Monday, 30 June 2014

The devising process and storytelling

I had a really useful chat today with the drama practitioner who leads the acting group for teenagers with additional needs, which I have been working with for six months now.  The group has been using a devising process based on myths - some brought by us adults, others by the young people themselves.  Their responses to these myths brought out themes which the lead practitioner wove together into a script - no easy task!

We reflected together on what storytelling has brought to the group - already fluent in many theatre skills.  Working with stories including Romeo and Juliet, Dracula, Baldur and Loki, Llew Llaw Gyffes, Sho and the Demons of the Deep, individuals in the group found they were good storytellers, able to hold an audience.  The stories were 'meaty' grist to the mill of their drama work - allowing them to bring out challenging themes such as betrayal, dependent love, bullying, identity, jealousy, revenge...

The resulting play needed a setting of suitable grandeur - also devised by the whole group:

Friday, 13 June 2014

Is storytelling 'high art' or 'low art'?

I spend such a lot of time trying to work out what my research is really about. 

Here's a potted history of storytelling:

Once upon a was a folk art, a 'grounded aesthetic' (as Paul Willis would call it) not respected by the art establishment.  It was sometimes conservative, sometimes subversive, sometimes brought communities together, sometimes kept them apart.  Teenage tellers never told it quite the same as their elders, sometimes they didn't even allow their elders in when they were telling.  It was whatever people needed it to be.

The times they were a-changin'...and it became a means of resistance.  One of the many cultural spin-offs of the 1960s.  A rough-edged crusader against high art, elite culture and economic power.

It 'sold out'?!?! It became too good for the arts establishment to miss out on.  It appeared everywhere and became zeitgeisty.  It was best served with a glass of wine and some appropriate world music. 

Time to give it back? It's possible that my whole PhD is about finding whether teenagers want it back, whether they want to make room for it in their 21st century 'grounded aesthetic' or whether it's already there. 

I think, more likely, it's about finding common ground between forms of storytelling flowing up from the 'ground' and down from the 'air'. Finding a 'new vernacular' which works for a given group of young people and 'feeding' or 'seeding' it with stories from the high/low tradition of storytelling while they are getting going (which is my contribution). 

Willis (in Common Culture, 1990), along with most cultural theorists after him, feels that commercial cultural commodities - film, magazines, TV, music, computer games, consumer culture - have stepped into a breach which late capitalism and 'High Art' have left empty.  Work no longer exercises most young people's creativity and skill. 'High Art' comes with its meanings already bundled into it, and repels young people, he says.  Consumer culture and media give them more to play with and transform into their own meanings - so capitalism is the cure for the disease of capitalism. 

Well, maybe so and maybe not.  Storytelling is never some ethereal thing existing independently of the economy - far from it - but I think it would be a very welcome additional presence in that same breach.  Always bearing in mind, it needs to be an 'open' kind of storytelling - a 'writerly text' (thanks Barthes) - which has no specific designs on its listeners.

On my optimistic days, I think the respect now accorded to storytelling as a 'proper' artform might mean it could act as a special language for young people to articulate their perspectives to the adult world. 

Thursday, 12 June 2014

Layering stories on stories

I have written before about Jack Zipes' suggestion that we not worry too much about what 'message' we are giving with a particular story - instead we should provide alternative versions of it and let them accuse each other.  His classic example is 'Red Riding Hood' - it could be the classic anti-feminist tale (little girls: stay at home and keep safe!) but providing both matriarchal peasant versions and modern retakes on it (e.g. Quentin Blake's - right - who 'pulls a pistol from her knickers') alongside the Grimm version allows young people to decide for themselves.  More than that - they get a distance and critical perspective on the story-making process itself, and start to be able to use it for their own purposes, and to critique society. 

I have gradually and painfully come round to this, having been reluctant to open stories up to such postmodern dissection.  Yet, Brechtian alienation and all that...I do know he is right.  My preference has been to develop workshops where, rather than presenting versions of the same story, I have told different stories within a similar structure, such as the 'hero's journey' - both mythical and contemporary true stories.  I have helped groups look for the similarities and differences between these and find a structure they can play with.  We've then created a character together, who in some way represents the group or its fantasies.  This character is then sent off on its own story, either by all the group together or each member individually.  These have been some powerful experiences for groups, and generated some tremendous stories.

But you never get to sit still for long in this research game.  On Tuesday I was privileged to attend a brilliant event at my university, York St John, organised by my supervisors Matthew Reason and Nick Rowe.  It was called 'Elusive Evidence' and focused on challenges of documentation and research in applied arts practice - that is, arts in social, health, educational settings.  Run as an 'open space' event, there was plenty of time to discuss with the many stimulating speakers.  One of these talks raised a question for me, which we later explored in discussion.

