The Role of Storytelling in the Theatre of the Twenty-First Century
I’m absolutely thrilled to be with you. I can feel the energy in the room. I fell in love with high school students a couple of years ago. I was invited to speak at a high school theatre conference in Utah. I walked in—I was literally in a basketball stadium—and the basketball stadium was full of high school students, thousands of high school students and every one of them was a theatre lover. And if I said in my address: Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, they would all cheer yeah! There were these two guys at the conference who were sitting behind me, and you might have heard of them—their names are Benj Pasek and Justin Paul?
They were in college and—how did it go? They wrote a musical, right? And then they put it up in every college in the United States, right? Am I exaggerating? And then they went to New York—they loved musical theatre more than anything—and anyway I had never met them and they were supposed to do something after me. I was giving this highly intellectual talk to two thousand high school students and they were screaming, and I look at my notes and I’m thinking this is too intellectual, but they were taking it in, and at a certain point I turn around to Pasek and Paul and I’m in the middle of my speech, and I say could you lead us in a song? And they look at me like I’m crazy. And then they got up and did it. And the entire place went ballistic, like it was a Beyoncé concert or something. When the speech was over, there were supposed to be a lot of workshops and the organizers took me through the campus and down these hallways, past these hundreds of kids and as I’m walking by they would lift their hands and I’d go bang, bang, high-fiving them. And I thought wow, theatre! This is great! This is the hope of the future—these guys. This was, three or four years ago, so maybe those guys are graduating college now.
What happens to the energy? That’s the question. The title of this keynote is “What’s the Story? the Role of Storytelling in the Twenty-First Century and Beyond.” Well, I just told a story, right? Sneaky. Stories actually carry meaning. As Les [Waters] mentioned, I run the graduate directing program at Columbia, and I usually teach through stories. I learn something and I tell students the story of how I learned it, like you shouldn’t do this, and somehow the stories carry the meaning with emotion. Because without emotion, you learn nothing. So in the spirit of “The Role of Storytelling in the Twenty-First Century,” I’m going to talk about why I tell stories, where do stories come from, how to tell stories effectively, some practical uses of storytelling, and the audience’s role in the story. Ready?
Why I tell stories. One reason for telling stories is to create bridges, so in telling stories I try to create a bridge with you. Now I propose to you that storytelling is an act of heroism, that when you actually reach out and tell a story to someone, you’re creating an empathic bridge. I did just write a book about it. The irony, or even paradox I would say, in that I was brought up as and I am a child of post-modernism. What does that mean? It means that I grew up taking things apart; I’m the biggest deconstructor in the world. Post-modernism is actually about knocking down classical, pre-classical—all other forms of storytelling—and then picking them up again and looking at them separately. So I grew up doing this, but what happened is, the twenty-first century happened, 9/11 happened, a lot of things happened, and suddenly we came to the end of deconstruction, where we’ve deconstructed so much that nothing means anything anymore. And faced then you have to ask what comes after post-modernism? The clues have something to do with stories—it has something to do with asking the question whose stories? Who are they for? How do we tell them? And that’s a big, wide-open question, one that everyone in this room has to figure out. I think there are pioneers in the world who are telling stories, certainly Chuck Mee is telling stories in a new way. I think that Tectonic Theatre and Moises Kaufman are telling stories in a new way. I think that Anna Deavere Smith is telling stories in a new way, so are The Civilians. In other words, whose stories and how do you tell them? It’s hard to tell stories well. It takes a certain organization of spirit. You all are studying Plato, right? No? I’m going to tell a little of the story of Plato’s Cave. It has to do with heroism, I think.
