BATS Theatre, The Random Stage, 1 Kent Tce, Wellington
16/11/2018 - 01/12/2018
THEATRE SHOW BY AWARD-WINNING MAKERS IMMERSES AUDIENCES IN THE (SH*T)STORM OF OUR POST-TRUTH WORLD
How do we frame truth in the era of ‘fake news’, social media swinging elections and algorithm-induced echo chambers, where yesterday’s science fiction is today’s reality? A storm is brewing, but can we see it coming? Or is it just a tempest in a teacup?
The highly coveted and anticipated 2018 STAB commission Actual Fact seeks to explore these questions and more, as audiences go on a whirlwind journey into their own meaning-making through a playful multisensory live performance from 16 Nov – 1 Dec at BATS Theatre.
From award-winning makers Isobel MacKinnon and Meg Rollandi this show reframes audience perceptions by wrapping them in a visual, aural and sonic feast, complete with an immersive video environment, surround sound, and electric performances from a stellar, intergenerational all-female cast: stage veteran Madeleine McNamara ( Demeter’s Dark Ride – An Attraction; White Elephant ), Karin McCracken ( Body Double; Jane Doe ) and Freya Finch ( Shortland Street; Maggot ).
A team of collaborative design artists including Charley Draper, Thomas Lambert and Owen McCarthy join them alongside dramaturg/producer Melanie Hamilton for what promises to be a provocative exploration of a timely subject that involves us all – whether we like it or not.
“There’s the story…then there’s the story of how the story came to be told. Then there’s what you leave out of the story. Which is part of the story too.” – Margaret Atwood
Fitting for the prestigious once-a-year STAB commission by BATS Theatre, Actual Fact is ambitious in both scope and scale. Creators MacKinnon and Rollandi say “in our polarised world, we want more than ever to create a show that humorously explores how we can communicate across difference and distance. Rather than offering audiences an ‘objective’ experience, we want to make it radically subjective to the point that audiences might understand and ‘see’ the work quite differently.”
Actual Fact Co-Directors and Co-Performance Designers Rollandi and MacKinnon most recently worked together on the highly acclaimed My Best Dead Friend, which is currently touring arts festivals in Australia and New Zealand after winning the Melbourne Fringe Tour Ready and Best of Fringe awards (NZ Fringe 2018), and Force Field , winner of Best Overall Production Design and more at Auckland Fringe 2018. The STAB commission is a prestigious opportunity to further this creative partnership, awarded to artists who are creating innovative contemporary performance works.
Understanding how one perceives meaning amongst multiple narratives, where information is continually reframed, is a vital skill in our ‘post-truth’ world. Actual Fact offers a audiences a chance to playfully explore their own perspectives through a provocative and compelling live performance with ever shifting, altering viewpoints.
www.actualfact.co | Facebook: @actualfactshow
Actual Fact plays
BATS Theatre The Random Stage, 1 Kent Tce, Wellington
Dates: 16 Nov – 1 Dec (preview 15 Nov) 2018
Tickets: $19 – $25 (Booking fees may apply)
Bookings: www.bats.co.nz or phone 04 802 4175
Co-Directors and Co-Performance Designers: Isobel MacKinnon and Meg Rollandi
Performers: Madeline McNamara, Karin McCracken, Freya Finch
Dramaturg: Melanie Hamilton
Video Designers: Charley Draper, Meg Rollandi, Isobel MacKinnon
Sound Designer: Thomas Lambert
Light Designer: Owen McCarthy
Production Manager: Joshua Tucker
Technical Manager: Michael Trigg
Graphic Designer: Ed Watson
Digital Marketing: Blitz Digital
Producer: Melanie Hamilton
STAB 2018 was commissioned by BATS Theatre and received initial funding through Creative New Zealand
Theatre , Multi-discipline ,
Brilliantly conceived and executed
Review by Sam Trubridge 17th Nov 2018
STAB is an important NZ theatre commission, where generous funding and extensive time in venue is given for the development of new work. Any company can propose a work or idea, giving independent artists the kind of support that is otherwise held by companies with recurrent funding and established resources. The results from this decades-long experiment have been outstanding, demonstrating how this brave model for arts funding and presentation could enrich our creative capital as a country if applied more broadly.
