Truthiness: Dos and Don’ts in Reality-Based Theatre

Posted on by Susan

I’ve been thinking a lot lately (as have a lot of people) about the relationship between the theatre and the truth. Partly in view of the upcoming Glasswater project, and partly from the fallout from Mike Daisey’s genre transgressions with The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs, I’ve been thinking about how theatre artists grapple with facts to uncover the truth.I don’t really want to talk about Daisey’s work right now – many, many people have already said things worth reading on it, and frankly, I haven’t seen it (although Outside the March will be bringing it to Toronto in May, and I certainly intend to see it then!). In case you haven’t been on the Internet lately: Daisey’s work has, shall we say, a problematic relationship with facts: it was billed as “not a work of fiction”, despite having some fictive elements. Once the proverbial shit hit the fan in Daisey’s project, it was hard not to wonder about the massive grey area between total Fact and total Fiction on the stage. In this bizarre climate, I saw two productions in Toronto based to a greater or lesser degree in reality, each grappling in its own way. By revealing their limitations to the audience, their truthiness was less of a problem.

The piece that took the greatest liberty with the facts was Proud by Michael Healey. The story of an unnamed prime minister of Canada (who is very, very clearly based on Stephen Harper), Proud made news when Healey accused Tarragon Theatre Artistic Director Richard Rose of not programming Proud out of fear of political repercussions (Rose has not directly responded to the allegation). While this dispute doesn’t particularly interest me, it is germane to the problem of the truthiness of Healey’s script.

The play starts with the premise that during the most recent federal election, all the Quebec seats that went to the NDP instead went to the Conservatives, leaving them with both a crippling majority, and the huge number of rookie MPs from ridings they hadn’t anticipated winning – people who hadn’t been groomed for the position or selected from the party elite. This gives Healey a clearly fictive space in which to explore the motivations of the very real (though, significantly, unnamed) Prime Minister – and allows him to think honestly about the man, while putting clearly fictional things in his mouth, giving him the plausible deniability of fiction. The result was a show that smacked of “truthiness” – vaguely based in reality, and having the ring of truth, but not being factually accurate in any way. Interestingly, since the reading of the show, in a bizarre element of life imitating art, a backbench MP has put forward private members bill somewhat similar to a private members bill put forth in the play, with a similar (public) government reaction. This certainly strengthens the truthiness of the piece, but because of the clearly fictional elements it still stays away from presenting fiction as fact. Is it different enough to avoid litigation? Time will tell.

At the other end of the factual spectrum was the Crow’s Theatre production of Seeds. Seeds is documentary drama in the traditional sense: all words spoken on stage were taken verbatim from interviews the playwright (Annabel Soutar) recorded with the people in question. Soutar also (not unlike Daisey) put herself in the middle of the action: including both her questions to the interviewees (giving their answers necessary context) and allowing her to explain her developing views on the issue at hand. The issue is Monsanto v. Schmeiser: the agri-business giant sued a Saskatchewan farmer claiming that he had illegally obtained some of their Roundup-ready canola. His defense was that the seeds had blown onto his property from a passing truck, but ultimately called into question the legality of owning a living thing, or rather, a gene that could only be a part of a living thing. The first act researched the facts of the case: interviewing Schmeiser and his wife, his lawyer, a representative from Monsanto, and various kinds of experts, leaving the audience clearly (though not explicitly) in support of Schmeiser.

Had the play ended here it would have been an exact twin to Daisey’s play: an investigation of a huge corporation and its frightening and nearly invisible treatment of the “little guy” – in Apple’s case, the workers in its Chinese factories, in Monsanto’s, the farmers using its GMOs: classic David and Goliath stuff. However, in the second act, Soutar conducted more interviews: interviewing Schmeiser’s neighbours, and foregrounding her own assumptions and biases. What she actually leaves us with is the realization that we don’t get to know the real facts (the Supreme Court ruled against Schmeiser, ultimately). She ultimately believes that Monsanto does bad things (as Daisey believes of Apple) but rather than send us out into the world with the simplistic (but emotionally satisfying) idea that Monsanto is evil, we’re left with the notion that genetic modification is scary, but that we live in a world (or at least a continent!) that it is irreparably a part of, and that there are no easy answers. This is how documentary theatre can transcend truthiness, and reach (unsettling, and as a result somehow unsatisfying) Truth.

[Photo by Aaron Webb.]

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