So the metaphor is there are a bunch of people chained together inside of a cave, facing the back of the cave. In front of them is a wall, and a fire behind that wall. How does that work lighting designers so that the shadows of these people who are chained are splayed up against the wall? So they’re all chained, looking at the wall and seeing their own reflections in the form of shadows and saying that’s reality. And the story is there’s one person—I think it could be a woman—who somehow gets unchained, so she’s sitting there with these people looking at their reflections, and she turns around and walks out of the cave into the sunlight. For the first time—nobody’s seen sunlight, nobody’s seen mountains. It’s just a story. Nobody’s seen the sky and she sees trees and sky and it’s extraordinary. And what this person does, and it’s what makes this person a hero, is she turns away from the trees and the sky and walks back down into the dark, goes to the front of the people that are chained, looking at their own shadows, and says, Guys, you don’t understand! There are trees out there, there’s sky, this blue color—whatever this person says—and the people go, you’re crazy. Now, in Plato’s story, what makes the person a hero is the fact that she turned and walked back into the cave and tried to tell the story of what this experience was to this group of disbelievers. That is our job. Our job is to look like mad people, gesticulating for the nonbelievers. So I tell stories, one, to build bridges.
Two: stories create memory and identity. Tasmania. Do you know where that is? It’s this tiny little island off the south coast of Australia. Stories are important to Tasmanians because they believe that stories keep them from falling off the end of the world. The imagery is powerful. They are at the edge of the world, they’re way the hell down there. I’m thinking of stories that have been invisible. What’s really hard to talk about right now? Slavery is really hard for Americans to talk about. The film Twelve Years a Slave makes visible the invisible. It creates identity and memory. Suzan-Lori Parks’s new play, Father Comes Home from the Wars, seems to be doing that very well. I also just saw, An Octoroon the other night, and it’s given me hope for the theatre. Right? Again, stories make slavery visible.
There’s one other reason to tell stories: to get unstuck. Ever been stuck? Do you tell stories that you made up or that your parents made up? Both? I found that as a young person, I was telling the story that my parents wanted to tell about me and then I took over. It’s very powerful to actually tell your own story, because the story that you tell creates your future. It’s creepy scary because the words you use to describe your future, describe your future. If someone says, how are you? You have to say better and better. Because if you say eh, that’s what you become. So the question is: how are you describing your future? If you can describe, in the form of a story, where you’re headed, you’ll be amazed to know where you’re going. I have a friend, whenever I ask, how are you? She says, I’m poor. And actually she’s not poor, she works very hard, she’s doing fine. But because she says I’m poor all the time, she feels poor all the time. Why tell stories? To get unstuck, because if you’re stuck in your own story, how do you get out of it? If we, as a theatre community, are stuck in the old stories, how do we get out?
I’ve written in a journal every day since I was about thirteen years old. When I was eighteen, I had a friend who said I shouldn’t write in a journal what I did, I should write three observations. So then rather than saying: today I went to the bank and then to a restaurant, instead say: I noticed today in front of the bank there are more homeless than last year. It was really hard. I tell this to directors: it’s the job of the director to develop the point of view. So in order to get unstuck, I would question the words you use, the story you tell, and can you do more than just report. Can you actually do the extra effort of point of view?
Next, is where do stories come from? Well, I would ask you: is there such a thing as a blank page? I’d say no, there is no such thing as a blank page. The theatre isn’t a blank page. A theatre has traps, a theatre has ropes, a theatre has doors that go up and down—that is not a blank page. I want to quote Jasper Johns, the American painter, who says about how he paints: “Take something. Change it. Change it again.” That was his technique. But the something exists. Take something, change it. What I’d like to propose to us as theatre people, what do we have if it’s not a blank page? I would propose that what we have is a rumbling graveyard. This is going to sound morbid, so hang on, okay? I feel that our job in the theatre is to give voice to dead people. There are people who didn’t finish their sentences, people who didn’t have a chance. The Noh theatre from Japan was originally built over graveyards. Stages were built over graveyards, and the actors would stomp on the stage to raise the spirits of the dead. Again, this sounds very morbid, but we live in a culture that’s always saying: Be a star! Make money! Take pictures! That’s antithetical to what our job is. Our job is to listen to what’s before us, so that the page is not blank. The page is these screeching voices that didn’t get the chance to finish what they were saying. And it’s our job to fill up with them, study them, and then give them voice. So our voice has to be good, our physical life has to be clear in order to help them speak.
