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Director Leigh Silverman helps explore heady questions in Broadway's The Lifespan of a Fact
In this era of #AlternativeFacts and #FakeNews, a show called The Lifespan of a Fact sounds like it was written about where we are right now. However, this new Broadway play was inspired by real-life events that predate Twitter. The editor of a glossy magazine (played by two-time Tony winner Cherry Jones) assigns a diligent young intern named Jim (Daniel Radcliffe) to fact-check an article about a teenage suicide by celebrated essayist John (Bobby Cannavale). Jim soon discovers that John has fudged a number of details in his reporting, but the author insists he did so in pursuit of what he considers the deeper truth of the story.
Director Leigh Silverman, who earned a Tony nomination for helming the musical Violet, says she was immediately drawn to the project because it raised "questions that tumble around" her brain all the time. "I've worked on a lot of plays based on real people, and I've often wondered about artistic license, and when truth and accuracy are synonymous and when they are not," she says. "The question of the play is, how do we understand this story best? Is it when we know the exact number of steps that the boy took when he jumped off a building? Or is it the poetic truth about how he may have felt?"
That conundrum becomes even more of a brainteaser when you realize The Lifespan of a Fact is based on the eponymous 2012 book by the real-life fact checker, Jim Fingal, and the writer, John D'Agata, who argued via email for years about the boundaries of fact and fiction. A trio of playwrights, Jeremy Kareken, David Murrell and Gordon Farrell, has spun their sparring into an incisive and entertaining one-act that takes some dramatic liberties.
As one of only a handful of women directors regularly working on Broadway, Silverman felt the need to add a female perspective to this tale, which had been filtered through the eyes of so many men. "I thought, we have a play by three middle-aged white guys, based on a book written by two middle-aged white guys, so let's get some other points of view here," she says. She consciously assembled a diverse design team composed solely of women -- Mimi Lien (scenic design), Linda Cho (costume design), Jen Schriever (lighting design), Palmer Hefferan (original music and sound design) and Lucy Mackinnon (projection design) -- not realizing that would mark a Broadway first.
"It's very exciting for me because this is not a play about women or a quote-unquote woman's play," says Silverman, who acknowledges that she feels a "deep responsibility" to help close Broadway's backstage gender gap. "That this goes unquestioned and unchecked in 2018 is unfathomable to me. I think, particularly now, every choice we make is political; the only response to our current moment is to be super fired up and to make our voices heard."
While The Lifespan of a Fact does not directly comment on our present political predicament, it echoes the polarized bickering we hear every day online and in the media as Jim and John go at it under their editor's watchful eye. "It's a vigorous debate," Silverman says. "It starts off feeling like a domestic office comedy and then it spirals out of control -- the arguments just keep building and intensifying. These three people take what they do incredibly seriously, and they are passionate about the craft of storytelling."
Silverman says their zeal is so infectious, theatregoers often continue their deliberations while exiting the theatre. "Part of what is exciting and engaging and disorienting for the audience is that they start off feeling allied with one character and then the other, and those alliances shift continually as the night goes on," she says. "People who thought they were going to be on one side frequently find themselves conflicted. I must say, the experience of working on this play, which debates the nature of fact and truth, has been very profound."
Gerard Raymond is an arts journalist based in New York City.
Daniel Radcliffe, Cherry Jones and Bobby Cannavale in The Lifespan of a Fact. Photos by Peter Cunningham.
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