Francesca Beard has returned to the stage with her first full-length show after a ten-year absence. How to Survive a Post-Truth Apocalypse combines storytelling, verse, spoken word, benign audience interaction, and a game of “Whose Lie is it Anyway” to contemplate lies, lying, and liars. The show explores make-believe in its many guises from political spin, lies told out of kindness, and bold-faced whoppers. In other words, it’s a show about what it means to be human.
Since 1999, Beard has been an innovative promoter and performer of live poetry and has toured Europe, Asia, and South America with the British Council running workshops and masterclasses in contexts as varied as Danish comedy festivals, Australian jazz clubs, and Colombian prisons. Although Beard is prolific in many genres, she is best known for her popular and critically acclaimed one-person shows such as Chinese Whispers (2003) and Animal Olympics (2008). She has been a writer-in-residence at the Metropolitan Police, the Tower of London, Hampton Court Palace, and has run workshops for the National Theatre, the British Library, the Barbican, and the Natural History Museum. In 2005, her first radio play, The Healing Pool was broadcast on BBC Radio 4 and culturised caught up with her to find out what she’s been up to in her absence and her plans for the future.
It takes a long time to develop a show such as this from concept to stage so you must have come up with the notion of “post-truth” before it entered the popular consciousness through the Trump and Brexit campaigns. If so (and indeed, if not) how did How to Survive in a Post-Truth Apocalypse come into being?
This show has been a long time in the making. It’s a huge investment to make a spoken word show – I imagine it’s similar to writing a novel. You start out wanting to tell a story to an unknown audience, and at the end, when you are ready to share it with the world, those imaginary listeners might not get it, or not like it, or not care. With this in mind I think in order to be worth the risk, the shows have to ask essential questions to which you don’t know the answer. The show was originally called Show and Tell and played around with the idea of magic and a disappearing act, but was really a philosophical investigation into subjective reality and personal myth. It then became Barefaced and then, for a whole year, A Lie, before Brexit, Trump and 2016 happened and the show finally became How to Survive a Post-Truth Apocalypse.
As part of the project you are creating an archive of lies. What are the most outrageous, barefaced lies that you’ve collected for the archive so far? How about the most bizarre? Have any of them stopped you in your tracks?
Collecting “true lies” from audience members has been one of the joys of making this show. We’ve experimented with different ways of asking people to participate: there was one phase where we asked people to turn to strangers and tell each other a lie, which, according to feedback, was a terrifying but liberating experience. Another version had individuals volunteering confessions in the moment – one woman told a room above a pub in Southwark that her twins were born on the fifth of November and they grew up believing the massive fireworks celebrations in Battersea Park each year were for their birthday. One of my favourite donations was from a scrap of paper collected in Ipswich which read “I dropped my girlfriends expensive shampoo down the festival portaloo and let her use it after”.
How to Survive in a Post-Truth Apocalypse is a very eye-catching title. Some people might even think of it as portentous. What kinds of reactions to the title of the show have you had so far? And are we really living in apocalyptic times?
Rob, the director liked this title the best out of the dozens I presented him with over the months, but I was worried that it would be too much of a mouthful. We thought over it for ages. I have lists upon lists of titles in various notebooks. I don’t think I had as much trouble naming my children. I am a big fan of research so I googled “How to name your show” and the general wisdom, according to the internet is “it needs to be hash-taggable”, which How to Survive a Post-Truth Apocalypse isn’t, at all. However, even though I’m the only person on stage, it’s such a collaborative piece of work and it made sense, in the absence of my writer’s gut instinct, to go along with what Rob thought it should be called. I haven’t regretted it once; I love the title. It presupposes a question, which is important for the show, and when you see it you’ll see that the title is actually a pretty accurate representation of the content. As for whether we are living in apocalyptic times, the sun still shines, I have ice cream in the freezer, my kids are healthy and happy. But intellectually, I think that humans are ruinous to the living things we share this planet with and to the planet itself. “Apocalypse” is a very epic, “end of days” word – but the show is a hero’s quest structure and an examination of story, so it’s fitting.
Why is the subject matter of the show important for you explore? What did you hope to learn from it and what have you gleaned so far in this initial short run?
Ever since I was a kid I’ve always wondered how we know what is real. As an adult, exploring scientific theories of how our brains construct reality and reading pop science about quantum mechanics, has only given me more questions and confirmed my belief that uncertainty is the only honest position. Even if no-one comes to see the show – and I really hope people do – the process of making it has moved me forward so much as an artist. Wow, that sounds so pretentious…
In your opinion is there such a thing as a good lie? In what circumstances is it good to lie?