What is our blank page? There is a scene in the movie Apollo 13—have you seen it? Remember that scene where they’re in trouble in outer space and a couple of guys go into a conference room, and there’s a guy who comes in with a bag of stuff and he dumps it on the table. And it’s all the stuff that was inside the capsule—some gaff tape, socks, some plastic tubes. And he says: with these things, we have to bring this capsule back to earth. I find that a great metaphor or analogy for what we do—that what we have, we put together in a way that will bring something new. And so in the spirit of telling stories, the question is not looking forward, certainly we need to find new ways, because, as I mentioned, the material that we’re working from—the tools, the shapes, the forms—how you use those traps, those ropes, brings something back to earth in a way. And lastly, I’ll say that I heard an interview with John Mellencamp on NPR with Terry Gross, and he said this amazing thing—it’s really scary—he said: I own everything I hear. Get the lawyers! It’s an extraordinary notion, that whatever you experience in your life becomes a tool and it’s yours. As opposed to it’s yours and I borrowed it, it actually belongs to you. I’ll leave you with that thought and move onto my next point.
So we’ve gone over why I tell stories, where stories come from, the next point is how to tell stories effectively. You need three things to tell a good story in the theatre in particular. One: you need technique. Two: you need passion. And three: you need to have something to say. I think of it like a three-legged milk stool—if one leg is missing, the whole thing falls down. So if you have something to say and you have passion but no technique, it’s not going to work. If you have technique and nothing to say … you know where I’m going with this.
Secondly, to tell stories effectively is to be articulate in the face of uncertainty. So often the reason we don’t do things is because we think we don’t know. I don’t know enough. But how can you, from a state of not knowing, which is basically all of us all the time, how can you be articulate at the same time? So the example that I’m going to give is that when I’m completely lost in rehearsal, and I’m usually on a stool and when I get lost, I sit … what I do is when I’m completely lost, I’ll go: I know! And I’ll start walking towards the stage, and somewhere between my stool and the stage, something has to happen.
Next, find the right words. So I talked about actually finding the right words for your own stories, but I feel that we use weak words to describe what we do. And I would throw the gauntlet down and say that the college students in this room must change the words we use to describe what we do. Jaan Whitehead, who was the chairman of our board for a while, wrote a very incendiary article in American Theatre Magazine a couple of years ago in which she said we use the wrong words to describe ourselves. And she’s talking about theatre in general. For example, the words: not-for-profit or nonprofit. That’s like going up to someone and saying, hello, I’m non. She threw down the gauntlet and I started thinking about the words we use in rehearsal. I thought maybe we should really be thinking about using the word want. Like how many rehearsals have you been in where the director says: I want you to walk downstage, I want you to turn left, I want you to pick up the tea cup. Or an actor says to a director: is this what you want? And in that moment I think: what I want is a drink and it has nothing to do with the play. What does the play want? But I started to think that maybe the way we speak to each other in rehearsal begins to describe the story of who we are. If we’re always saying is this what you want? maybe we’re setting up a child-parent relationship and that doesn’t interest me at all.
I would also say the way we name our theatre companies is an issue. There are a lot of theatre companies with names that are basically saying I’m not an important theatre company. Like, we’re a classical theatre company. There’s a little, tiny theatre company in Brooklyn and their name is The National Theatre Company of the United States of America. So what I propose when I say find the right words is we’re using the wrong posture to approach others. We’re saying I’m not an important theatre company, I’m a non. I want you to do this...it’s weak. So how do we actually activate the words?
