I am currently writing a new book of essays about the human impulse to tell stories. The subject interests me because I am a product of Postmodernism, of deconstruction, of a general rejection of hierarchical narrative and objective truth. For much of my life in the theater I have resisted the comfort and tyranny of stories. But times have changed. I want to say it out loud: We have reached the end of Postmodernism. We are on the cusp of a new paradigm, as yet unnamed, only partially inhabited, strange and novel. The pecking order of top-down organizational structures and hierarchical control are losing strength. The hegemony of isolationism is not a solution to our present circumstances. Our conception of responsibility and action has altered. We know now that our tiniest gestures have a global effect. In moments such as these, of upheaval and change, stories become necessary to frame new experiences. Those who can formulate the stories that render the new world understandable will define the experience of those who live in it.
I began to keep a journal when I was about 16 years old. I wrote poetry, song lyrics and tried to keep track of my wandering heart and romantic yearnings. Little by little the writing became a habit. As a sophomore in college, studying in Athens, Greece, a friend proposed that simply writing descriptions in a journal was not adequate. "Write three observations per day," she said. I found the experiment quite challenging. It is easy to write "Today I went to the bank and then to a taverna with friends." But to form an opinion, say, " The homeless seem more prevalent this year and as I entered the bank I found the juxtaposition of my life to those on the streets an uncomfortable one." Or, "The mood at the table in the basement taverna, our favorite one in the Kolonaki district, was more somber than usual. Perhaps the pressure of exams has distracted us all."
In writing the previous paragraph I turned the materials of my life, so many years ago, into a story. I wrote and rewrote until the description felt like a journey, or a story, for my reader. The most significant human exchanges occur via stories. Even a well-told bedtime story can alter the synaptic pathways in the listener. I believe that the stories that you tell about yourself and others matter. The clarity with which you tell the story is a prediction of what will come to pass. Neuroscience teaches that the event of remembering is in fact the creation of something new. You end up living the narrative that you describe.
It is possible that Jeanette Winterson became a writer because she did not agree with the story that her mother told about her family. Writing for Winterson became the battle about whose story will reign. She did not believe in her mother's definition of what made a good person and so she re-wrote the story in a veiled fiction entitled Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit, a book that became a best seller in Britain.
Perhaps you can say that these are battles of interpretation. The parent is struggling to maintain the identity of the person that they have described into existence. The child is attempting to rewrite and animate the story into a bearable shape. And so, it seems to me, that storytelling can be an act of survival.
In telling a story you funnel your observations and feelings through a particular lens. The result is the distillation of experience into a communicative form. Without this process of compressing and distilling, the result is a description rather than an expression. Speaking effectively and communicatively via the act of expression can free you from the prison of the past. The human impulse to tell one's own story is one of our basic human rights and freedoms. Speaking a story can be an act of letting in light. Speak about the journey, your own and others' but speak with necessity, awareness and above all, listen to its moment-to-moment impact.
Imagine the hero/prisoner in Plato's Allegory of the Cave. The man is released from his shackles and the darkness of the cave to walk out into the blazing daylight. What makes him a hero, and in Plato's opinion the best sort of politician, is that he witnessed the startling vision of trees and sun and landscape, turned around, re-entered the dark cave to tell the story of his journey to others who had, until then, imagined that life is simply the shadows teasing them. He suffered their incomprehension but the act of the return and his communication is what ultimately makes him a hero.
An effective storyteller can communicate in ways that infiltrate the receiver in multiple layers, weaving details and scenes, narration, imagery, symbolic action, plot and character. In the theater we are in the business of constructing societies, telling stories and proposing ways in which people can function together successfully. We compose journeys in time and space. Humor helps. Exquisitely wrought details absorb. Surprise, broken expectations and fulfilled expectations are all methods of refreshing the audience's engagement. Time-signature changes, revelations, dance breaks and intimate moments contribute to the journey's wide palate.
PS- If you want to experience one of SITI Company's most exuberant pieces of storytelling,
join us for bobrauschenbergamerica, playing until May 16th at Dance Theater Workshop in NYC. More information at siti.org.