Is Theatre Always Fiction?

After recent ruminations about historical accuracy in theatre, our Artistic Director now explores fact and fiction and considers if theatrical performance is inherently a form of fiction.

When it comes to books, most of us are used to the idea that there is a clear distinction between fact and fiction. We often divide our libraries up into fiction and non-fiction. People are either fiction writers or not. It seems a clear delineation, one so obvious that I confess I had never really thought about it until I stumbled across some posts online. Before anyone gets there, let me add that I fully acknowledge that there are different ways of interpreting facts, and that there are things in the non-fiction section which include debate and disagreement – but this is in how facts are understood, for the most part, not whether or not they are facts to begin with; and some fiction incorporates elements of fact. But we still tend to, categorically, accept that there is a delineation, and that we know what belongs where.

It sounds daft, but until I started thinking about how much more in-between there is with regard to books, I hadn’t really processed the ways that theatre contradicts this. Theatre is real. It’s live, it’s actually happening in front of you, it is, as a thing itself, non-fiction. But we also accept that theatre – the play – is automatically, inherent fiction to a degree, because it involves people portraying something other than their real lives. (The concept of reality television and even ‘scripted’ reality further complicates these issues but that’s beyond my scope at the moment.)

Having posed this thought to a friend, she promptly replied, “But what about verbatim work?” And, yes, you can certainly use direct quotes, interviews, transcripts, primary-source documents to create theatre. But it’s still funneled through actors, through a process that removes it from that absolute non-fiction space. If a person is simply talking about their own life live and in person, we might classify it as a lecture, or an interview, but we generally don’t call it theatre, unless they’ve rearranged or stylised it; and, in a sense, removed it from being non-fiction. That extra element of adjustment, mediation, or removal is what makes the difference.

All of which is merely an interesting observation, until you start getting into the boggy questions about historical accuracy, as i discussed a few weeks ago. If theatre by its very definition includes an element of fictionalization, surely that complicates the question of whether we can ever be “accurate”, and moreover if we have the responsibility to attempt it in the first place. Although I don’t believe that audience expectation should dictate art, it does renew the question of whether or not an audience truly expects a theatrical production to be non-fiction, and potentially argues that it not only doesn’t, but can’t.

Practically speaking, none of this alters our basic approach to production development or artistic intention. But it’s good to be reminded, when one’s research reading list contains contradictory accounts and one’s actors are asking questions about characterisation when not everything is known about a historical personage, that theatre can give us that licence, not just “because it’s Art”, but because the nature of the thing can be seen to always occupy a middle ground that allows and even encourages a different perspective on what we see as truth and fiction.