Lastly in how to tell stories effectively, do you know who Robert Brustein is? He’s a great man of the theatre. He founded Yale Rep and was the Dean of Yale Drama for many years, including the famous years of Meryl Streep and Sigourney Weaver and all those people. And while he was there he said, well you can’t have a school of theatre without having a theatre, so he founded Yale Rep, and he became very well-known, and then he was invited after ten years—you can only stay ten years at Yale—he was invited by Harvard to come and start a theatre company there. They gave him the building, the Loeb Drama Building, much to the chagrin of the undergraduates that had been using it. He brought this company of actors up from New Haven and started a season, and not long after—and this is a true story—he went to the President of Harvard and said, we’re very grateful to be here, it’s wonderful to have A.R.T. but I’d like to start a school to train playwrights, directors, actors, and dramaturgs in advanced, graduate training. And the President said no, we don’t do art schools here at Harvard. So Bob was very stubborn and came back two months later and he meets with the President again and said, we’re very appreciative to be here, it’s going very well, the Loeb Center is good, I’d like to start a conservatory for advanced training of actors, directors, playwrights. And the President said, we do not do conservatories here at Harvard. Bob goes away, comes back again and says, we’re very appreciative to be here and I would like to start an institute for advanced training of actors, directors, playwrights. And the President said yes. It’s an entertaining story and it’s a true one, but the reason I tell it is that it’s about finding the right words. Words are like keys; you don’t always have the right key for the right lock, but you know that if you find the right word, the door will open.
Still under how to tell stories effectively, is the role of enthusiasm. If you look at the word enthusiasm etymologically, it means to be filled with god. Without enthusiasm, there is no there there. And everyone who is in this room can relate to this, because if you had to fake enthusiasm, how would that feel? Isn’t that awful? And you know it’s fake. You can’t fake enthusiasm, it has to be cultivated and developed. It involves getting to work in your lives and your relationships on the artform the you’re working in, and it’s your job to cultivate that enthusiasm, because without it there are no legs and feet.
Finally, under how to tell stories effectively, develop posture. I talked about this a little bit, posture is like attitude. I said we had bad posture when we come in to ask for money—how can we develop a better posture? And for the actors in the room, you know the secret to great acting is the relationship between feet back and feet forward. It’s a cybernetic state like when you’re playing volleyball, feet forward is when the ball is coming toward you and you go out to the ball, and feet backward is the sensation you have of having gone out to the edge. And so a great actor actually balances those two.
I hate seeing too much feet forward on stage from an actor. I also hate to see sitting back in a chair and remembering when my dog died and saying words … that’s called solipsism or narcissism. You need both, you need the sensation and you need the sense of adventure and a great actor is caught in the adventure of both—you go out and get something back, go out and get something back, and you’re vibrating with energy. So in terms of posture, you have to set up a posture for that experience. If your posture is wrong or your acting is wrong you’re actually in trouble. I was watching an interview with the makers of the television show, Will & Grace. And at one point the interviewer asked the creator of Will & Grace: where’d you get the name Will & Grace? And the creator said, oh, Martin Buber! Martin Buber talked about the will to go out and the grace to receive. Extraordinary. It’s a little easier to remember than attitude or posture. The will to go out, the grace to receive—that’s the key, I think. How do you live in that state?
You create the world you want to live in in the rehearsal space. It’s revolution in small rooms that make bigger rooms possible.
Next, some practical uses of storytelling. The role of storytelling in fundraising. So I was at another dinner party in New York and I was seated next to a filmmaker who was in town to fundraise for his next project. And at a certain moment during the dinner he turns to me and says, would you like to hear the story of my next film? And I said, yes. And he said, a man, a great maker of violins, was very much in love with his wife, and his wife dies in childbirth. He was bereft. He took a violin that he was working on and he painted it with her blood. And as he’s telling me the story, I notice that he’s looking at me to see if I’m getting it or not. And he starts to describe the journey of this violin through continents, through centuries … I’m sitting there thinking I’m the luckiest person in the world to hear this amazing story, and this was the film that later became A Red Violin.