Olivia Sagan (of Bishop Grossetest University) spoke about the potential for doing harm with our work. It's always possible to see an intense response by a group, and assume this is a good and beneficial one.  Groups I have worked with have certainly produced strong, creative, moving work fed by stories - but might processes like the one I have outlined have risks as well?  Creating a marginalised character to represent a marginalised group of young people might be a horizon-limiting thing - strengthen the bonds between them but make them feel more cut-off from others.  Yesterday a group of 13-year-olds told me their character was 'quite happy living alone with his animals' and did not need to go anywhere or find new friends. 

What are the answers to that? I think Zipes would say, don't sweat it, give them another story!  Let it be a contrasting one which questions the last one.  It can be hard to escape from the 'hero's journey' myth in this age of Disney - find something else, let it be subverted.  And I think forum theatre practitioners would say: stick with it, but let the young people explore all the perspectives in the story, not just that of 'their' character.  Let them put their character in tricky situations.  Celebrate the conflicts in the story. 

Occasionally I have the instincts to do this.  I'll leave you with a great poem written by a bickering and rowdy group of Year 7s yesterday, inspired by the feelings of a cartload of plague victims travelling to their lodge beyond the city bounds.  The teachers and I managed to resist our temptation to smooth over the differences between them - their version of the story became a reflection of the many ways to see a bad situation:

We are divided into rich and poor

We are scared, terrified and shaking

Will we die, there is no cure

I heard we should cut the sores to release the pressure

People are fighting and stealing on the waggon

We should not steal or we’ll go to hell

Thomas Morton is praying for us

But who cares its our last day lets just have fun

In the moonlight we dance around  the fire to cheer ourselves up

 Why is god punishing us?

I don’t want to die

We’re missing our dear children

We did what we could for them

Left them food, look after to each other, stay hidden

I’m thankful they are still alive

But will they survive?

Saturday, 7 June 2014

Can a storyteller be as interactive as a computer game - or more so?

On Monday I was at the University of York Theatre, Film and Television department's annual postgraduate symposium.  I gave a paper myself - tackling this question of why teenagers often ask 'was that a true one?' after I'm finished a story - and what this questioning suggests about the practice of storytelling with this age group. 

Seeing that the programme was strong on screenwriting, 'transmedia' and even research into computer games, I wasn't sure how relevant the symposium would be to my own work.  It turned out to be more than relevant - I don't think I've ever scribbled more on my handouts during an event. 

To start from my concern: teenagers' questioning as to whether my (fantastical) stories are true or not might just be because they do believe some quite mad stuff, or because they need to say something to breach the silence.  But does it also suggest that I speak with a false authority, or am imposing yet another 'top-down', unchallengeable form of culture on them, disguised as folk culture? (as in the archetypal scene right!)  Would it be better to work within their own rich 'grounded aesthetic' of film, music, sci fi, dystopias, urban myths, popular culture, fantasy fiction... (see Paul Willis' 1990 book Common Culture) instead of assuming they need me and my stories of long ago, or far away?

I gave my arguments for the defence and some case studies.  Tolkien talks about the story vocabulary of 'stone, and wood, and iron; tree and grass; house and fire; bread and wine' (in his wonderful 1968 essay 'On Fairy Stories', p.10).  This can be a liberating set of images, outside the rules and limitations of our culture and in a way outside any culture.  They are what Baz Kershaw (in his 1997 article 'Performance, Community, Culture') calls a 'rhetorical convention', which create a safe space for an audience to stretch and challenge their own experience and values.  So the question 'was it true?' is perhaps a way of working out how much of the story was 'rhetorical convention' and how much was an 'authenticating convention' - a way of establishing the story's relationship to the truth and how much space it creates for play.

And of course young people do bring their own 'grounded aesthetic' into the mix.  Taking inspiration from Jack Zipes' Creative Storytelling (1995), I have found that 'layering' two stories, for example a mythical 'hero's journey' and a modern-day true equivalent, can lead groups into interesting places.  They add their own associations and invent their own characters and plots which contain elements of what they have just heard, as well as material they bring from other places - e.g. the wonderful character 'Mr Imagination', developed by a group of 13-year-olds with additional learning needs, seems to have much in common with Harry Potter.  In the story they developed about him, Mr Imagination was forced to retreat from society because he could not stop imagining terrible fates for his tormentors, and they all came true - he had to learn to master this power before he could return:

I and the teachers present felt that this powerful story was a way for the group to exercise its substantial creative muscles in a way they often couldn't (and express things about their own identities), feeding off the stories I had told them. 

