatim words of the interviewees were performed by Smith who glided with delectable skill between the different identities – an aspect of the production which added a facet of un-reality to it as Smith was acting the roles of the people she interviewed.
Flash forward to 2020, and the programme for this year’s LIFT features Tina Satter’s Is This A Room, another piece which uses a verbatim transcript – this time of a former American Air Force Linguist named Reality Winner who was interrogated by the FBI – but again in a different way to Notes from the Field or Minefield.
Sometimes it actually feels like the theatre is the only place where the truthful memories otherwise ignored by mainstream factual outlets like the media, are being shared. It can also feel like a particularly powerful place to share them in – I often think about Theatre as Witness, Yaël Farber’s trilogy of plays based on the testimony of three people who lived through the brutality of Apartheid South Africa. And even on the occasions where a work appears to be explicitly fictional, it’s often programmed with the intent of being ‘relevant’ to contemporary life, as is the case with lots of the speaks-to-Brexit works (of varying quality) at UK theatres recently. Some pieces wear their contemporaneity heavily and perhaps feel very on-the-nose with their analogies, while others draw inspiration from factual events but use it to inform the most abstract, experimental or fantastical works of live art. Another LIFT 2020 show, Phia Ménard’s Mother House at the Barbican (part of the ‘fantasy’ part of this year’s progamme) is, in its own way, a response to the Greek financial collapse and the migrant crisis in Europe, yet the finished performance takes place in a purely imaginative space that transports those watching to another non-real-world realm.
There’s also the more slippery, philosophical sense in which theatre, like all art, helps us to access some higher version of ‘truth’, whether that’s a deeply felt sense of empathy between performers and audience, or a collective experience of catharsis.
Yet despite this ever-present relationship with fact, theatre remains a place of creation where a rigid version of events is always invaded by the possibility of continual evolution and re-interpretation. This is thanks to the virtues of theatre as an artform, namely its ‘liveness’. If we think of the most traditional form of theatre, the kind with a written play script – a document that could be considered the most ‘factual’ representation of the play – we know that each time it’s performed directors, actors, set designers and everyone else involved with a production helps construct a different take on it, essentially providing a different version of the events described in the text or, perhaps, finding a different truth in it. Married to that is the way every performance, even within the run of one show, is always subtly different; performers don’t deliver identikit performances each and every night.
This continual subtle shapeshifting extends further than what’s happening in the playing space, too. The audience bring their own unfixed liveness to the space. They arrive with their own preconceptions, cultural behaviours and the residue of all the ‘stuff’ they’ve encountered throughout the day. When the news is filled with Coronavirus, you can expect a different audience (and different audience reaction) to your live art piece about contagion and sci-fi medical inventions. Sometimes I feel like I can sense a collective unconsciousness at work in the audience I’m part of, or feel when parts of the whole are overly influenced by one sub-section, like being guilted into laughing over-loudly in order to feel like they’re part of the group already guffawing ostentatiously. Where an audience comes from or lives is also a part of this. The city seeps into the performance, which is perhaps why site-specific performances, ones that fully acknowledge and emphasise the locale they’re in can be particularly powerful.
And yet in spite of all these ways in which theatre isn’t ‘true’ or ‘factual’ in the strictest sense of the term, for the short moment it’s being staged whatever audience-influenced, performer-shaped version of events occurring feels (ideally) like the absolute truth. You believe it because you see it – and hear it and smell it and absorb it and become a part of it.
Some of the people who swear they hate theatre, and most forms of art, consider it all to be the most basic form of ‘make believe’. That the theatre is a place for adults to hide from the ‘real world’ by cocooning themselves in wild flights of imagination. Everyone in theatre, or associated with it, should have ‘grown up’ and got real jobs, ideally ones grounded in the facts of science or politics or economics. I torture myself with these thoughts all the time, but remain unable to escape the suspicion that theatre, paradoxically, seems like the only place where truth does really matter. By becoming comfortable with shifting, morphing realities and, most of all, conjuring new ones into existence, theatre becomes a place for dreaming up a better version of the real world – even if that ‘better-ness’ simply means to imagine a place where buried stories can be openly shared. It’s also a place for creating what LIFT Artistic Director Kris Nelson, when I speak to him, succinctly calls “beautiful fictions”. Theatre is the place for re-discovering the ‘great imagination’ you left off caring about in primary school and wondering how that can lead us to some kind of new ‘truth’.