TIP: PRINT THIS ARTICLE
by Mike Ladd.
Apr 30, 2004
“Fact” plus “Fiction” equals “Faction.” Now “fact” and “fiction” are rarely 100% pure anyway – especially the fiction. Wasn’t it Helen Garner who said she couldn’t see the point of writing novels about made-up characters? How many plays and novels are slightly disguised autobiography? How many factual reports also contain opinion, selective bias, or mythmaking? As in other media, many works for radio have, at some level, a combination of fact and fiction, but in discussing Faction as a genre I’ll be focussing on works which deliberately and overtly combine the forms of factual and fictional radio.
Characteristically, works of Faction combine in various permutations the common tools of the feature or documentary (interviews, actuality recordings and archival material) with the common tools of radio drama (scripts, actors and sound effects.)
Historically, just as many works of Faction have come from producers working within feature and documentary departments as they have from drama producers. Over the years, this two way cross-over has created many examples of both “factual dramas” and “fictional documentaries.”
Faction isn’t a new idea in radio. The mother of all Factions was the Orson Welles/Mercury Theatre production of The War of the Worlds, broadcast across America on Halloween, the 30th of October, 1938. The War of the Worlds was entirely scripted by Welles and his team of Howard Koch, Paul Stewart and John Houseman, who adapted it from the 19th Century English story by H.G. Wells. The drama was performed by actors reading from a script, not improvising. In this sense, it was a traditional radio drama. But what made The War of the Worlds Faction was that the adaptation consciously employed the forms of non-fiction radio: a weather report, live music broadcasts interrupted by news flashes and bulletins, interviews and on-the-scene reports. Furthermore, the original setting of late 19th Century England was replaced by real names of contemporary US towns, streets and buildings. Also real titles of Universities, Observatories and government and military agencies were used, though the spokesmen had fictitious names.
Thus, despite an introduction, a station break and an epilogue clearly stating that what was being broadcast was fantasy, a play, a scary Halloween drama, the New York Times the following Monday carried this front page headline: “Radio Listeners in Panic, Taking War Drama as Fact.” The uproar is still cited as one of the most noteworthy cases of mass hysteria, though commentators point out that the original reports were deliberately exaggerated by the press who were jealous of the new power of radio as a means of disseminating information. It seems newspapers invented dramas in response to a drama inventing news!
None the less, the play did provoke major panic, and thousands of phone calls to authorities. There were reports of people running into the streets with wet cloths on their heads to escape the “Martian gas attack”, people catching planes across America to rescue their loved ones, even of Princeton geology professors heading out to the supposed “meteor” landing site mentioned in the drama. All that the geologists found were sightseers looking for the same meteor! Real people spent real money and did real (if crazy) things, caused by a radio fiction.
The 23 year old Orson Welles (secretly delighted I’d say) later apologised for the chaos he’d caused and packed his bags for Hollywood. The practice of “news flashes” and particularly their use within dramas was referred to the Federal Communications Commission and CBS swore off using Faction as a genre for the time being. I believe the echo of The War of the Worlds furore still rings in the minds of the more conservative upper echelons of public broadcasting, producing a fear of the whole Faction genre. The hysterical reaction was partly a factor of the times – approaching war and fear of invasion, plus a general ignorance of science, but the reaction also proved two factors that I think are ongoing with audiences today. Firstly, the audience didn’t listen to the introduction, and secondly and most importantly, they listened to the radio as much with their hearts as with their heads. The sound of interrupted broadcasts, the sound of panicky on-the-scene reporters, the sound of grave newscasters, convinced the audience as much as what the commentators had to say.
Radio Faction since The War of the Worlds has focussed on more personal story telling, rather than large events likely to cause mass panic. Audiences today are perhaps less credulous, and personal stories are less likely to be immediately dismissed as fiction, since there are far fewer public reality checks that can be made on them.
A pioneer of the Faction form of radio in Australia was Keith Richards, who produced three works of Faction while working in the radio drama department of the Australian Broadcasting Commission in Brisbane in the 1980’s. The first of these was The Beethoven Tapes by David McRobbie, broadcast in 1984. In the late 70’s Richards had been inspired by an English drama called Peter Gordon: An Investigation. It was written by Andrew Sachs for a European Broadcasting Union conference and told the story of a journalist who had gone underground to investigate video piracy. The story was told through a series of tapes supposedly left by the journalist. The journalist as dramatic narrator is a hallmark feature of Faction. Richards encouraged McRobbie to write him something in this style and The Beethoven Tapes was the result. The Faction tells the story of a man accused of starting a fire on a tanker at sea. The man suffered a mental breakdown and was committed to a mental hospital but took his own life. He left behind some cassette tapes of Beethoven piano concertos that he recorded his voice over, protesting his innocence and giving garbled recollections of the tanker fire. The man’s mother gave the tapes to a journalist, who decided to investigate the case.