There are bad lies, that’s for sure. But it’s not so healthy to hate yourself, and as most humans are liars, for me, it’s more a case of making kindness a principle and trying to avoid lying to yourself – though that’s kind of impossible. Just one example – our memories are a massively important part of who we are, right? However, our current best understanding of how memory works is this: each event, retained by the mind as a memory, is formed, like a bubble, with a few details inside. We might never recall this event, but if we do, the bubble is popped, the details taken out and then a new bubble is formed, with some details left out but some additions from the association that caused us to recall that memory added. If we ever remember that event again, the same thing happens, the bubble is popped and reformed, perhaps with new details. It’s cumulative: the more we remember the memory, the more we remember the memory, because of the way that the brain connects. But the more we remember the memory, the less likely it is to be factually accurate. Which is why you can have a completely sincere but different version of that Christmas incident from all your family. We can’t help this, it’s an unconscious process called confabulation. When you consider that our memories archive our past, make sense of our present and influence our future, and yet they are inaccurate, that’s a pretty clear indication of how it’s impossible to be “true” to oneself.
You are well known for involving the audiences in your shows. How are they involved this time and what are you hoping to extract from them?
Ah, thank you for saying that, it’s great to hear that I am known for involving the audience. When I’m making work, I try and make the kind of thing that I would want to pay money to go and see – which is the main reason for why I am not that prolific. I have a very low boredom threshold so the quality bar has to be high. When I am in the audience for spoken word and it’s not engaging, I feel like I’m back at school, in the worst lesson ever: crazy bored. I hate listening when I don’t understand why I’m listening. It feels like work. Paradoxically, the harder I am asked to work, as an audience member, the more I enjoy it. So when I make a show, I always do my best to make sure the audience has a role and a responsibility which is clearly necessary. Then I try and add elements of risk, which means that they have to stay alert and responsible for their part in the journey. In this show, the audience is the hero. I don’t know if I am hoping to extract anything from them – that sounds painful and I promise, no ad hoc dentistry will be involved – however, some of the show will involve the audience playing a part. With costumes.
How do you keep the show consistent and on track if every time the audience is different and provides different answers?
It’s a bit like jazz: improvisation is about knowing your structures and trusting in all of the work that you’ve put in – then, being present, listening, and reacting. Having said that, this piece, although there is quite a lot of participation, is quite classically theatrical. My director Rob Watt is the conductor, I’m just one of the elements in the show: the spoken word performance works with the visuals, the sound and the lighting. This means, in a sense, I feel like both the audience and I are the variables in each performance.
How does your work make a difference in society? What do you want your work to do?
This show is Arts Council funded. When my time and work is publicly funded, I feel responsible but also empowered to create spaces for positive cultural change. This is fairly simple, because spoken word is an inherently political art form which positions the personal as political. Spoken word is about standing up and representing your reality with the acknowledgement that other people have different realities. In terms of what I want this particular piece to do, my ambition was to give a live audience the collective experience that can occur, singularly, in page poetry where you understand a paradox and hold two impossible realities at once in your mind and they are both true. I hope that when people come and see this show they leave feeling empowered about being confused and positive about feeling uncertain.
What is your over-arching vision for yourself as an artist? Are there any ambitions you are yet to fulfill?
I aim to win the Nobel Prize for Literature.
It’s been ten years since your last show. Why such a long break? What have you been creating in the meantime?
I made my first show, Chinese Whispers with Apples and Snakes in 2002 and toured it nationally and internationally in 2003. In 2004, I became a mother. I now have two girls, aged twelve and ten, who are both none and all of my achievement, they were clearly their own selves from the moment they were born but I might have had the power to mess them up. I’m pleased to say that so far, they are brilliant, positive, optimistic, and kind human beings. I’ve always worked and have loved being a working mum. When my first daughter was just months old, I workshopped and wrote a radio drama for BBC Radio 3. I’ve been writer in residence at the Mixed Reality Lab in Nottingham University and at Banff Centre Canada, in association with B3 Media, I’ve continued to facilitate workshops and perform all over the world with the British Council. I’ve also written pieces for The Young Vic, for The Royal Court, worked in libraries and universities and schools and performed all over and I made Animal Olympics, a family show with puppetry and song. However, I never felt able to do a show like How to Survive a Post-Truth Apocalypse because making something like this changes you. I didn’t think that it was fair to let myself be so open to transformation when my kids were very dependent on me. Saying this makes me feel bad, as it gets me thinking of all the parents who can’t choose when they are open to life-changing events.
How has the spoken word landscape changed since you first started? How would you like to see it develop in the future?
I feel lucky to come to spoken word when I did – my first open mic in 1999 led to a paid gig a few months later at the Hard Edge Club. Nine months or so after that, I had my first performance with Apples and Snakes. They went on to give me workshop facilitation training and produce Chinese Whispers, which was championed by both Arts Council England and the British Council. I’ve grown up as a spoken word artist with incredible artists, people like yourself, Patience Agbabi, Tim Wells, Nick Makoha, Paul Lyalls, Jacob Sam-La Rose, Salena Godden, Malika Booker, Charlie Dark, Ty, Lemn Sissay, Zena Edwards, and Roger Robinson, whose Shadow Boxers was Apple’s first show and a huge inspiration for my work. All of these people are still making amazing, groundbreaking work, joined by new generations of phenomenal artists. We are living in interesting times, which is itself an ancient Chinese curse. Even so, it’s exciting, (you have to look on the bright side). I hope the spoken word artists take up the challenge to speak to our interesting, difficult times, to lead in articulating the challenges of our age and asking the important questions and to listen to and channel the responses.