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The Reality Behind Fake

by Eric Simonson and David New

David New: Eric, your play Fake contains historical figures and scenarios. What are the permissions and constraints as a playwright when you are using actual people and events as a jumping-off place? Do you feel free to create something new? Is there an obligation to remain somewhat true to historical accounts? Eric Simonson: I do a fair bit of research if the play has characters from history, and I try my best to capture the essence of any real person. But the story in Fake is pretty much made up, so I take a fair amount of artistic license. We’re talking about famous people who lived over 100 years ago. There’s no way of knowing how they moved, what they sounded like, and it’s impossible to capture any person absolutely. In the end, you know, and after I’d done most of the research, I put away the books and I tried to write from the right side of the brain. Do you know what mean? DN: Absolutely. When you begin writing a play like Fake, do you envision directing it as well? Do you have a directorial point of view as you’re writing the play? ES: The more I write plays the more I try to make them accessible to any director. So I think my work has become more literary; that is, less dependent on scenery and stage directions. I’ve also been writing plays with smaller casts and smaller scenes, which helps make richer characters, ones that an actor might have better time with. At least that’s my intention. DN: Well, you’ve certainly created some rich roles for the actors in Fake. Where did the inspiration for the play originate? ES: I was flipping through TV channels one night a few years ago. One of the programs had a documentary on the mystery of Piltdown Man, and the documentary made a compelling case for why, in this case, fact was stranger than fiction, or at least fact was as strange as fiction, in that there was this mystery out there that no one had yet solved, and that mystery had real characters with interesting motivations. The subject seemed ripe for drama. Also, I’ve always been interested in paradigms of revolution in science. Like before the earth was discovered to be round, it was universally thought flat, and then a scientist proved this wrong; that completely undermined what we believe of our real world, and we had to start over again. We’re forever trying to find the truth about the world around us and forever having the rug pulled out from under us. We know this, and yet we never stop searching for the truth. DN: In the play, the character Doug says, "Nothing can be proven ever in the world. We think we have everything down, we think we get it all right, and then poof, something comes along and smashes it all to bits. Then we start all over again." ES: Yes, that's what I'm talking about, and there's also the fact that we are obsessed with investigating ourselves, that is, as a species, as a part of the natural world. And everybody's idea of what is real is completely different. Also – and this is an idea that comes from evolutionary theory – scientists believe that we have evolved into animals who are hard-wired to be curious beings. Even if we tried, we’d never stop trying to solve mysteries. It’s in our nature. And our curiosity plays a large part in discovering worlds both seen and unseen. New theories in science, new religions, our belief in God, or Gods, are all a result of our innate urge to explore the world around us. It’s a survival instinct, really. When I was researching the play, I read a lot about Darwin. I read a biography or two on Doyle. I was reading contemporary pieces on evolution, a lot of science essays, books about evolutionary science, Jesuit philosophy and Catholicism, and it was also a time during which I experienced a significant personal loss, so I had a lot of serious questions about the world around me that I had never asked for myself about what I believe. DN: Was it defining for you in terms of what you believe, what you have faith in? ES: Yes, actually. I decided that it is pretty much impossible to know a world outside of our own personal experiences and memories. And that, actually, may be okay. DN: One of the things you explore in the play, and I think there are three instances where this is the case, is that an encounter with death can amplify or sometimes diminish those systems we’ve created for ourselves. ES: Yes, there’s mourning throughout the play. DN: I think that’s interesting because you’re making a connection between the evolutionary need to create these systems for ourselves and the fact that evolution is tied to the cycle of death. That’s why it’s constantly ongoing. Discoveries are constantly being made, and old beliefs are constantly being smashed. It’s all part of the cycle, right? ES: Yes, it goes back to this notion of our curious nature. We are hunters and gatherers, or used to be anyway; we’re not like the koala bear who only needs eucalyptus leaves and he’s good for the day, or, say, the snake who only needs only a mouse. Humans must digest and get nutrition from a number of sources, and evolution has made us multi-taskers: we are born with the ability to find berries, hunt for animals, determine the best way to catch a fish all at once. This is how we became curious beings. And this evolutionary talent propels us into a world of not just hunting and gathering, but investigating all sorts of things, including ourselves and the rest of the universe. We’re drawn to mystery, and death is the greatest mystery of all. DN: It’s fascinating. What are you looking forward to, and what do you think might be the challenges as you enter the rehearsal process? ES: I’m looking forward to working with the ensemble, with my talented cast. Martha Lavey, Erica Daniels and I took a great deal of care putting this group together, and I feel like I’m going to be able to really hear the play the way I hear it in my head. And it’s a lot of fun to create something you feel passionate about, and something that’s never been done before. The challenges are going to be the usual challenges of putting up a new play: making sure the story’s heard clearly, that the thoughts are fresh. There are a lot of themes to the play. If I can spin a good yarn and illuminate at least a couple of those ideas, I’ll be happy.