The Faction proceeds in the normal documentary form, using the tapes, quotes from written sources, and interviews with the family, police, the tanker’s owners and so on. All the acting is improvised. This is vital to achieving a natural sound to the interviews with the journalist. McRobbie provided each actor with character background and enough information for their own part of the story. The interviews were then edited and linked with a narration in exactly the same way that documentaries are produced. In Faction, as in documentary, the final writing of narration often occurs after all the other recordings have been made. The Beethoven Tapes was broadcast in a radio drama time slot, without telling the audience that it was fiction, though this occurred at the end along with the writing, acting and production credits. The response from the audience was to accept The Beethoven Tapes as a genuine documentary.
Keith Richards tried this improvised Faction form again with Tourist Attraction by Ken Methold, performed in 1986 at The Australian National Playwrights’ Conference. It caused controversy as some of the delegates considered that the writers’ role was being usurped by the actors – that in fact it was the actors and director who were writing the play. This needn’t be a problem anyway, but in truth, the writer still has a large input with this kind of Faction, providing overall story idea, scenarios, and character information. What the writer doesn’t do is come up with the spoken text. I would never deny the beauty and power of individually penned radio drama, but this is not the only way, and improvisation can produce some extraordinary results that wouldn’t have been achieved otherwise. Of course improvisation can also produce lots of wasted words, dead ends and non-sequiturs. Improvised Faction is less efficient to produce than fully scripted drama, and requires a lot more edit time. Keith Richards produced another Faction work with David McRobbie in 1989, called The Eavesdrop Tapes, but to my mind The Beethoven Tapes was the most successful of these productions. The Beethoven Tapes was entered by the ABC to the Prix Futura in Berlin, where it was described as an example of “new realism” in radio drama.
Faction has also had a place in European radio. In 1992-93, Lance Dann, an MA student in the Radio course at Goldsmiths College, University of London, wrote and produced a feature called “Ho Ho The Clown is Dead”. This independent production was broadcast by the BBC in 1995. It tells the story of a bitter and twisted clown through the clown’s own narration and interviews with the circus people who knew him. The interviews sound real but the narration is clearly fictive – for a start, the clown is looking down at his own funeral. He gives a scathing report from beyond the grave. This clear flagging of the fiction may have helped the piece pass muster in the BBC. The narration is crafted literary work, definitely not improvised, and the whole production is drenched in a musical soundscape created by Rohan Kriwaczek. It’s a fascinating mix of drama and documentary.
Sara Conkey is a producer in the BBC Features department. For some years she has worked with the writer Sarah Woods to bring fact and fiction closer together. In 1996 the two collaborated on a production about grief called “Hinterlands”. Sara Conkey interviewed three bereaved women about their actual experiences of loss – of a mother, a husband and a son. Sara edited these interviews to focus on their emotional content, then in collaboration with the interviewees and Sarah Woods, a drama was written and recorded about their loved ones meeting on a beach, in “the hinterland,” between life and death. The characters played by the actors are based on the loved ones the interviewees lost, but they also serve a dramatic function, exploring what each deceased person needs to let go of from their previous life, before they can leave the hinterland. Obviously, close co-operation is required between the producers and the interviewees in such a sensitive area, and Sara found the interviewees very generous in their contribution to the imaginative process. As long as people are included and consulted in the development, the results won’t come as a nasty surprise. In response to the question “What is the benefit to the piece and to the audience of blurring the line between fact and fiction?” Sara Conkey has said, “I think it stimulates the imagination. It helps us to listen to fact in a different way — it opens up possibilities. I think what I hope will happen is that the brain will try to listen to the programme as a documentary, then as a drama, and will finally give up and listen to the piece as a whole.” 3.
