Prognosis 2: Reality Shows - Michael Regnier

It is customary at the end of shows at the Fringe for a performer (or sometimes a producer, if there is one) to step out of character and onto the stage to thank the audience and ask them to tell their friends about the show. As well as trying to increase word-of-mouth publicity, this act inevitably affects the relationship between the performers and their audiences by revealing the ‘real’ person who has been entertaining us.

At the end of Being Hueman Being, for example, Luke Nowell stepped out of the clown character through which he had been engaging us in play throughout the show. He thanked us and reminded us of Schiller’s idea that we are fully human only when we play. Clearly the defining philosophy behind the show, this idea couldn’t be overtly articulated through clowning and had to follow afterwards, retrospectively contextualising what we had seen and done. In particular, it made sense of the inclusion of a judgemental art critic as one of the characters on stage: Nowell had apparently been swiping lightly at the question of whether his show was ‘art’. In the end, the answer was that the question was irrelevant. We had been playing, and playfulness was the be all and end all of the experience, which is to say, it was the be all and end all of being human according to Schiller and Nowell.

At the start of Sh!t Theatre’s DollyWould – a tribute to Dolly Parton, Dolly the Sheep and a forensic body farm in Tennessee – there was a moment when the performers agreed to start again. They walked off, came back on and, indeed, restarted the show. Was this scripted? Or the confidence of two artists who weren’t afraid to reset? I don’t know, and it doesn’t matter – playing with what is real and what is artifice helps make theatre exhilarating, and it’s a fundamental tension in contemporary performance and live art. Actions performed by actors are real, in so far as they exist in time and space, but they are also artifice, part of a constructed story. The audience knows this, and so playing with the balance – perhaps revealing that a supposedly artificial action is, in fact, devoid of artifice – can change their perception of the entire experience in a heartbeat.

(The performers of DollyWould eschewed the end-of-show moment of authenticity. Instead, the audience filed out as the two performers lay onstage, hidden under sheets. They didn’t even take a curtain call, another moment in which the ‘real’ people who have been entertaining you make an appearance. But they had revealed themselves during the show, when explaining its provenance – in response to a falling out, the two decided to make a show about something they both loved: Dolly Parton. It seemed authentic, though in the theatre, who really knows?)

In a post-truth era of “fake news”, the roles of reality and artifice seem particularly important. As the world of politics has become more about celebrity and stagecraft (though let’s not forget that even 50 years ago, some authors were lamenting celebrities known only for their well-knownness), publics have looked to light entertainment for a glimpse of something real, something authentic. But it is not enough to put the real world on TV or onstage. As has been learned in reality television from The Apprentice to Made in Chelsea, reality usually needs plotting, scripting and editing before it becomes satisfying and entertaining. Aristotle knew this. In Poetics, he wrote that 'it is not the function of the poet to relate what has happened, but what may happen'. Biography is not enough to achieve authenticity.

If reality is not quite real enough, can scientific research bring more truth to performance? In The Science of Cringe, Maria Peters elegantly incorporated scientific research and ideas into her comedy show. Some of the science was not what you might call ‘consensus’ – evolutionary psychology theories come with a grain of salt because they are essentially untestable – but Peters was not afraid to comically undercut the ‘cave-girl’ explanation with her own story and by noting that, according to the theory, cave people were driven by “food and sexy times – so unlike today…”. Similarly, in Primates, Tessa Coates drew on her anthropology degree, sometimes for direct factual asides about penis shapes and sperm motility, sometimes for characters, such as her former lecturer. Coates’s moment of authenticity came when, towards the end of her show, she stepped back in to the lecturer’s character to deliver what amounted to her moral lesson; although life is basically meaningless, we are all special. As elsewhere in her show, she had to take on an alternative character to say what the ‘real’ Coates seemingly couldn’t.

But the most 'authentic' show that I saw at this year’s Fringe was Descent, presented by A Moment White Productions. A scripted play, performed by three actors (who left it to their producer to come on at the end and say thank you), it followed a family’s experiences with the onset of dementia. By investing completely in the fictional world they created, and demonstrating extensive research into the real-life effects of dementia, the production made the transformation of the character with dementia (and those around him) real. It’s not that fiction is always able to achieve a greater truth than reality, but it’s worth remembering that it can.

Authenticity in the performing arts is often a question of the extent to which a performance can be reconciled with the original work it re-presents; a question for revivals and productions of the classics. But authenticity lies also in the world that the work creates, which as Sarah Rubidge concludes, “is located anew in each performance”. If audiences today are sceptical of a reality in which a former reality TV host can become President, I wonder if the performing arts can offer authenticity precisely because, by their nature, they put artifice and reality in creative tension with each other. Life might be turning into a movie in which people play themselves, but theatre can be a place where fictional characters achieve a truthful existence.

Related Diagnoses: Being Hueman Being, DollyWould, PreScribed, The Science of Cringe, Descent