What I realized later was there’s nothing special about me. I think the filmmaker, François Girard, would have turned to whomever was next to him and said, can I tell you the story of my next film. He was working. I believe his film got made because he turned to me—not because I had any money to give him—but because that impulse to turn to me to tell me the story of his project was a part of a ladder. That impulse goes back to the heroism of storytelling. That impulse to tell the story is actually what helps to fundraise. I’m a big believer in not always letting the administration do all the fundraising. It’s the artist’s job to walk into rooms with foundations, with potential donors, and you start to talk your project into existence.
Onto the politics of rehearsal. We talked a little bit about the words you use. I would just say that the theatre is always about one thing, and it’s what distinguishes it from any other artform. The theatre is about social systems, meaning, how are we getting along? How are characters getting along? No other artform uses that as its essential material. Certainly not dance, certainly not visual art, but the theatre is always asking this question. So every play asks this question, how are we getting along? So Oedipus killed his mother, slept with his father, so there’s a problem. The play starts when something goes wrong, and the rest of the play is to see that social system or that family, which is a social system, try to regain balance from a state of imbalance. That’s what happens in a play. Now what I want to propose to you—hold onto your hats—is that when an audience sees a play, they actually are seeing two plays. They’re seeing the story of Oedipus meeting his fate, but they’re also seeing the story of the actors on the stage and how they’re getting along. You can’t really hide bad rehearsal process in a performance. You just can’t. So our job is to create the kind of rehearsal room in which a society that you can believe in can happen. Every time there’s the event of theatre, there are a number of things going on. There’s the play, there’s the story of the actors that the audience is getting in their minds. There’s also the question, how are the actors getting along? How is the audience getting along? How are the actors and the audience getting along? That’s in the room. That’s the subject of the theatre. That’s the stuff that we lose when we’re not in the theatre. That’s the stuff that has to be celebrated.
You create the world you want to live in in the rehearsal space. It’s revolution in small rooms that make bigger rooms possible. In other words, I don’t think A Chorus Line would have happened if Joe Chaikin and the Open Theatre hadn’t done work in those small spaces and Michael Bennett [Tony-award-winning musical theatre director] saw those pieces and it informed him.
Finally, it’s telling the story. I mentioned before, we don’t remember facts, you can’t change anybody’s political view by telling them facts. You only change it through emotion. I have a friend Henry Strand—a wonderful actor—he was in Major Barbara at Center Stage in Baltimore a number of years ago. And he was playing Cusins, which is the main role. And he told me that one Sunday afternoon, at a matinee performance, he mispoke a line in the end of the play. He was supposed to say, “My mother is my father’s deceased wife’s sister and in this island I am consequently a foundling.” He made a mistake, he flubbed, he instead said, “My father is my mother’s deceased wife’s sister, and in this island I am consequently a foundling.” He said the most amazing thing that happened was that when he messed up the entire audience gasped and he realized they’re paying attention.
I’ll close with this thought, my favorite, and it is the kernel of what makes theatre, theatre. It’s something that the pianist, Alfred Brendel said. He’s very famous for playing Beethoven sonatas. He said in an interview that when he’s in concert and he gets to the end of a sonata, and he gets to the chord just before the final chord, he lifts his hands, and silently asks the audience how long they will let him wait before he plays the last chord. That, to me, is the heartbeat of the theatre, and a thing that, as we go on, we need to explore. Because it’s what makes us unique.
About HowlRound TV
HowlRound TV is a global, commons-based peer produced, open access livestreaming and video archive project stewarded by HowlRound, a knowledge commons by and for the theatre, arts, and cultural community. The channel is at howlround.tv and is a free and shared resource for live events and performances relevant to the world's live arts fields. Its mission is to break geographic isolation, promote resource sharing, and to develop our knowledge commons collectively. Follow and use hashtag #howlround in Twitter to participate in a community of peers revolutionizing the flow of information, knowledge, and access in our field. Our community uses the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License (CC BY 4.0). You can become a producer and co-produce with us. Learn more by going to our participate page. For any other queries, contact @HowlRound on Twitter, email [email protected], or call Vijay Mathew at +1 917.686.3185 Signal/WhatsApp. View the video archive of past events.