Last year’s offer was the stunning, defiant, and impeccably realised Body Double. This year, Isobel McKinnon and Meg Rollandi have spearheaded a formidable creative team with Actual Fact – an exploration of the unstable nature of storytelling, meaning, and perception. The result is another excellent work full of energy for something new and adventurous, created in the space between performance, design and language. Programme notes describe the artists working “with the impossible framework of trying to tell the whole story”, reminding me of Forced Entertainment’s Bloody Mess, about the perfect telling of a perfectstory. By comparison Actual Fact is a work made in a different environment from 2005: our ‘post truth’ world where other crises are at play in language and culture.
The performance opens with an extended ‘drawing-in’ of the space using light, projection, and sound. These three elements are so completely unified that we follow a tiny crawl of light along the edges of the architecture: sketching in walls, floors, and doorways all around us. In this way, a wide panorama is established across our full field of vision, stretching to back seats of the auditorium with this extensive mapping of the room. Black curtains of light are lifted one after the other, and washes of sound roll over us in a kind of sensorial ‘cleansing’ or ‘making separate’ of this time and space from the outside world.
It demonstrates the incredible craft and abilities of this team, transforming the auditorium with the production elements for a complete cinaesthetic effect. In fact the entire cast and production team deserve credit for their united sensitivity to image-making and space.
When a voice is heard, it is the voice of Madeline McNamara (M) telling a joke about a motorist, a cyclist and an equestrian. Karin McCraken (K) and Freya Finch (F) quickly join the banter. There is an early upset when a large industrial fan starts up unexpectedly and a water canister falls from the ceiling. But this is not the result of a technical mistake. Incongruous objects regularly intrude upon the characters’ conversations, unsettling their routines and fictions that they build up together with their simple fact-ness. “It’s a bucket!” – exclaims K or F (I cannot remember who). “This is also a bucket” M replies. A satsuma rolls across the stage, a cabbage (or was it a cauliflower?) is found in another bucket. They decide to call this vegetable ‘tundra’. A mirror enters.
It is a wonderfully dense and cyclical text. The personalities of K, M, and F are clearly identifiable in this metatheatrical parody – each with well-defined mannerisms, phobias, concerns, and motivations. It is very much an absurdist work, with all the pathos and circularity of Beckett’s Happy Days or Waiting For Godot. I am also reminded of Günter Grass’s short play Only Ten Minutes to Buffalo. But while these works were defined by an endless or unresolved ‘waiting-for’, Actual Fact explores an endless replaying, retelling, and re-enactment that seems to be of this time: evoking the aeons of footage we now have access to online, the capacity for instant and infinite playback, and the hours of personal data documenting and replaying our actions, thoughts, dinners, encounters and anxieties to us every day.
The three characters of M, K, and F march around the stage with determined gusto – disputing terminology, replaying the sequences of events, questioning verisimilitude and trying to come to terms with the disastrous moment that a fan turned on unexpectedly and a water canister fell from the sky. This is serious business. Embellishment ensues. Desperation and frustration plays rounds with fictionalisation and co-fabrication. “I’ll tell you what you remember / I totally get memory”. There is your truth, my truth, our truth, and each works urgently at persuading the others to believe their truth. It is theatre within the theatre: “I did the light last time, I had a lot of fun with it last time,” says M. This is theatre as a desperate attempt to understand: theatricalising as a nervous reaction or syndrome, a coming-to-terms with the banal crisis that they keep re-enacting.
It is very funny. There is clear comedy in this fast, tight repartee that reminds me of Abbott and Costello. M asks “What happened before I said ‘what did you see’”? After some struggle F replies with a triumphant “What I saw!!” There is excellent comic timing and pathos throughout by these three excellent performers.
They cut a contemporary image of buffoonery in beautifully constructed and designed outfits that have elements of corporate attire or gentry, which are just too bright in their colour scheme, accentuating the comedy and the slapstick – F’s chartreuse pantsuit, K’s sharp red dress, and M’s pink and beige combo of shirt, suspenders, trousers, and spats. It is so reassuring to see costuming considered in this way – as a subtly vocal and informative component of the overall mise-en-scene. They could be executives, newsreaders, or dinner-party guests. They could be actors, three theatre directors arguing endlessly over a scene, or foley artists trying to get the right sound effects.
