It’s hard to deny that the truth is getting increasingly harder to find. Not just because of the prevalence of fake news and outright falsehoods, but even in the idea of half-truths, where facts are flubbed over for convenience’s sake and for a better story. Following on from productions such as The Truth and Caught in 2018, Singapore Repertory Theatre (SRT) opens their 2020 season with The Lifespan of a Fact, as the company continues to raise questions surrounding the value, morality and definition of truth.
Written by Jeremy Kareken, David Murrell and Gordon Farrell as a play, The Lifespan of a Fact was adapted from a real life book co-written by essayist John D’Agata and fact checker Jim Fingal in 2012. Taking on an unusual format, the book itself comprises of D’Agata’s 2010 essay “What Happens There”, surrounding the culture of suicide in Las Vegas after a teenager jumps to his death, and is accompanied by Fingal’s black and red comments (and occasional correspondence with D’Agata). The essay itself was originally commissioned in 2003 by Harper’s Magazine, but was pulled from publication after the author and editors disagreed about D’Agata’s literary approach, with the resulting book becoming a stylistic treatise on facts versus creative license, the definition of non-fiction itself, and the intentional and unintentional use of inaccuracies in the creation of a non-fiction work.
In the play, D’Agata and Fingal are now presented as characters, with D’Agata having submitted his essay to a struggling magazine for publication. The magazine’s editor, Emily, knows that this work from a celebrated essayist like D’Agata could be the key to saving the publication, but should there be discrepancies, spells complete doom and disrepute instead. Shuttling between the essay’s setting of Las Vegas and the play’s setting of New York, the set is slated to reflect a collision between the two cities, such that one feels always on the edge of the other.
Says Daniel Slater, who is directing the production: “Lies and falsehoods are so prevalent today. Let’s look at the USA elections, where we were all convinced Trump was going to lose. He won, but we were convinced the lies were gonna stop, but it turned out that it ended up as a badge of his office. And then let’s look at Singapore, where we’ve now got POFMA. It seems useful, but then, who are the ones who decide what’s a truth and a lie? It’s a big reason why Singapore has dropped in rankings in the press freedom index.”
“There is a very strong antipathy between Jim and John, and even though I thought John would get all the best lines, the more I read it, the more I needed to know where Jim is coming from, and ended up ended up trying to balance it and make sure the two were evenly matched,” he adds. “Jim is a pedant, but necessary for figuring out at what point the truth begins to come apart, and even John become unclear what’s the truth or falsehood. Throughout the play you’ll find yourself figuring out which one you agree with more, and at some point, you’ll realise that the initial story about a boy falling to his death gets lost in the heat of arguing over the facts.”
“When I first read it, it felt almost like a one issue play, about the basic principle of truth. But then I noticed there were a lot of grey areas that made it that much more interesting,” says Janice Koh, who plays Emily. “Jim sees truth in absolute facts, while John is about how to develop a narrative around those facts. And then there’s Emily, who acts as the negotiator of the grey area between it all. I identify with that a lot because people love to simplify things and paint things as black and white, but there’s always so many complexities involved.”
“I think for Emily, there’s a lot at stake when she publishes an essay like this, because it has the potential to be a transformative piece, to change the perspective and viewpoints of people. But if there’s too many loopholes or gaps in it, then her whole credibility and reputation goes out the window, and so does the magazine,” she continues. “It’s not an easy thing to balance, and in a place like Singapore, we’re constantly negotiating these lines. Initially, I thought I would maintain my stance throughout, but upon second reading, I realized that I started to change. That’s the power of the work, where it reveals the complexities and layers involved when dealing with the truth.”
On playing the role, Jamil Schulze, who plays Jim, elaborates: “I started off feeling the same way as Janice during the rehearsals, and when I read it, I went like oh, this is who I’m going to play? Jim is pedantic and nitpicky, all the way down to the colour of the brick. It all seems incredibly unimportant at first, but by the end of it, you start to realise that some of these details actually are important, and a single fact that’s out of place can begin to derail the entire essay.”
“We’re essentially fleshing out the arc of my character’s journey, where this naïve, overeager fact checker is initially dismissed by someone with much more experience. But over time, he learns to come into his own arguments, stand up for what he believes to be the undeniable truth, and stubbornly entrenches himself in his argument. The reason for this also becomes clear over the course of the play, where he initially is just eager to prove himself to his boss, but soon, we see his passion stem instead from his stance that facts have to be the ultimate measure of truth.”
“I understood then why Jim felt so strongly about every little thing, and saw how John used his poetic imagery and language to paint a picture of what happened,” Jamil continues. “And I realised that a keyboard warrior could well do the same thing in real life, if you never stop to question the facts. The moment you have a small hole in the dam, the whole argument falls apart. You sympathise with John because he’s taking you on a journey, of the tragedy of this teenager who commits suicide, but then there are parts that don’t add up, and you start to realise there must be parts of it he made up himself.”
Adds Ghafir Akbar, who plays John: “The difference between John and Jim is that John starts off very certain and has his whole philosophy. But after talking to Jim, he becomes much more uncertain, and in preparing for that, fully understands the impact and need to publish the essay, not just for money, but a full on emotional and time investment. The more he investigates, the more invested and interested he becomes and wants to bring it out in full. As a celebrated essayist, he doesn’t think he would have to defend the essay so much, but after Jim steps in and gets involved, it begins to unravel to the point that even the intent of the story is compromised.”
With how the theatre is often looked upon as a source of hard truths presented artistically, Janice says: “I think about how there are artists who are sometimes taken to task by the state for having crossed an invisible line. But sometimes, there’s that lack of imagination that prevents Singaporeans from seeing a poem, a play from anything but literal and can’t suspend their disbelief. If you can’t recognize that difference, then our work is in jeopardy!”
“I think that theatre is and always should be a safe space, and something we should fight to keep that way,” she adds. “There’s the flexibility and space to be onstage and discuss things we can’t say in real life, and the audience partakes in all this together in the theatre. The feeling of it, the direct confrontation with the issue, it continues to be a very important and magical platform in the world today.”
Chimes Ghafir: “There are constantly so many different entities and powers trying to control or confine the voices in the theatre, and I think that the necessity of the theatre then allows the artists to shift and change, to find new forms and styles and modes of performances, not necessarily to circumvent, but to communicate the necessity of the voice of the theatre no other art form does quite so well, with such a full experience.”
“Theatre is still a sacred thing for me,” Jamil chips in. “It’s this undying art form, and people still somehow get out there and spend money on it, watching it together, drawn to the magic and this sense of communion in engaging in. It has to continue to be this safe space for such issues to be discussed.”
On what the message of the play ultimately is, at the end of this ‘comedic but gripping’ battle for the truth, Daniel concludes: “This show is a call to arms to question things more than one usually does. People often spout things off the top of their head or things they might have heard before without asking about the accuracy of that information, like in the UK with the recent elections. We can’t just take things at face value and assume that everything the media puts out is true.”
“I do hope this play encourages greater investigation of language employed by politicians and writers, and asks themselves the fundamental questions about what is the truth, and what the goal and intent behind these authors is in their writing, and stop unconsciously accepting what they hear on the streets without reading between the lines.”
The Lifespan of a Fact plays from 25th February 2020 at the KC Arts Centre. Tickets available from SRT