Journalism has been a popular subject recently with theater-makers in North Texas. This past fall, Stage West Theatre in Fort Worth produced the snappy, witty play Lifespan of a Fact, in which an essayist and a fact-checker go head-to-head over the factual accuracy of the essayist’s latest work. Now, Brigham Mosley and Janielle Kastner are performing Playwrights in the Newsroom, which is produced as part of AT&T’s Elevator Project, and runs March 5-15.
Mosley and Kastner have spent upward of two years building this story about the importance of local journalism, with a lens on The Dallas Morning News. What’s with local theater’s sudden interest in journalism? Well, it might be that journalism is dying, and theater sympathizes. These days, we get our news in quick bites from social media and our entertainment from streaming services. Journalism has always been able to support theater by promoting and reviewing shows (cough, cough); returning the favor, theater supports journalism by crafting stories that show us how important journalism is. It is, after all, a time in which reality is often dismissed as "fake news," while senior citizens are participating in workshops that help them identify inaccurate reporting.
These theater shows aren’t just advertising newspapers and journals but bringing to light some of the questions we should be asking about the newspapers and magazines that we read. Many of these questions are about trust and the degree of accuracy in journalism. How factually accurate does a story have to be in order for it to be true? If a true story isn’t entirely factually accurate, is it trustworthy at all? Both plays address these questions while also spinning entertaining and resonant stories.
In order to write Playwrights in the Newsroom, Mosley and Kastner have quite literally been playwrights in the newsroom: They have spent hours upon hours in the newsroom of the Morning News. Weeks and months of hands-on research has given their play both form and content. The play is fictional, but it definitely blurs the lines between the stage and reality. Mosley and Kastner play fictional versions of themselves who, for the first part of the play, are asking the selfsame questions as their real-life counterparts. But as they begin to recognize the problems journalism is theoretically facing, a more visceral problem comes to the forefront: the surge of layoffs at the Morning News early last year. While the first half of the play innocently asks questions, the second half will grapple with the real consequences of the questions we ask and the answers we receive.
The play also shows disparate approaches to the news and how we should understand journalism. Both in real life and in the play, Mosley and Kastner are drastically different people. When real-life Mosley isn’t doing research for Playwrights in the Newsroom, he’s writing or performing partially autobiographical drag shows. Kastner feels most at home behind the stage, where she often works as a writer or director — she is especially unlikely to be found performing a fictional version of herself, as she and Mosley do in Playwrights in the Newsroom. Their dichotomy within the play mirrors their real-life differences, though it is perhaps exaggerated. In the play, Mosley is emotionally driven and innocent, and when faced with the realization of journalism’s fragile state, he wants to curl up in a ball and ignore the problem. Kastner’s character, on the other hand, is driven to find answers to her questions and reinstate local journalism as a credible and necessary part of society.
“There’s just enough friction to be Velcro,” says Mosley of his and Kastner’s dynamic, both as artists and as characters in the play.
Journalists and playwrights are both storytellers, as are all artists. We should all consider them fundamental to human society, because we structure our lives with stories both true and fictional. But the storytellers face different challenges, hold different privileges and different responsibilities. As they created their fictional play based on real experiences and telling the story of legitimate journalism, Mosley and Kastner recognized the privilege of fiction: they can tell a story that’s “truer than true,” as Kastner describes their advantage.
What exactly is truer than the truth? Much of Mosley and Kastner’s play comes from facts, but they are able to reorder events or cut out certain details in order to emphasize aspects of the story that make it more universally true. But in order to achieve this universality, storytellers have to advertise their tales as fictional.
Both Playwrights in the Newsroom and Lifespan of a Fact are based on true stories — but they’ve taken plenty of creative license, and this creative license labels their stories as fiction. Many journalistic stories would be more effective and reflect aspects of reality more accurately if they weren’t 100% factually accurate. Lifespan of a Fact director Marianne Galloway offers insight into this: “Story is the thing that carries us. But when that story gets nitpicked by facts, it unravels.”
Both plays focus on journalism’s attempt to recover from this unraveling. A story that is solely factual is less resonant; a story that toys with factual accuracy loses the trust of its readers. “Trust is the molecule by which every single shape within local journalism is created,” says Kastner, and her and Mosley’s play defends the trustworthiness of journalism. “A central question of the play is how do you rebuild trust, and how do you be trustworthy?”
If Playwrights deals with how journalists recover from failures of trust, Lifespan of a Fact shows the very origin of that distrust. Lifespan focuses on the struggles of journalism from the inside. The play centers around an article written by essayist John D’Agata (Chris Hury). His article focuses on the suicide of a young man in Las Vegas and brings out the universal truths of human struggle. However, D’Agata laces his article with seemingly insignificant white lies. The lies serve the purpose of increasing the impact of the article’s central truths, but they are not the facts that they purport to be.
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Fact-checker Jim (Evan Michael Woods) reacts strongly against the inaccuracy of D’Agata’s supposedly factual essay. Much of this reaction is based in the importance of trust between journalists and readers. As soon as readers learn that an article skews the significant facts for the sake of poetic truth, they will stop trusting the article as a whole. “Will the story still be compelling, or will conspiracy theorists tear it apart until it doesn’t have any weight anymore?” asks Dana Schultes, executive producer at Stage West who also played the editor in Lifespan.
Both of these plays pose countless questions about journalists, integrity, truth, facts. It’s difficult to find clear-cut answers to these questions.
“The answer lies somewhere in the gray, but the play asks for black and white,” Woods says.
Lifespan of a Fact and Playwrights in the Newsroom ask these pertinent questions and show their support for journalism, even if they don’t give us all the answers. It might seem that these unanswered questions merely undermine journalists and remind audiences and readers of how little they know about where their news is coming from. By pointing out journalism’s flaws and its struggles, aren’t we doing it damage? Well, no — asking these questions is like giving journalism a vaccine. Suffering from a lack of trust from readers is exactly what forces journalism to become more vigilant, honest and worthy of trust. These theater productions are prodding journalism back into that worthiness.