Starring as Jim Fingal in Melbourne Theatre Company’s production of The Lifespan of a Fact, Karl Richmond is beyond excited to be joining the MTC family. ‘I don't really think I quite believed it, or comprehended it,’ he says. ‘I was quite prepared coming in for a lot of different things but what I wasn’t expecting was everybody to be so kind and generous. It’s actually magical, and it’s just been so lovely.’
Richmond graduated from VCA in 2018, and has been working pretty solidly in independent theatre since then. Until COVID hit, of course. To come out of lockdown with his first foray onto the state theatre company’s stage is a dream come true. And to be doing so with this role is pretty special. ‘It’s a really rare thing when both the content of the script, and the character – the rhythm of the character – just suit you,’ he says. ‘So it was just one of those magical moments where I first read the script and there was something in me that just knew what to do with this role.’
He says he also became obsessed with the content of the play. ‘It was at the very end of lockdown, and I had been learning about meta-journalism – which is a whole faction of journalism that Jim falls into – so it felt a bit like a universes aligning moment.’
METAJOURNALISM & METHOD RESEARCHING
Metajournalism is an emerging journalistic genre that ‘is a form of super investigative journalism,’ Richmond explains. By way of example, he says that if someone working in meta-journalism were writing about fact checking, they wouldn’t just write an article about fact checking today. They ‘would look at the history of fact checking, they would look at thousands of sources over the history of fact checking and then find a kind of aggregated answer to some core questions. So it’s super investigative journalism, super intense. And it’s the kind of work that Jim gets involved in.’
‘We’ve read the play quite a few times now and I’m still flipping constantly. I get to a point where I’m certain that John’s right. Then I think Jim’s right. It’s crazy!.’
So before he even picked up the script, Richmond was already submerging himself into the headspace to play Jim Fingal. Once he got the role, he engaged in a bit of his own metajournalistic-like research. He read the book the play is based on, and then the essay that inspired the book (‘I’m a simple being’ he jokes, ‘so when I read it, I thought “This is amazing. I can’t believe all of this!” But, of course, I know that a lot of it’s not true!’). He then compiled a document – the same way that Jim does in the show – in which he fact checked the whole play. ‘I went through every fact, and looked it up to find out if it was real or not.’
As part of this research, he ‘found a random email on the University of Melbourne journalism faculty page, and asked for a meeting’. He had no prior knowledge of the lecturer he ended up speaking with, but it turns out this academic had been using the play of The Lifespan of a Fact as a learning resource, and he told Richmond all about the history of fact checking. Very meta!
A METAPHYSICAL, MYTH-MAKING DEBATE
Has spending all this time immersed in the world of the play, and in the headspace of the Jim Fingal character, helped Richmond pick a side on the play’s debate? ‘I came in on Jim’s side,’ he admits, ‘but then I switched to John’s side and then sometimes, out of petulance, back to Jim’s side again just because John annoys me,’ he jokes. ‘We’ve read the play quite a few times now and I’m still flipping constantly. I get to a point where I’m certain that John’s right. Then I think Jim’s right. It’s crazy!’
The effect of this almost caused the actor to have an existential crisis in the first week, he says. He started to question what they were even debating – ‘because none of this is real, nothing is real!’ – which ultimately led to his questioning the nature of reality. ‘We’re experiencing this reality through the sensorial things that humans are capable of but that doesn’t really mean anything,’ he says, acknowledging that this line of questioning was a rabbit hole. But he loves this. ‘It’s brilliant!’ he exclaims. ‘It’s brilliant knowing that no matter how many times we perform this show, I know I’m still not going to know what’s going on. I’m still going to be figuring it out, because I’m just not smart enough to be able to hold it all in my head at once. Which then puts me on John’s side again,’ he adds, laughing.
‘I think maybe what’s interesting about this show, in the social climate of now in terms of race politics and gender and sexuality and cancel culture and all that jazz, is to be re-evaluating some of our myths and going a bit deeper.’
I suggest that John’s approach to story is perhaps more akin to what we call myth in that it presents a different kind of truth, of knowledge, about our place in the world – not in the scientific sense but in a deeper, more metaphysical sense. Richmond agrees. ‘I think maybe what’s interesting about this show, in the social climate of now in terms of race politics and gender and sexuality and cancel culture and all that jazz, is to be re-evaluating some of our myths and going a bit deeper. What we’ve spoken about in the room is that this play feels like it is having a conversation about what myths we tell, without ever going into the kind of the heavy, heavy identity politics conversations that we’re having in the outside world at the moment.’
BRIDGING THE GENERATION GAP
Perhaps there’s something in this that explains the play’s resonance in this current moment (it’s been separately programmed by Sydney Theatre Company for a season later in 2021). ‘Maybe one part of it is that you look at the title and the obvious content of the play is about facts, and post-Trump…’ Richmond says, before trailing off, his meaning clear. ‘But the best thing in it for me,’ he continues, ‘is this conversation between one generation and another generation. Which is an age-old problem, of course.’
Elaborating, he says ‘I’m young, I’m on Instagram, my algorithm is set to millennial times a million. And especially during lockdown, because we were all in such insular little social bubbles, I was getting all of this – for lack of a better word – woke Instagram. But then I came out of lockdown and was reminded that a lot of older people don’t get that same information and all of a sudden you’re on these divergent paths, where Millennials are angry about all of these things, they’re angry at Boomers, but in some cases Boomers haven’t even heard about any of this stuff. So it’s really nice to be in a space where we’re trying to engage in that conversation together. And maybe it doesn’t go super well in this play,’ he adds, laughing, ‘but we try. We give it our darndest! The bridge is there, it’s breaking and blowing up; but we’re still crossing the river.’
JUMPING HEADFIRST OFF THE LEDGE
As for how he’s found the role, and the process, Richmond admits that ‘one of the really challenging things about it is that there is so much going on at every given moment. All three of us [Richmond and co-stars Nadine Gardner and Steve Mouzakis] are having to have a conversation with each other, but there’s another conversation happening underneath that, whilst you’re also having to juggle five things with your left hand and seven things with your right hand and then your foot’s having to do something – there is just so much happening all the time.’
Far from being a burden, however, Richmond says that this has created ‘some really weird and interesting behaviour’ during rehearsals. ‘We found some really interesting, really cool, things in our first week when we were analysing the text. I’ve never experienced this before but it feels like we are finding everything that will make this great, but the only way that I think we were going to get there is if we just close our eyes and jump off the ledge! It’s so scary, I’m freaking out. But it’s also so exciting. And they’re all so brave, the three of them [his co-stars and director Petra Kalive], just running headfirst with their eyes closed into everything.’
The Lifespan of a Fact is on at Arts Centre Melbourne, Fairfax Theatre, from 15 May–3 July. Tickets are on sale now.
Published on 12 May 2021