By Matt Jones
In my essay in the March 2020 (72.1) issue of Theatre Journal titled “Sarin Gas Heartbreak: Theatre and Post-Truth Warfare in Syria,” I examine how two theatre productions respond to the difficult problem of ascertaining the truth about the Syrian Civil War by adopting what I describe as techniques of “post-truth.”
The term “post-truth” entered the journalistic lexicon during the 2016 US election, when then-candidate Donald Trump’s public relations team began making claims to the press that were easily disputed by verifiable evidence. When he was caught blatantly lying in the media, Trump’s senior advisor Kellyanne Conway notoriously turned the question back on the press, asking, “Why is everything taken at face value? . . . You always want to go by what’s come out of his mouth rather than look at what’s in his heart.” The importance of emotions over evidence is at the heart of the definition of post-truth that the Oxford English Dictionary used as their word of the year that November. Post-truth and its correlatives—post-facts and fake news—quickly came to stand in for a culture that values emotional attachment and loud opinionating over knowledge derived through evidence.
But as Barry Freeman and I argued recently, the problem with arguments that define our age as one of post-truth is their “suggestion that there is—or was—ever an unproblematic ‘truth’ from which to depart.” Indeed, performance has long been fascinated by more obscure forms of truth or even by the impossibility of discerning something called “truth.” In the first play I examine, The Pixelated Revolution (2012), Rabih Mroué stages a lecture about his fascination with images of government repression taken by Syrian protesters. The low-resolution images fail to accurately capture the atrocities they are trying to expose, however; Mroué is less interested in their truth value than in how they capture the spirit of the protests in a way that clear, professionally shot images never could.
Similarly, Guillermo Calderón’s play Kiss (2014) begins by promising to show us an authentic representation of Syria, but it gradually works to undermine its spectators’ confidence in its truth claim. The play begins with a living-room drama about two couples in Damascus who are involved in a complicated love quadrangle (fig. 1). After the forty-five-minute realist drama ends, the cast reappears onstage playing themselves. They announce that they have secured a rare live interview with the playwright, a Syrian refugee living in exile in Lebanon, whom they have arranged to interview by Skype that evening. They set up a laptop and projector, and we watch them ask questions to the playwright via a translator. However, as they do so, it becomes apparent that they have massively misinterpreted her play, taking as melodrama what was in fact a coded criticism of the Assad regime. Moreover, the cast’s questions are naïve, as they fail to grasp why the playwright is being evasive about politically sensitive subjects. After the interview, the cast decides to restage the play in light of their new understanding of it. This second staging is frenetic and experimental, a total contrast with the tight naturalism of the first version. As their restaging builds momentum, it becomes increasingly absurd, reaching a climax when the character we were told was the playwright overseas suddenly walks onstage singing a song in Arabic. Over the course of these scenes, the audience gradually realizes that they have been duped. The playwright was fictional; the interview was staged, and the spontaneous second attempt to stage the play was scripted. The play performs post-truth as a strategy to draw attention to the fraught ways in which we determine what is true about conflicts on the other side of the world.
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Youssif (Greg Gale) pleads with Hadeel (Naomi Wright) to run away with him in the melodramatic first act of Kiss. (Photo: James Heaslip.)
When I went to see Kiss at Canadian Stage’s Berkeley Street Theatre in Toronto, I admit that I was taken in by the premise. Even though I was fairly certain I had purchased a ticket for a show by a Chilean playwright, I nevertheless found myself excited to be watching this underground Syrian artist’s work, convinced that I had confused this show for another one in the season. As I discuss in my essay, sometime between acts 1 and 3 there emerged a palpable feeling of “aha” in the audience as people gradually caught on to the play’s conceit. The people sitting behind me were particularly vocal: “Is this real?” one asked. “I don’t think this is real!”
