Fighting on the border of authenticity and fiction

by Tommy Lexen

in National Conference

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(This post is part of the 2014 TCG National Conference: Crossing Borders {Art | People} blog salon curated by Caridad Svich.)

On the 2nd July I will be traveling from London to Kiev and Lviv with a small team, to undertake first-hand research into the events that took place in Ukraine in January-February 2014, which later became known as ‘The Ukrainian Revolution’.

This journey will be the starting point of a new play I’m working on, entitled ‘The Point of No Return’. The narrative will focus on four of the most violent days in Ukraine’s modern history; the four days in February which some would say changed the political course of Europe and destabilised the relations between east and west to the lowest level since the cold war.

The political game behind this conflict is, for many researchers, a minefield with every main player having their own version of who’s to blame. Of course, looking at it from an informed perspective, that’s nothing surprising. But if we look beyond the media coverage and the political propaganda, there is a human story to be told from the people who were there on the ground, fighting for a common cause. A story of how a society joined together, across the full political spectrum, and struck back against a repressive government.

How did this happen and why did it go so far? Why did the international community respond as they did, and what made office workers, teachers, students, artists and many more take up the fight with homemade weapons against heavily armed riot police units and snipers?

With ‘The Point of No Return’, I want to make the audience ask themselves: ‘What would we do if these events happened to us, on our streets?’

I strongly believe that theatre has a responsibility to bring important subjects into the realm of public consciousness and create debate. For this reason I have chosen to focus on making work based upon real-life stories, extensive research and field studies, all in collaboration with a wide net of cross-disciplinary advisers, academic institutions and experts in the fields of human rights and politics.

With this new play my process will be slightly different to earlier projects. This time, I very early on challenged myself to make the show in less than a year, as a way of reacting to the current situation and generating debate whilst the conflict is still fresh in our collective mind.

Previous shows I have made in this format have taken between 2-3 years to make and have been allowed to develop dynamically through many different phases of rewrites, workshops with actors, scratch nights and further research. Now, with only 10 months until our opening night, one of the main challenges will be to maintain the integrity and quality of the piece within this timeline, and represent these stories with the respect and honesty demanded by the nature of the work.

As a way of approaching this challenge, I have defined three key questions:
-    What is the balance between artistic freedom and authenticity?
-    What are the ethical responsibilities for me as an author/editor of plays based upon and using authentic source material?
-    How do we engage an audience and make them relate to a reality very far from their own?

Of course, there are no simple answers to any of these questions, but they are a good starting point for further discussions.

On Representing the Truth

When setting out with the intention of writing a play based upon ‘authentic’ source material, I always have to question if the material I get/have access to can ever be completely authentic? What’s the relationship between authenticity and the truth? And isn’t truth in itself a social construction?

“Once we accept that we cannot perceive an external truth about an external reality it becomes less important then the examination of how people interact with the help of an intersubjective construct of their shared social reality” (Canton, 2011)

On a personal level, who am I to represent this truth, and which ‘truth’ I am telling? Why am I telling it and, for whom? Philosopher and feminist Judith Butler discusses that the interest of Westerners is to sell and communicate the misery of others in order to feel better about themselves, and that this perspective is still flawed by earlier narratives of identity.

I can understand the argument, and it is a question I have been asked myself many times, but even if it is an important perspective to consider, I don’t believe it’s a constructive starting point for an artistic response to global issues. For my own process I have redefine the question of ‘why’ to ‘how’, i.e. “How can I, a middle class London-based Swedish theatre maker, best represent a reality so far from my own?”

On Authorship of Rewritten Real-life Stories

During every new creation process, I have dealt with the question of authorship, and my role as a writer within this context. When you base a play upon empiric material, who is the real owner of that final product? James Thomas asks these important questions in ‘Digging up stories – Applied theatre, performance and war’: “Can stories be owned; can stories be stolen? Do we judge the truth of one story against one another? […] Do we tell what we are told?”

On Making the Audience Relate to the Work

Over the last few years, my aim has been to write plays that encourage the audience to engage in some kind of action when the show is over. According to Doris Graber, the stories that manage to shock and arouse the audience are those that will be remembered and successful in the eyes of the public. I can agree with that to some extent. Still, I’m very cautious to not fall into the trap of sensationalising hard-hitting stories or creating extravagant actions from dire situations. My ambition is always to be as truthful as possible to the subject matter and build every action from within; from what’s already in the story.

In relation to ‘The Point of No Return’, I believe this play will resonate with international audiences, as it discusses topics that may directly affect the future of many countries as well as the peace and stability of Europe and the wider world. The production is not simply about isolated events in Ukraine, it is about the multitude of issues raised in the ongoing crisis; many of which can be directly translated to other societies.

“In recent years we have seen assaults on the right to protest near Parliament. Changes to the law in 2005, and more recently in 2011, have given the authorities unprecedented powers to restrict peaceful protest in Westminster and the surrounding area. […] Peaceful protestor Maya Evans was convicted in 2005 for reading out the names of UK soldiers killed in the war in Iraq at the Cenotaph in Whitehall.”  (The National Council for Civil Liberties – ‘Liberty’, 2013)

Why am I doing it?

Revolutions in all manner of forms occur continuously all over the world, and will keep happening. Violent clashes between civilians and authorities are often part of those events and people’s basic human rights are often taken away from them. Only knowledge and understanding about the causes and human impact of these events can change this cycle. It’s easier for people to fully understand the impact of a situation when they are given a character they can empathise with, rather than simply reading a news headline, which can be instantly forgotten. Through theatre, I hope stories like this can become human and feel more real as well as bringing related issues into the here and now. If we can make that happen and reach a wider audience, I believe we can make a difference.


As a multi-disciplinary theatre maker, Tommy Lexen focuses on making contemporary political and social relevant work, interdisciplinary and intermedial performances and new writing.

Over the last 10 years Tommy has been working with companies and venues in UK, Sweden, Hungary, Russia, Congo (DRC) and now Ukraine. Hi is also the Artistic Director of the London-based BeFrank Theatre Company.

Originally from Sweden, Tommy trained at Stockholm’s Academy of Dramatic Arts and studied Performance Studies at Stockholm University. In 2010 he moved to London to further develop his directing skills at Royal Central School of Speech and Drama.

His postgraduate research explored the concept of ‘Cross-border Theatre’ and ‘Communicating Human Rights through Theatre’. Both of these subjects are very present in his current practice, and his research is ongoing.

Tommy was awarded with the Andrew Sandrew’s Scholarship 2012 for young promising artists in Sweden. His most recent play, ‘Like Enemies of the State’, received widespread acclaim at Stockholm’s Fringe Festival, a successful run at New Diorama Theatre and a live-streamed performance on International Human Rights Day 2013, seen by audiences in 24 countries. The show also headlined Oxford Human Rights Festival at the Old Fire Station in February 2014.

For more info: www.tommylexen.com or www.justbefrank.eu