By Elizabeth Rice
“We vant it to feel thoroughly authentic…It is time for cinema to take bold new leap. It is time to capture the truth … I vant actors that … no, I don’t vant actors, I vant people.
Maximillian von Oster’s lofty goal of obtaining actors who actually understand the antebellum world of “The Belle of New Orleans” in Lynn Nottage’s new play, By the Way, Meet Vera Stark, calls into question the role of truth in acting, in film and in theater. In a profession of make-believe, does one need to maintain the facts of a story to convey the emotional sentiments?
Makers of movies and plays based on actual events often take a certain amount of artistic license with their telling, sometimes adding details to enhance the drama of the story or excising events considered inconsequential to the movement of the plot. Other times, multiple anecdotes on a certain topic are gathered together and optimal details are taken from each to create a new narrative. The idea and theme of the topic remains true while the story is fabricated. Even 2nd Story, an oral personal narrative theater company in Chicago, will take some amount of poetic license with their stories. The tellers who share their personal life events at these monthly shows go through an extensive curation process where their stories are edited for the best possible performance. This may include some judicious reordering of events for the most dramatic effect.
Documentary exists as a style of performance in both film and theater. Anna Deveare Smith is perhaps one of the most notable practitioners of documentary theater, travelling across the country interviewing persons of interest and then recreating their responses on stage. Her work maintains the verisimilitude of her interviews, to the point of manifesting the interviewee’s physical ticks in her own performance. Similar in ideology, although not in product, is the popular National Public Radio storytelling show, “This American Life.” A purely journalistic endeavor, the show distributes its news stories through all the sonic theatrics of a play, even separating the story into acts. But the stories on “This American Life” are never fictive despite their drama—they are true. Quotes are taken from actual people; statistics given are cross-checked. Even the journalists sometimes live out the events they are reporting on.
This is why when “This American Life” aired an excerpt from theater performer Mike Daisey’s one-man show, The Agony and Ecstasy of Steve Jobs, an account of Daisey’s trip to China to interview workers from Foxconn, the leading manufacturer of Apple products, and then a few weeks later had to retract the story, it came as quite a shock. “This American Life” learned that Daisey had taken extreme poetic licensing with his story. He, in fact, had lied about his trip to China. Daisey fabricated a number of the more intense scenes, including meeting workers poisoned by hexane, a chemical used to clean Apple product before packaging. He did not meet these people and admits that he exaggerated some details of his story in the episode titled, “Retraction.” “This American Life” host Ira Glass accuses Daisey of fabricating parts of his story, and Daisey apologizes for allowing the work to be excerpted on the show, knowing that the work itself was not up to journalistic standards. However, he defends that as a work of theater, he has nothing to apologize for. “I don’t know that I would say in a theatrical context it isn’t true. I believe that when I perform it in a theatrical context in the theater, that when people hear the story in those terms, that we have different languages for what truth means.”
Although I don’t agree with Daisey’s assumption that theater, whether cinema or live, has a different definition of truth, I think that audiences are readily willing to believe what is set forth on the stage or screen. Which makes one wonder why we do this: Why are we, as audience members, willing to take the stories of movies and theater as truth?
I think part of the conundrum is because of the unusual amount of trust we put into these mediums. While attending movies and plays, we pay before receiving the product, never truly knowing if it’s worth what’s being asked. We trust that we will be entertained, even though there is no guarantee. Dissatisfaction does not prevent us from returning to the event in the future. Therefore, an initial trust is instigated between audience members and the performing medium.
That relationship of trust is further extended between actors and audience at the live theater. There is no separation between the actors and the audience, no lens to filter the story through. You see real people experience the events of the story. The tangibility of the actors enhances the reality or “truth” of the situation. This tangibility does not exist in film. However, the technology of film and the historical perceptions surrounding the camera lend to the acceptance of truth in film. One of the original uses of cameras was to document the real world in full detail at a specific point in time. Only in the recent century has the potential to use cameras to create fiction rather than document the real, come to light. However, the understanding of the ability to film and capture truth via a camera further supports the willingness of audiences to accept truth from movies.
Ultimately, movies and plays show us stories and worlds different from our own, places and ideas unknown. The late Roger Ebert put it best, “[A great movie] lets you understand a little bit more about what it’s like to be a different gender, a different race, a different age, a different economic class. It helps us to identify with the people who are sharing this journey with us.” Even in the era of the smartphone, when information is instantaneous, theaters remain a liminal space. What is performed is a re-creation, but we take its plausibility as truth. They exist between the real and the imagined. Stories have long been used as outlets of comfort and warning. Our belief anchors them into the real, into truth. When we come across the unknown, we open ourselves to new thoughts. Movies and plays are familiar mediums to process these unknowns. Thus, through the known, we accept the strange.