Distinguishing fact and truth: Actors' Mission presents "Lifespan of a Fact"

In light of society's back and forth conversations regarding "fake news," what is true, and who can be believed, the question of what is fact and what is truth, and if there is a difference when it comes to journalism, is a timely topic.

This is the question the Actors' Mission tackles in their latest production, "Lifespan of a Fact."

The plays tells the story of an ideological battle between an essayist, John D'Agata, and a fact-checker, Jim Fingal. As Jim attempts to fact check John's article about a boy who committed suicide, he becomes bogged down by trying to correct inaccurate details. John, meanwhile, argues that it's ok if the details aren't always correct as long as they convey the greater truth of the piece. Editor Emily Penrose struggles to find the middle ground between the two as she tries to get them to finish the piece in time for her deadlines.

"When you're using nonfiction storytelling to try and make a difference, the play provides an interesting conversation about 'when do the ends justify the means?'" Co-director Daniel Bendtsen, who also plays Jim, explained.

As the script wrestles with these ethical questions, the cast and crew bringing it to life have worked through them as well.

"Is it ok, is it acceptable, it is preferred, to twist or bend or embellish if it reveals something greater?" Co-director Nina Tyler asked. "What's more important, the parts or the whole?"

"And how often do we tell the absolute truth?" Heather Pristash, who plays Emily, added, pointing out that sometimes "a micro focus on facts can almost conceal as well," and in this case it's possible that "you're missing the actual point because you're so tripped up in the facts."

Considering these questions in light of certain topics can sometimes lead people to draw conclusions based on pre-conceived notions, particularly when the topics involve politically-charged discussions. Pristash pointed out that one thing the play does well is to take the debate away from politics because it focuses on a story that is personal and emotional as it deals with the suicide of a young man.

"This play takes considering these deeper questions about truth and facts, what's the relationship of truth and facts and story, and it takes it out of that realm and just lets you think about it," she explained.

For Pristash, thinking about this topic, and coming to different conclusions, is an important part of her experience playing Emily's character.

"There's compelling arguments here happening on both sides," she said. "You should have your mind changing back and forth, and that's something I really try each time we do it, to really be listening to both of them and really try to let my own feelings and read on it change." 

The cast and crew also tend to come to different conclusions from one another, disagreeing over whether a character's actions are justified, when characters are sympathetic or not, and who is right in the end, if anyone is. But the disagreement and discussion is all part of the process of representing the different facets of the story.

Courtesy photo

Rick Cozad, Heather Pristash, and Daniel Bendtsen make up the three-person cast of "Lifespan of a Fact."

The cast members also bring their own backgrounds into their portrayals and perspectives, particularly as Bendtsen has a background in journalism and Pristash has a background in writing and publishing.

Bendtsen explained he has been in lots of situations similar to Jim, and portraying them "in a more theatrical, over the top way is a fun way to have your life experience become dramatized."

Pristash noted that she has worked in deadline-driven environments and Emily's sense of urgency is something she understands in her soul, but as a writer she also understands the power of words and the struggle that Jim and John go through.

Just as the cast and crew have made their own connections and drawn their own conclusions, they hope the audience will as well.

"The whole play is an ethical debate and at the end of it, [the audience gets] to decide who is right," Bendtsen explained. "The play doesn't give an answer. [It] leaves it to the audience to decide for themselves to what degree you can alter minor details in the pursuit of more compelling and meaningful storytelling."

While the play does follow an ethical debate over a serious subject, it's not just depressing and intellectual. Tyler explained that one of the reasons she was drawn to the script was because it's hilarious, well-written, and a "complex gem."

"It's a really interesting blend to start with a very serious subject matter . . . and mix it with a lot of comedy," Bendtsen said.

The cast and crew have enjoyed working to highlight both the humor and the emotion in the story, and have had fun figuring out elements like bringing in physicality and energy. They have also worked hard to all pitch in together to learn and incorporate a wide variety of theatrical elements to bring the play to life, from light design to incorporating video and sound to designing and constructing an elaborate set. Bendtsen is especially pleased with the set design, from the working lamps and coffee maker to the "hall of fame" of magazine covers that have details and "Easter eggs" the local audience can appreciate.

Ultimately, the cast and crew hope that audiences will be able to enjoy the play and that it will give them new ideas to consider.

"I hope they'll find it to be well thought out, well executed, entertaining and thought provoking," Tyler said.

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Nina Tyler is the co-director of "Lifespan of a Fact."

"Lifespan of a Fact" opened last weekend at the Broadway Theater in Rock Springs and will have three more performances this weekend, with shows at 7 p.m. on Friday and Saturday, February 16 and 17, and a 2 p.m. matinee on Sunday. As with all Actors' Mission productions, admission is free although donations are welcome, and a complimentary meal will be served an hour before each performance.


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