A few words on some of the speakers at the symposium who gave me food for thought around these concerns:

* Romana Turina's talk on the developing art of storytelling in computer games.  More recent games have characters with depth, interesting storylines, explore aspects of culture and society.  However, there is always a tension between genuine interactivity - that is, allowing the gamer to make his/her own decisions which affect the game - and making sure the storyline of the game is enacted.  This is hard to do and the results can be disappointing.  It is often, to date, the illusion of interactivity.

* A panel of speakers from Bolton University spoke on their innovative transmedia project 'Bolton Storyworld'. This a platform for student creativity, assessment, research, and marketing Bolton University itself.  It has included 120 writers, producers, actors and others; the 'storyworld' features live events, GPS interactive maps of Bolton, social media debates, Youtube programmes, and a website, all centred around a central storyline resembling the X-Files. 

Two things really interested me about this project.  Firstly, the difficulty of balancing the need for a strong storyline with the often chaotic demands of interactivity - as with computer games.  Krishna Stott of the creative agency Bellyfeel showed a graph (right) which shows that the storyworld needs a boundary and the main plot needs to be preeminent, no matter how much 'granular content' you have spinning off from it.  This granular content is not really going to affect the central plot itself, in most cases.  So you mustn't raise false hopes.

Secondly, the inspiring academic leader of the project, Anna Zaluczkowska (who, I was delighted to hear from her accent, is Northern Irish!), talked about how most of the students were much more focused on the quality and arc of the central storyline, than on the postmodern, fragmented, multiple-interpretation potential of it. 

I often hear that young people are instinctively postmodern, living as they do in a relativistic, multimedia world.  And yet, my experience confirms that following a single, unified storyline still holds a unique power.  A group of fragile young people in one of my workshops yesterday were discussing 'Peter Pan'.  One of them said she had heard 'the real story' - that Peter Pan was a malevolent child-snatcher and the pirates were grown-up Lost Boys whom he had never allowed to escape (I think she has picked up on some of the psychoanalytical criticism of J.M. Barrie's book of the last few decades!).  The others, in one voice, protested that she had 'ruined it for them'; that they had loved that book so much.  I suggested they could still love the version they had read or seen, despite hearing another interpretation?  No! they cried unanimously.  They believed in that truth of that story - in some sense it wasn't a story at all, but a form of reality. 

I remember this black-and-white state of mind from my own adolescence.  And isn't this, in fact, what the question 'Was that a true story?' is getting at?  Is this a statement of reality which I can have faith in, and use to move around in? 

So, to wrap this up: I scribbled on my notes 'Let young people play me like a computer game!'  Maybe a storyteller can be a genuinely interactive thing.  The group who invented 'Mr Imagination' could develop a bit more of his story together, then send me away to work it up into a developed story.  I could return for their critique and they could send me off down other paths.  A sort of 'Choose Your Own Adventure'.  Because surely it is an important lesson for a storyteller to teach that we can create our own stories; they are not handed down from the sky.  You can still enjoy Peter Pan, or tell your own version which is safe from the predations of the world if you decide to make it so.  And that could really make you stronger.

Thursday, 5 June 2014

What stories do teenagers tell?

Last week I was musing about what stories teenagers enjoy listening to.  But what about the stories they tell - either in response to stories I tell, or more informally in other parts of a workshop?

Well, it's a universe, just as it would be for adults.  It's also likely to be heavily influenced by the kind of stories I have told to them - and, of course, what my ears are open to really hear.  However, I am starting to discern themes and types.  I also perceive common influences on their storytelling style, cultural material from films and books and popular culture that they sometimes weave into their stories, often very creatively.

So here are some.  I'll take younger teenagers first, 12-15s.  I'm going to put them in a (biased, subjective, approximate) hierarchy of greatest to least interest as stories:
  • hero tales of misfits and outsiders finding their role in life - or failing to do so
  • folktales of the granting of wishes, special powers
  • stories about bullying, isolation
  • true stories of family mishaps
  • urban myths, usually ghoulish
  • novelistic stories of the experience of 'being a teenager'
  • stories with subverted endings - where the baddie goes unpunished, or the heroine turns out to be corrupt
  • tales of judgment, punishment
  • action adventures high on technology and short on realism, except sometimes (and strikingly) in realistic relationships between characters
  • destructive stories where everyone is killed off and nothing ever really changes
And older teenagers, say 15+ - much of the above but also:
  • love stories
  • personal tales of how one came to be the way one is, or how a character in a story came to be the way they were
  • vampire/horror tales
  • stories of personal mishaps and troubles
A lot of this reflects the experience of other tellers who have worked with this age group - but some of the items on these lists I haven't encountered in the literature.  I'd be very interested to hear from you if you have worked with teenagers using storytelling and have any thoughts.