M climbs the scaffold turret in the middle of the stage. This vantage point gives her a view of the surtitles. She reads the text aloud to her comrades, shadowing her eyes with her hands – following the script. Through this game they end up being played by the words as they (in turn) play the scenarios that the words describe, however inaccurate their attempts are. They argue logic, language, semantics, and semiotics – correcting one another as much as possible.
The biggest turn in the work occurs halfway through the performance, when F mimes binoculars to see something in the walls of the space. Shortly after, she shares a memory from high-school, recounting a lewd story about teenage boys versus teenage girls, buckets of bodily fluids and foetuses. These instances seem to reject certain parameters set up between the production and its audience previously – breaking down a sense of the world on the stage as a world clearly unto itself.
The power and poignancy of Actual Fact is that it works hard to establish its own histories and geographies within the space of the performance, a technique which I find both incredibly engaging and critical. To suddenly hear place-names like Wellington and Auckland mentioned, or to hear about memories from before this envelope of time seems a much weaker decision amongst some very clear and rigorous editing. A critical lens is already tangible in the work, and does not require such an obvious analogy for this to be seen. Actual Fact is a brilliantly constructed work with great value, and with a little tuning can resolve this glitch in its incredibly refined use of design, performance, and text – which works together to create a powerful insight into theatrical, political spaces where stories, ideas, and opinions are written.
It is a brilliant satire. Just as Beckett’s characters spoke in cycles of rhetoric defined by post-war depression and existential emptiness, these three characters utilise techniques of mansplaination and gaslighting familiar to our own post-truth environment. Facts are unreliable now, they are infinitely contestable and sometimes fake. F, M and K find this particularly hard. And yet something is about to happen. The trio urgently speculate on ‘a sound of something getting closer’. There is a threat on the horizon.
So in the final sequence something does arrive. As a storm or deluge builds, the characters of K, F and M gather their eclectic assortment of belongings and head to higher ground – climbing the scaffold turret, finding safety from this vantage, this exclusive cabin or home. And then a blizzard of images and voices begins, flooding the space with indiscernible words and news items from an outside world, their projected light and the wash of sound pouring over the entire space in an overwhelming landslide of YouTube fragments and soundbites. The turret is safe, a place apart, sheltered from the downpour of concerns, above the ground, above the waste, above the masses, above the anxiety and the meltwater below.
It is a brilliantly conceived and executed work, particularly for how it brings absurdist and surrealist techniques into a 21st Century and feminist discourse. Artists like Beckett, Ionesco, Dali, Bunuel and Margritte rejected logic and purpose in response to the experiences of two horrific world wars where the heart, mind and the eye could no longer believe what had been witnessed. Today a similar attack on reason is in process, through political language and fabrication that undermines rational thought and makes no sense. In this unsettling context it seems that the most sane, rational and logical thing we can do is to make work that is nonsensical, rejecting the familiar or reliable logic of language and meaning.
Copyright © belongs to the reviewer
An elusive and allusive delight
Review by John Smythe 17th Nov 2018
What did we just see? What did we just hear? What did we just feel?
Everyone leaving Actual Fact will be thinking and/or talking about different things, or will have different recollections of, or takes on, what happened. And in actual fact that pretty well sums up what the ironically-named Actual Fact is about.
So what’s the point in my sharing my reality of it? Actually one could ask that of every review ever written. This year’s BATS/STAB show, co-directed and co-performance designed by Meg Rollandi and Isobel MacKinnon, just puts into perspective what has always been the case. Like all theatre practitioners we critics like to think we are in pursuit of ‘the truth’ but, unlike most contagious conditions, what we think we’ve caught and attempt to pass on will inevitably affect each individual differently.
Here’s one fact: before it begins there is one big fan on stage and when it ends there is a theatre full of them; extremely enthusiastic ones. Or that’s how I remember it, anyway.
Like Waiting for Godot, I’m tempted to say but maybe I won’t (oops, too late – and that’s another key point: things that happen in our lives can’t just be edited out or rewritten, they can only be reframed) Actual Fact initially seems to be about nothing but soon it emerges it’s about everything we experience; about the way we experience everything. Or that’s how I see it, anyway.