Duping an audience is no new technique—it is a hallmark of avant-garde and post-dramatic theatre—but it is a strategy that requires a particular kind of virtuosity and knowledge of an audience. Some months after the performance, I spoke with the play’s director, Ashlie Corcoran from Theatre Smash, about the work that went into pulling off the show so successfully. I was interested in learning what it was like to direct a show that aimed to trick its audience in this way. The Canadian company is known for premiering innovative international plays (especially from Germany and Latin America), often in original translations, and this interest in working across cultures can be seen in Corcoran’s work directing opera as well as theatre in multiple languages. This production was part of a two-year residency the company was completing at Canadian Stage, the country’s largest company dedicated to producing new work. Their Kiss received a mixed reception, with reviewers polarized over whether they found the play’s many layers of metadrama confusing or intriguing.
As a work about Syria written by someone far removed from that culture, Kiss is a challenging play to stage, as its content could easily slip into appropriation and stereotyping. Theatre Smash’s production takes advantage of its audience’s sensitivity to those issues. For its deception to work, the first part of the play must seem like a culturally sensitive production of a Syrian play staged by Canadian actors. During the Skype interview, the playwright character (played by Bahareh Yaraghi) must pass as a plausible Syrian writer. However, we do not encounter her directly: she is in disguise because she is hiding from the regime, her speech is mediated through a translator, and midway through the interview, we discover that she is not the playwright but her sister. Moreover, throughout the time she is present onscreen, the audience is distracted by the cast’s apparent failure to grasp the intercultural politics of the situation. The final section, when the playwright’s sister appears unexpectedly onstage, makes the hoax explicit. The reveal happens on an unexpectedly sombre note, as Yaraghi enters singing “I’d rather be stabbed by daggers / Than have a bastard [snake/unjust person] rule over me.” With this shift, the play avoids becoming a meaningless parody and reminds us that despite its trickery, it still seeks to find a way to stand with Syrian protesters.
What follows is an edited transcript of our conversation.
What is it about this play that seemed pertinent to do now?
It’s a play that’s ostensibly about the Syrian conflict, but it really investigates how we contribute to that conversation as theatre artists. The year before we had done [Philipp Löhle’s] Das Ding. As we were translating it into English, I realized I had made a lot of assumptions while I was reading the German text, and that to make it work for our audience it was not just about translating it, but adapting it. So that made me think a lot about how we bring our experience into international pieces. That’s not to say we shouldn’t do international pieces or pieces outside of our wheelhouse, but that we should be aware of where our blind spots could be. What I liked about Kiss is that it’s actually using my medium, which is theatre, to explore that idea.
I’m interested in the reception of the piece, not so much in terms of critics, but in terms of the audience and how they reacted to the moment when the whole piece flips. How did the audience react to being fooled by the interview and the fake melodrama in the first act? [Fig. 2.]
The piece really relied on audience reaction and participation. Each time I saw it, the audience reacted very differently. The audience really bought into it, and that led to both positive and negative things. For some people, it upset them that they had the wool pulled over their eyes, and other people really loved that moment of not being sure. When I would share the reports with Guillermo [Calderón], the playwright, he said that of all the productions (we were the third at the time), this audience was bought into it most. I think that’s a testament to our amazing actors. In the Skype conversation [with the playwright], they made a really sharp stylistic switch and it was very believable. For me, I think the play hangs on that. If the audience isn’t part of that misunderstanding, then there’s no point in doing the show. I was very happy that the audience believed it, but I know that some people felt hoodwinked.
Was there a different process for rehearsing those parts when the audience was being strung along?
One of my interests as a director is in tone, and I love having a new tone to figure out. A tone happens in theatre by performance style. In Kiss, we had four or five sections, and each of those sections needed a really sharp left or right turn; each of them required a different approach from the actors. We investigate what the tone is and then try to figure out how to show that. Sometimes that investigation happens on our feet and sometimes it happens through verbal discussions. But one of the things about that particular switch in tone is that you don’t want it to be rehearsed, because then it feels fake. There needs to be a certain level of tightness to it and sensitivity. In places, we found some freedom from the text to keep it vernacular and off the cuff.