In 1999, Sara produced a work entitled A Love Song to the Buses that tells the story of Demitri Grandma, an autistic man who is obsessed with the buses of Birmingham. Sara followed Demitri for three days and recorded everything he did. Male and female actors repeated lines that Demitri had said, or turned them into songs. Sara has told me she wanted to make the program very much Demitri’s agenda, and the songs are
therefore based on his view of life. She also said, “In Love Song To The Buses, the ‘drama’ is in a sense expanding, and clarifying the ‘fact’ or documentary. The drama is voices inside Demitri’s head. His voice is therefore fully allowed to speak.” 4.
A Love Song to the Buses gathers actuality from location recordings of “real” people to then stimulate recordings in the studio with actors. An extraordinary piece of Faction from Belgium produced by Edwin Brys in 1995, does the exact opposite. In The Money Men by Tom Lenaerts, Michel De Vlieger and Luc Haekens, two actors and a reporter go out onto the streets of Antwerp and stimulate the production of real reactions from people, based on fictitious information. The information comes from “The Money Men” who are two economic rationalists from “The Department of Sales and After-sales”, played by the actors. Their fictitious job is to sell up the assets of the financially troubled city of Antwerp. They want to sell everything from the bells in the carillon to the stones of the squares, even the zebra crossings and the animals in the zoo! When this is announced to the actual citizens of Antwerp their reactions vary from stoic acceptance to outrage. The piece works because Antwerp was at the time in financial trouble and the whole world was in the grip of economic rationalism, so the actors are very easy to believe. The program was broadcast on April Fools’ Day, but it took a long time before the listeners realised the joke. The Money Men was entered into the Documentary category of the Prix Italia in 1995, and received a special mention. Some delegates thought it would have done even better if it had been entered in the Drama category.
Back now to Australia. In her radio features for the ABC (she prefers to call them features with some fictive elements, rather than Faction) Natalie Kestecher often parodies the earnest confessional voice of the audio diarist. Her aim is to mock self-importance rather than deconstruct the feature form. In 1997 she made the program Tamagotchi Mother, which was broadcast in the feature program Radio Eye. Tamagotchi Mother began as a documentary on the tamagotchi craze. Tamagotchis were electronic pets that required feeding and caring for, offering a kind of pathetic virtual parenthood. With her tongue in her cheek, Natalie Kestecher kept an audio diary of her life with her tamagotchi, from gestation, labour, early life and a mock tragic infant death. This diary narration was inter-cut with interviews with her real mother and husband concerning issues of parenthood and whether or not to embark upon it, as well as improvised interviews with other people, some taking on character roles, while others appeared to be doing so, but were, in fact, simply being themselves. To my mind, the program was a comic entertainment that explored in a satisfying way the obsessiveness of the tamagotchi craze and its connection with the desire to be a parent. Kestecher is not trying to produce comedy as such, but a mock seriousness, which is something subtly different.
In 2000, Natalie Kestecher wrote and produced Von Trapped, a feature about a woman with Jewish ancestry who is obsessed with the Von Trapp family in The Sound of Music film, the desire to be blond, and images of Austria as a “spotlessly clean” country. Then she realises that Austria’s history in the 20th Century is far from The Sound of Music’s glossy surface of cheerful singing resistance to the Nazis. Again, Kestecher puts herself into the program as a first person narrator, though it’s a mistake to assume that she is always being factual about herself. She does have Jewish ancestry, but she also invented some aspects, including The Sound of Music obsession and telling us at the end of the program that she was “heavy with child”.
Fact and fiction are combined in several aspects of Von Trapped. In many ways the subject of the program is false surfaces and their addictiveness. The real Nicholas Hammond, the child star who played Friedrich Von Trapp in The Sound of Music, watches himself in the film and makes comments on the artificial world he was part of. The real Sound of Music tour guide Craig Mitchell creates a false Austrian setting by giving his guided tour as he would in Austria whilst really being in Sydney’s Centennial Park. Other elements are more conventionally documentary; an interview with an historian, comments from a Jewish woman who suffered in Austria under the Nazis, and some actuality recordings of the right wing Austrian politician Joerg Haider.
Natalie Kestecher told me that there were several starting points for Von Trapped. One was her interest in the nature of addiction and in the (mistaken) belief that ‘cure’ will always lead to a happier life. In Von Trapped we hear about a narrator whose addiction “renders her life a fantasy; a fantasy inhabited by smiling blondes that beckon…” While the narrator does indeed seek and eventually find a cure, it leaves her empty, depressed and with the desire to get her old addiction back.