It is an existential comedy that validates the inescapable fact that we all interpret our shared world differently and ‘create’ our own realities but because we live in communities we need to achieve some level of agreement about what in actual fact is true. How can we cope otherwise? That is an especially relevant question in a world that’s awash with so much information, propaganda and opinion that ‘truth’ is hard to pin down within it.
More objective facts about the production include: the BATS Random Stage has been painted white and a translucent curtain hides the back wall and doors; a scaffolding tower is prominent and as part of the ‘pre-set’ a woman (F) stands motionless alongside it facing upstage; two buckets, both green but otherwise not alike, lie near the aforementioned fan; two worker lights are on a stand, a large white tarpaulin is folded and lies on the floor before it with a large torch on top of it. And a large plastic jerry can hangs in the grid.
Only the technologically inquisitive and observant will have noticed beforehand there are 10 data projectors pointing in various directions spread across the lighting grid (which covers the entire auditorium as well as the stage area) – although many are looking upwards and counting after the show.
What none of us see yet are a satsuma mandarin, a tundra cabbage and a mirror that will turn out to be more than just a mirror. Another woman (K) is also present on stage but not yet visible to us. The third (M) enters as the houselights fade …
The show ‘proper’ starts with an extraordinary blend of Sound (designed & operated by Thomas Lambert), Lighting (designed & operated by Owen McCarthy) and Video Design (designed by Charley Draper who also operates, Meg Rollandi and Isobel MacKinnon). It’s a riveting spectacle we can either allow to wash over us, enjoying the sensations … or we can seek meanings in it; or both.
It is from this point on that everyone’s interpretations and subsequent memory of what’s happening will be different and subjective. Their media release puts it this way: “Understanding how one perceives meaning amongst multiple narratives, where information is continually reframed, is a vital skill in our ‘post-truth’ world.”
Margaret Atwood is quoted in the programme: “There’s the story … then there’s the story of how the story came to be told. Then there’s what you leave out of the story. Which is part of the story too.”
Then there is this: “Within Actual Fact we are working with the impossible framework of trying to tell the whole story. The beginning that came before the beginning, the beginning before that, and the ending that never comes, but stretches out beyond the horizon.”
Because I have read these messages before the show ‘proper’ begins, and before that (like forever in my lifetime), I’ve been attuned to the human condition that compulsively seeks meaning in everything, I read the thin white lines of travelling light that outline the back wall as literally framing the story to come. And because I know this performance space well, I recognise the framing of the two side doors, the double doors at the centre and the door high in the wall above above it. So far so smug …
But instead of settling, the white lines realign at speed in ways that are not so easy to interpret, then a ball of light looms that changes colour and a scramble of letters chase each other around the auditorium walls …
When M (Madeline McNamara), K (Karin McCracken) and F (Freya Finch) find themselves and each other in this suddenly still and well-lit space, M decides to tell a joke. But its flow and efficacy are subverted by K and M’s concerns about the logic and credibility of her story. So it’s clear that the visual and verbal elements of what we are experiencing are up for question …
Then it happens: an event involving sound, lights, the fan, the jerry can … And from then on M, K and F attempt to recreate and comprehend the minutiae of what happened with a minimalist clowning sensibility that is wonderful to behold.
As witnesses who were very close to the incident, we also have our own recollections and interpretations to add to the quest. Not that we’re asked to contribute anything (which may be a missed opportunity, given the clowning convention) – but we can almost feel each other’s minds buzzing as we try to find traction amid the shifting perceptions and nail the ever-changing narrative.
The way text is played with is also salutary and ingenious, design-wise. The need for boundaries gets a mention (according to my companion, although I have no clear recollection of that). And the forward momentum of the quest is broken up with interludes where more stories-cum-jokes are attempted.
As for the satsuma, the tundra and the mirror – you will have to see them to … believe them: is that what I mean? No, come on, they are truly there in actual fact – but what their roles are (or do I mean rolls in the case of the comestibles?) … That’s anyone’s guess.
The final welter of sound and image captures snippets of the world outside: the world we must return to. Has this been an escape or a rare opportunity to pause and go deeper in quest of a truth of human existence? You decide.
All I can add is don’t miss the opportunity to experience the elusive and allusive delight that is Actual Fact. A BATS/STAB show comes but once a year and this one can stand proud in that initiative’s long and illustrious tradition.
Copyright © belongs to the reviewer
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