It’s interesting to perform something like that in Toronto, where the audience brings into the theatre a certain kind of intercultural politics and also a certain kind of awkward politeness. Those come into conflict in the scene when the actor characters seem to be disrespecting the Syrian playwright.
The biggest challenge was how naïve those characters of the actors are. They ask some pretty naïve questions to the woman they think is the playwright.
The playwright character is implying that the Assad regime is using widespread sexual abuse as a strategy of war. The actors don’t seem to understand why she would not want to state that explicitly.
That is when the audience responded quite emotionally. On some nights, the audience was protecting the playwright. We had to really try to imbue those questions with earnestness and honesty, so it didn’t just feel like they were dumb Westerners.
In the final scene, the actors try to restage the play in light of the mistakes they made the first time. But the audience is also watching with a different frame of mind, since they know that they have been fooled. How did you work with that? [Fig. 3.]
They redo it a couple times, and they fail each time. We didn’t really know how to do it, right? So, we started brainstorming some physicality that was aligned with different text and then we really went off-text, trying to create a physical vocabulary, and then we went back to the text. The last time through it, it was important to keep the staging loose in some areas. It was really quite choreographed for a little while, and then it felt too polished. But it was a fine line between [the actors] figuring it out in the moment, and moments when they would all of a sudden do exactly the same move. The idea there was to say to the audience: obviously, they’re not doing it in the moment, this has all been fake and they’re carrying on a certain level of pure theatricality to show that we are playing with different tools that we have: lighting and sound and physical movement. But in-between those moments of synchronised choreography, each actor had patterns of where-ish in the room they were or what took focus, but the details needed to be kept free and loose for it to have the power and energy that it did have. So in the end, the idea was not to say “Oh look, we figured it out! We figured out how to tell this Syrian story at Canadian Stage.” But hopefully at the end, it felt like: “It’s just a process. All of this has been rehearsed and is not real and we admit that by having Bahareh behind the wall [backstage] the whole time.”
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Naomi Wright, Greg Gale, Carlos Gonzales-Vio, and Dalal Badr play themselves interviewing a Syrian playwright over Skype. (Photo: James Heaslip.)
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The cast (Carlos Gonzalez-Vio and Dalal Badr) tries to restage the play. (Photo: James Heaslip.)
So when she comes out onstage at the end, there is an absurd acknowledgment of the fiction of the piece. In many ways, the strangeness of that final scene, which is part of the original script, resembles the kind of performance that the audience may expect from an experimental troupe like Theatre Smash. Was it in some ways easier to pull that off than the living-room drama at the beginning?
That was a worry throughout. We worried about making the audience think that we were making fun of them at the beginning, and then we worried that they’d be upset when we’d fooled them if we managed that. If we were successful with the play, we were going to fool them. We tried to make that forty-five minutes be as satisfying as possible, and be as well done in that particular style and tone as possible. I don’t think we were mocking the audience, because we were trying to do our best and hoping that they would like that kind of theatre and that they would enjoy the switch.
What I found intriguing about our conversation was how Corcoran seemed to be describing a process of post-truth theatre-creation. As she points out, stringing an audience along requires careful attention to shifting tones in performance, and that includes how the audience is let in on the joke at the end. When the play ended, acknowledging its own artifice, I found myself amused at my own credulity and impressed by the actors’ ability to take advantage of it. In my full essay, I speculate about what it means to lead an audience through this mental process of questioning what is true. By tricking us, does the play force us to reckon with how we construct truth, or does it simply reveal the manipulative power of performance? Either way, metatheatrical work of this kind shows us that activist theatre need not be about telling the truth in a transparent way. It may also invoke post-truth strategies that question the means by which we determine what is true, and remind us that we often need to take political positions despite the inadequacy of our systems of truth-telling.