Searching for the truth in The Lifespan Of A Fact

The Lifespan Of A Fact is based on the book of the same name, which was also adapted into a Broadway play that ran from Oct 2018 to Jan 2019. PHOTO: SINGAPORE REPERTORY THEATRE

SINGAPORE - The Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Act (Pofma) and the coronavirus outbreak are some things that come to veteran actress Janice Koh's mind when she reflects on the script of The Lifespan Of A Fact.

Based on real events, the play explores the dichotomy between concrete fact and creative licence as it follows the journey of an intern at a New York magazine.

Jim Fingal, a fresh graduate from Harvard, is tasked with factchecking an essay by American author John D'Agata on Las Vegas' high suicide rates.

He quickly finds numerous inaccuracies in the article, resulting in a comedic clash between him and D'Agata over what constitutes fact and truth.

Directed by Daniel Slater, The Lifespan Of A Fact will be staged by the Singapore Repertory Theatre (SRT) this month.

The cast also includes Jamil Schulze, who plays Jim the intern, and Ghafir Akbar, who plays the author. Koh plays Emily Penrose, Jim's editor at the magazine.

The Lifespan Of A Fact is based on the book of the same name, which was co-written by the real-life Fingal and D'Agata and contains D'Agata's essay "What Happens There", as well as Fingal's annotations and the pair's correspondence.

It was adapted into a Broadway play - starring Daniel Radcliffe, Cherry Jones and Bobby Cannavale - which ran from October 2018 to January last year.

Koh, 46, says the production is especially relevant as people need to be discerning in a world where information can go viral and one can instantly access examples both real and fake.

She adds: "Controlling the narrative is no longer as straightforward as controlling content on print and broadcast media.

"Governments have responded to this challenge in ways such as censorship, restricting data access and legal means like Pofma.


  • Where: KC Arts Centre - Home of SRT, 20 Merbau Road

    When: Feb 25 to March 14, Mondays to Fridays (8pm), Saturdays (4pm, 8pm)

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"But more importantly, we need to learn to be discerning and ask the right questions when we are presented with information."

In the play, John wants to paint the portrait of a teenager, 16-year-old Levi Presley, from Las Vegas, and how the conditions of Presley's life led him to commit suicide.

Meanwhile, Jim insists that strict fidelity to facts is important in John's moving essay.

Director Slater, 53, who previously helmed SRT's Romeo And Juliet in 2016, says: "The play forces us to consider the issue of facts and truth in a more disinterested fashion, without asking us to take political sides."

The play also highlights the importance of interpreting data to present a persuasive story, says Koh, who adds that some topics - such as the hard sciences - often call for pure fact, while others, such as social issues, require people to ruminate more on what those facts mean.

Citing media coverage of the coronavirus as an example, she adds: "All we want in a crisis are facts and exact figures because they paint a picture of what the immediate situation is. But humanity also needs stories that give meaning to our complex experiences. Stories are also a form of truth."

On the debate between pure fact and artistic licence, the cast members have found themselves vacillating among the viewpoints of various characters in the play.

Schulze, 26, was at first frustrated with Jim's nitpicking. "It seemed ridiculous that every tiny assertion, down to whether the colour of a tile was red or brown, would demand an edit, particularly when John is working within the genre of a literary essay that permits liberties in search of a higher truth."

But he soon began to identify with Jim. "There is grave importance and even beauty in the precise truth, and there is a responsibility to maintain the reader's trust."

As an actor, Ghafir says he largely relates to his character John because good theatre suspends disbelief and moves an audience through artistic licence.

But he still has not reached a conclusion on which is more important - creative licence or pure fact.

"I don't think the play proposes one is more right than the other," says Ghafir, 38.

Slater hopes that the audience will find themselves on different characters' sides at various points in the play and that, amid the comedy, they will respond emotionally to the fate of the teenager, the source of John and Jim's conflict.

"If there is one thing that unites all three characters, it's about the value of asking questions and remaining sceptical," he says.

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