Another starting point for Kestecher was winning free tickets to The Sound of Music stage show and subsequently borrowing a video on the real Von Trapp family (on whom the musical was based). To her astonishment, she discovered that the real Maria Von Trapp couldn’t have been more unlike Julie Andrews’ Maria. Apart from being swarthy, plain and mono-browed it seems that the real Maria didn’t get on with the Von Trapp children at all and that she was manipulative and controlling. Natalie Kestecher has said that for her, “The Sound of Music, the Von Trapp family (real and celluloid) and indeed Austria itself, with its cutesy flower boxes and disturbing politics, seemed to be the ideal vehicle from which to explore illusion, delusion, disillusion, facade and fantasy.” 5.
The most Factional work Kestecher has made is the 2001 production, Knitting With Dog Hair. On hearing it, I was convinced from the start that it was a complete “shaggy dog story” but amazingly, it is based in fact. People really do knit with dog hair, and even publish books about how to do it. A group of women dog hair knitters appear in the program. But most of the rest is fiction. Kestecher invents a false history for herself, including a Catalonian great grandmother connected with the supposed origins of the dog fur trade in Catalonia, and a character called “Shag Pappas”, an expert in dog hair garment creation who has his own website. Although this was the most fictional of Kestecher’s works it was the one most believed to be factual by listeners. Some were angry about looking up the Shag Pappas website to find that it didn’t exist. Natalie Kestecher describes her role in Knitting With Dog Hair as “an unreliable narrator”, while in her other works she sees her function as a narrator who is “ninety per cent reliable.” She regards this ten per cent gap as a free space to develop expressive opportunities in the work.
My own interest in Faction has grown out of working in both the feature and radio drama areas. Most features I have made include some kind of literary element, while in drama, I’ve always been attracted to working with autobiographical scripts or historical characters, such as Ezra Pound in Sixteen Words For Water by Billy Marshall-Stoneking, and Rumkowski in The Emperor of the Ghetto by Abraham Cykiert. Both these plays combine factual letters or documents with scripted monologue and dialogue. Other dramas I have produced use the occasional non-actor in the cast, someone being themselves, such as the real Australian talk radio personality Geraldine Doogue in Laura Bird by John Griffin.
When I was told the story of Soft of Hearing by Aviva Sheb’a, I decided to make a drama that was more solidly Factional, and based on improvisation. Soft of Hearing is about Shosha, a Jewish girl from Melbourne who had a passion for Flamenco dancing. Escaping an oppressively traditional home life, she went on a tour of Vietnam to entertain the troops. She was only seventeen years old at the time, sheltered and naïve. Thinking she’d be performing serious dances in big hotels away from the war zones, she was shocked to find herself in the front line, ogled by thousands of GI’s screaming at her to get her gear off. Rough military transports, deafening explosions, dead bodies and brushes with the Viet Cong were the reality that led her to develop a post-traumatic stress disorder that made sounds seem painfully loud. This is her “soft of hearing”. After thirty years of self-imposed silence, Shosha tells her story, firstly by speaking into a tape recorder.
The author, Aviva Sheb’a has much in common with Shosha; she was a troupe entertainer in Vietnam and she suffers a post- traumatic stress disorder that occasionally makes her hearing painful. Though trained as a dancer not an actor, it was natural to use the author herself to play Shosha, and her son and daughter were played by her real son and daughter. Aviva wrote the script by firstly speaking it into a tape recorder, then transcribing the tapes. I edited these transcriptions and shaped them into a radio script. We added characters and dialogue to dramatise certain incidents. In the recording studio, the reverse process happened; the first take was read from the script, the second and subsequent takes were improvised, based on what Aviva and the other actors had just read. In almost every case, we used the improvised takes for the final mix. The result was something that sounded half way between an audio diary and a radio drama. The author’s sister objected to the broadcast, saying we had distorted the facts about their father, but we never claimed the program to be a factual documentary. Apart from this, the program was very well received and gained a special mention in the Drama category at the 2002 Prix Italia.
