By Kevin Guilfoile
Every writer makes a contract with the reader. Fiction writers promise that while the story they tell won't be true, they will do their best to make it seem as real as possible within the context of the pretend world they've created. Non-fiction writers guarantee that they have vetted the story, that they know it is the truth. In return the reader enjoys the added thrill of higher stakes, and they agree to believe the improbable. Truth isn't really stranger than fiction, but readers will believe stranger things if they have a guarantee from the author that these strange things actually happened.
The many controversies over the truth of disputed memoirs (and even works of history) are really about this agreement between writer and reader. They are contract disputes.
I was listening (actually re-listening) to an old This American Life in the car the other day. The segment was about a group called Improv Everywhere. Improv Everywhere is an outfit in New York City that cretaes "missions" in which they stage an alternate reality for unsuspecting people who are going about their ordinary lives. Some people would call them pranks, except pranks are generally targeted at someone in particular, and they usually have a "victim." Improv Everywhere missions are designed to surprise randomly selected, unsuspecting people, to make them happy even, to interrupt the everydayness of their lives. They have staged surprise wedding receptions for couples outside city hall (complete with guests and gifts), and surprise birthday parties in bars (with guests and gifts) for people who were not having an actual birthday that day. They once brought a huge crowd and announcers and even a Jumbotron to a Little League game. The interesting thing about Improv Everywhere is that they create fiction without a contract. You could easily lose a couple hours on their site. I think they're a lot of fun.
The mission described in the episode of TAL involved staging the "Best Gig Ever." IE found a band from Vermont called Ghosts of Pasha. They were on their first tour, playing New York City for the first time, and they had a horrible Sunday night time slot with an expensive cover. IE arranged for 35 people (a fairly packed house in a small club) to line up as paying customers for a show that otherwise would have had three. These "agents" had downloaded all of Ghosts of Pasha's songs from its website and memorized all the words. They made up GoP t-shirts, and some had temporary GoP tattoos. When the band came out, the crowd went wild. They sang along with every song. They shouted requests. They danced. They charged the stage. They demanded an encore. The band ate it up. And when the music ended, their fans disappeared out the door.
The band was confused, but they had had great fun on a night they expected to bomb. They weren't sure what had happened, but they liked the feeling. Three days later, back in Vermont, someone emailed them the mission report from Improv Everywhere's web site. They felt betrayed. Humiliated. The band members fought with each other. They were furious with Improv Everywhere. "We got punk'd," one of them said ruefully.
Contracts work and protect both ways, of course. An artist agrees to perform with passion. With heart. With energy. And an audience agrees to respond with honesty. Well maybe not honesty, necessarily, but their displeasure is expected to be polite and their enthusiasm certainly authentic.
Eventually, Ghosts of Pasha got over it, mostly. They received a lot of attention as a result of the mission. They were a band with no recording contract, not even a full-length record, but they suddenly found themselves in Spin Magazine and Rolling Stone. They embraced their infamy.
But people are still talking about the time it was the audience, not the artist, that violated the contract.