As a graduate student at UNR in the late ’90s, I took a journalism class called “Advanced Writing.” The instructor had one unwavering rule: An assignment with even one factual inaccuracy would earn an immediate failing grade. She explained this was a rule of journalism we’d all be expected to abide by in our careers—and it was one I could respect … until our second major assignment, a personality profile, when I wrote that my subject had attended “Weslayan” University.
I earned an automatic F on the paper. Despite my passionate cries in her office of, “It was just a misspelling! That’s not fair!” she held firm.
“It’s a factual inaccuracy. What if you were writing about a crime committed by a William Smith, with an ‘i,’ and you write it with a ‘y’? You’ve just accused the wrong man. The F stands.”
Though I received an A in the class, it was a hard pill to swallow and a lesson I would never forget. It came rushing back to me as I watched a sneak-preview performance of Brüka Theatre’s The Lifespan of a Fact.
Based on the titular book by John D’Agata and Jim Fingal—who also happen to be two of the three main characters—the play, directed here by David Richards, is an exploration of what constitutes truth in journalism. Although the book was written in 2012, it was prescient in how it nails our current climate of “alternative facts” and “misinformation,” making it a juicy, provocative 90 minutes.
It takes only three actors to tell this true(ish) story of what is essentially a standard journalistic practice. Emily Penrose, played by Kathy Welch, is the editor of a well-respected New York magazine. She begins the play at her desk, interviewing a potential intern, Jim Fingal (played by Ryan Corrigan), for a quick fact-checking job. The following Monday, she’s hoping to publish a remarkable 15-page essay by writer John D’Agata (Bob Ives), about a young man’s jump to his death from the top of the Stratosphere in Las Vegas. She’s sure it’s a winning feature, if she can only make sure the facts are checked. Fingal, an enthusiastic candidate, seems like the right fit.
Fingal sets right to work—and immediately uncovers a variety of factual errors, from the miniscule (Are there 31 or 34 clubs?) to the major (Wait … how did that person die again?). Penrose, under enormous deadline pressure, foists the young man off to the author to speed up the process.
But D’Agata is having none of it. Changing his words amounts to destroying the story, he claims. “I’m not interested in accuracy,” he says. “I’m interested in truth.” But aren’t they the same thing? Maybe not. After all, everyone’s truth is unique to them. If he’s done the boy’s death justice, and honored his truth, isn’t that the goal?
What follows is an in-depth examination of the nature of various f-words: fiction, facts and fake news. How much do all the nitpicky details matter, really, if the story resonates and feels true? Do such changes rob the story of its soul? If no one on Earth knows the answer, is it OK to make something up? Who does it hurt?
And in the midst of such esoteric discussion, our poor editor is faced with more practical matters. How can she get this story ready to publish in time?
While I absolutely love what this play makes me think about—and I’m still thinking about it a lot—don’t think for a minute it isn’t fun. The script is filled with wry, subtle, rapid-fire comedy that underscores how inane the idea of fact-checking can sometimes be … but also why it matters.
Lifespan of a Fact is performed at 7 p.m., Thursday through Saturday; and 2 p.m., Sunday, through Saturday, Feb. 11, at Brüka Theatre, 99 N. Virginia St., in Reno. Tickets are $28 with discounts in advance, and $30 at the door. For tickets or more information, call 775-323-3221, or visit bruka.org.