Fact, Truth, and Reality

Andy Chu

Working on The Laramie Project has (among many other things) raised some significant aesthetic questions for me as an actor and an artist. What is this piece? Surely a work of fiction would not draw its text from real interviews and journal entries, and surely a work of nonfiction would not incorporate lighting design, sound design, costumes, blocking, and certainly not actors. What I have come to realize is the important distinction between fact and truth. As a culture we seem to conceive of fact as being the touchstone for fiction and nonfiction. If it’s fact, it’s not fiction; if it’s not fact, it must be fiction. And if it’s fiction, then it must be true.

This is misleading.

What The Laramie Project proves is that something need not be factual in order to be true. By and large, the play is a fabrication (to borrow a word from Julian’s post, despite my knowing he doesn’t really agree with my new aesthetic theory): the actors are not the original people, the theatre is not the town of Laramie, it is not 1998, these aren’t the clothes they wore, this isn’t the order they spoke in. Indeed, the only element of the play that is at all factual is the text (which is merely one dimension of such a highly complex aesthetic object as a piece of theatre), and even then, it is a highly edited transcript of recordings to which, if we are to believe Maude Mitchell, less than perfect assiduity was given in moments of weakness, exhaustion, or boredom. Really, despite being a piece of documentary theatre, very little of The Laramie Project is fact, and even then it is not above suspicion (e.g., the journal entries kept by the company, which according to Maude were a very quaint bit of bullshit).

But the facts are not what matters. Facts are for science; art has something different in mind. The Laramie Project may not be fact, but it can be wonderfully, terribly true–and that truth is up to the actors, the director, the dramaturg, and how they approach the documents given to them. When our angels raise their wings in one beautiful, synchronized move, no one will care that technically, the angel outfits that Romaine and her friends designed had wings permanently extended from the shoulders. We shall have created a moment that is true–a moment to silence hate with a swift, united sweep of a feather–even though it never happened. In this way, the characters that we create (for indeed, as actors, we always create the characters, never the other way around) have great potential for truth whether or not they correspond to the factual people–sometimes even greater potential than the real-life characters might. Last week, Spencer and I sat down and sorted out Russell’s and Aaron’s lives–their history, their motives, their beliefs–so as to give the characters greater depth when we played them. The decisions we made were not just in keeping with the facts; they were in line with how we thought the characters functioned in the play and its themes. In this vein, we made decisions whose likelihood I’m sure could be disputed–but such a disagreement would not matter at all to us. The point is that Aaron and Russell be true, not factual, that what they represent in the play be heard loud and clear through our performances. They might not be authentic, but you’d better believe they’re real.

2 thoughts on “Fact, Truth, and Reality

  1. Andy–

    Your post reminded me of the huge flap that erupted a few years ago about James Frey’s “memoir” *A Million Little Piece*. Do you remember that? His work had been embraced and promoted by Oprah and then, when it was revealed that various details had been embellished, created, borrowed from others who Frey knew but passed off as his own experiences, Oprah publicly denounced him, brought him on her show to be castigated in front of a studio audience and his career took a nose-dive.

    My first response to the Frey-Winfrey hub-bub was experienced in the context of academic work on memoir writing, which presupposes that the frame of “memoir” (and the notion that these things would be subjectively remember by the author) is already suspect. Now whether Frey set out to deceive his readers, to trade upon the authenticity of a *personal* story and then lie is one question. But the notion that somehow he betrayed a pure and precious category of literature (which is the line that Oprah took … as I remember it) was fatuous. (Something that perhaps even Oprah realized after the fact: http://www.time.com/time/arts/article/0,8599,1897924,00.html).

    You’re absolutely right that this play is an unabashed *construction* that also demands our attention as a faithful *version* of events. I think the approach that you describe of searching for a character’s back-story within the bounds *given* by the play is a strong approach for dealing with the fact/not-fact paradox the play offers. In some sense it’s no different kind of character work than what you would do in a play like *Proof* where the characters exists only within Auburn’s play’s pages. I think the spectre of the real that haunts Laramie (Matthew did die, men were convicted of his murder, a community was put under a microscope) can’t help but haunt our production choices. But it’s a *good* a *productive* ‘haunt’ because it echoes your post’s final imperative: “you’d better believe they’re real”.

  2. Hello Andy,

    I have to admit, I love this statement of yours: “We shall have created a moment that is true… even though it never happened. In this way, the characters that we create (for indeed, as actors, we always create the characters, never the other way around) have great potential for truth whether or not they correspond to the factual people.” You’re getting at some interesting ideas about truth I’ve been thinking about.

    Just for curiosity’s sake, what do you think is the difference between what is true and what is real? Or, for a very different question in its way, what is the difference between truth and reality? How does that difference matter or not in an artistic medium or performative space?

    Recently I’ve been toying with the idea is that truth is created between people whereas reality is… (Um, I’m still thinking on that). But to say that “trueness” arises in the connection between to minds makes a lot of sense to me. Truth is an action of memory; it is heavily narrative, limited by perspective, and often judged by its ability to “resolve” in much the same way a plot or a tense chord are expected to “resolve.” It also often wanders away from “reality” in the service of these other goals.

    I see something like that in your statement that your performances of Aaron and Russ might not be factually accurate, but they’ll be “real,” in your words. I couldn’t agree more, Andy. But what is it about that magical space between you as the actor and your audience that makes your interpretation of them true?

    For instance, I saw a performance of TLP back in 2006 where the actor playing Jed reminded me so much of the real Jed Schultz that it was a little scary. The actor playing Romaine, however, had constructed a complex, interesting interpretation of Romaine that was nothing like the Romaine I knew from high school. And yet, I firmly believe that both of these performances were equally true– that both held the same truth. I’ve been trying to tease out where that sense of truth came from in both performances. What would you say about the “real” and the “true,” and how they are distinct, overlap, or how they’re created?

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