My most recent work of Faction, Friar’s Levitation, was very much inspired by Keith Richards’ production of The Beethoven Tapes – both the author of Friar’s Levitation, John Griffin, and I were familiar with this earlier production. Friar’s Levitation first came across my desk as a conventional radio drama script. It was a farce about a man who levitated during an orchestral concert, and then again on a cruise and subsequently disappeared. I suggested to John that we treat the drama as a work of Faction instead, using The Beethoven Tapes as a model; that is, we would keep the basic story and many of the characters, but John would write profiles and plot briefs for them, not scripted dialogue. All the words would be improvised in one-to-one interviews with the central character, an investigative journalist, played by the real radio journalist, Julia Lester. The idea was to take an absurd and unbelievable premise (a man spontaneously levitating in public) and treat it in documentary style with full current affairs seriousness. The Faction had a three part structure: a re-capping of the event with “eyewitness accounts” and a fake station logger tape, an investigation with real experts on the history and nature of levitation, and a final section tracing the current whereabouts of Lloyd Friar, the levitator.
Where Friar’s Levitation differed from The Beethoven Tapes was that it went one step further in mixing fact with fiction. Whereas all the characters in The Beethoven Tapes were played by improvising actors, in Friar’s Levitation, out of a cast of ten, five were actors playing a role, and five were people who were being themselves. The family and acquaintances of the fictional Mr Friar were played by actors, but the journalist, the concert presenter, the president of the Australian society of Magicians, a PHD student studying levitation, and a university lecturer specialising in Anomalous Psychology were all factual characters, being themselves, but playing along with the Lloyd Friar levitation as if it were a widely known and accepted fact. The effect was to give the program even more of a documentary feel, and the little touches of specialist knowledge helped provide fleeting credibility to an absurdist piece. Actor and non-actor blended surprisingly well in performance style.
What was the intention of all this? Not just to hoax the audience; Faction should never be a game of one-upmanship where the producers hold all the advantage over the listeners. Our aim was to provide “light” entertainment, but at the same time to slightly subvert society’s dry assumptions of what is possible and what is not. We wanted to make people wonder a little, and to satirise to some extent the hard-boiled news and current affairs genre, and to question its structures. Factions in general create “subversive realities” which lead us to question how much we take on trust from actual news and documentaries. We cast a more knowing eye over their “stories”. These subversive realities are, I think, a healthy phenomenon, provided no damage is done to people’s lives or reputations. The idea is to play with possibilities, and free the imagination.
To my mind, Friar’s Levitation is a metaphor for Freedom, and freedom is one of the great attractions of the whole Faction genre.
1. Excerpt from the radio script of The War of the Worlds. For full text see the website http://members.aol.com/jeff1070/script.html
ANNOUNCER: . . .for the next twenty-four hours not much change in temperature. A slight atmospheric disturbance of undetermined origin is reported over Nova Scotia, causing a low pressure area to move down rather rapidly over the northeastern states, bringing a forecast of rain, accompanied by winds of light gale force. Maximum temperature 66; minimum 48. This weather report comes to you from the Government Weather Bureau. . . . We now take you to the Meridian Room in the Hotel Park Plaza in downtown New York, where you will be entertained by the music of Ramón Raquello and his orchestra.
(MUSIC: SPANISH THEME SONG [A TANGO] . . . FADES)
ANNOUNCER THREE: Good evening, ladies and gentlemen. From the Meridian Room in the Park Plaza in New York City, we bring you the music of Ramón Raquello and his orchestra. With a touch of the Spanish. Ramón Raquello leads off with “La Cumparsita.”
(MUSIC STARTS PLAYING)
ANNOUNCER TWO: Ladies and gentlemen, we interrupt our program of dance music to bring you a special bulletin from the Intercontinental Radio News. At twenty minutes before eight, central time, Professor Farrell of the Mount Jennings Observatory, Chicago, Illinois, reports observing several explosions of incandescent gas, occurring at regular intervals on the planet Mars. The spectroscope indicates the gas to be hydrogen and moving towards the earth with enormous velocity. Professor Pierson of the Observatory at Princeton confirms Farrell’s observation, and describes the phenomenon as (quote) like a jet of blue flame shot from a gun (unquote). We now return you to the music of Ramón Raquello, playing for you in the Meridian Room of the Park Plaza Hotel, situated in downtown New York.
2. See David L. Miller, “Introduction to Collective Behavior and Collective Action” Waveland Publishing, Inc. (2000), ISBN 1-57766-105-2.
3. Sara Conkey interview with Third Coast Festival, Chicago Public Radio. For full interview see: http://www.thirdcoastfestival.org/pages/extras/interviews/2002/conkey.html)
4. Email to the author from Sara Conkey, 17/10/02.
5. Email to the author from Natalie Kestecher, 31/10/02.