Lies, lies and damned lies! Colchester Life talks to the ‘Queen of British performance poetry’ ahead of her new show at the Colchester Arts Centre on May 24th, and asks, as democracy dissolves into satire around us, how can we possibly know what is true?
Francesca Beard thought she had already written the vast majority of her crossover theatre/spoken word show, when suddenly in the last year, lying went truly mainstream. Did she have to do a lot of rewriting, I wonder. “Yes, it was a real labour of love," she concedes. "On top of the personal, the philosophical issues, came the zeitgeist of Brexit (“Vote ‘Leave’ to release £350 million a week to the NHS”), Trump (and his ‘alternative facts’) and the fake news phenomenon. Suddenly reality seemed to be being blatantly manipulated and more than ever, I found myself asking, how can we ever know what is true? I was interested in asking a question to the audience that I didn’t know the answer to.”
Although increasingly concerned about the rise in propaganda Francesca is not despondent. “Potentially this new awareness is a force for good,” she says. “Kids are being taught not to believe everything they hear, to fact check. We can’t take democracy for granted anymore.” I ask what sources she trust for her own news. “Well, I don’t have a TV,” she explains, “and I tend to cross reference between Sky, the BBC, the Guardian, the Telegraph... It’s depressing how much divergency there is. I recently switched my home page from the BBC to Positive News, as well. It was making me sad. Sadness is how the news cycle works.”
“Really,” she continues, “it’s sensationalism that sells news. But it’s an unhelpful way of telling stories.” She mentions Alain de Botton’s analysis of the way we are told the news and how the same old stories come round again and again. She references also the Brazilian theatre maker Augusto Boal, and his work in South America with the Theatre of the Oppressed. Boal observes that our stories are always about a hero who either overcomes or does not – a comedy or a tragedy - but these personal journeys don’t actually change anything, though we use them as catharsis. In his work the audience becomes spec-actors, no longer allowing power to be delegated to the characters. In her show too, Francesca emphasises, she deliberately uses the hero’s journey formula to try and challenge that passiveness it installs in us, and instead use it to empower change. Hence some (gentle) audience interaction.
On this journey the audience will explore make-believe in its many forms, and I ask Francesca if she ever feels she has to lie to her children for their protection, as so many people do. "When I was a child I was given answers, but not in context," she chuckles, "so now, to a fault, I give context. So much so that my daughters cut me off mid explanation. As Einstein said, you don't understand something yourself if you can't explain it to a six-year-old. Sometimes it's a case of saying, 'This is my understanding, but maybe you should check'."
And what's the biggest whopper Francesca herself told as a child, I wonder. She thinks for a moment."When I was about 7 or 8 the bath plug came loose and I was swinging it around my head, and it hit my brother on the chin and made him bleed. I told him I would give him my favourite toy Teddywinkle if he didn't tell our parents." When I laugh Francesca protests. "No, that's not the worst of it!" she exclaims, "later I told my parents that he'd taken Teddywinkle and they made him give it back!"
We all have similar stories to tell, and Francesca is creating an archive of lies, some of which she weaves into a song in the show. You can contribute by submitting your favourite (or worst!) lie at www.posttruthapocalypse.com.
If you've ever said, "No, I didn't get your email!", or, "Traffic was terrible!", if you've ever thought about yourself as a fictional character, if you're at all worried about democracy in our “post truth” world, then Francesca invites you to join her in considering the global cost of make believe and whether the truth really can set us free.
Francesca brings How to Survive a Post Truth Apocalypse to the Colchester Arts Centre on Wednesday, May 24th, before moving on to Cambridge and London’s Roundhouse, before undertaking a full UK tour later in the year and into 2018. Details and booking here.