What's the Story

Anne Bogart's picture

I am writing today in West Fulton, New York in the heart of the Catskill Mountains. I am close to finishing a new book of essays entitled What’s the Story.  The book is made up of eleven chapters, each with a one-word title:

Spaciousness

Narrative

Heat

Limits

Error

Politics

Arrest

Empathy

Opposition

Collaboration

Sustenance

My beloved Rena is here too and she is putting the finishing touches on her new novel Thread/s.  We write all day, we cook at night, we watch stars fall from the sky.  The time here is precious and we are trying to savor each and every moment.  I will turn in the manuscript of What’s the Story to the editor Talia Rodgers at Routledge on the day after Labor Day.  There is still much to be done.  In the book, I examine the human impulse to tell a story in relation to how we tell stories in the theater.  I also outline neuroscience’s understanding of storytelling.  Plus I tell a lot of my own stories.

Here is an excerpt from the introduction:

Chapter 0 – The Introduction

DNA is a blueprint that we are born with that predetermines many of our physical characteristics and encodes genetic instructions, influencing our trajectory through life.  But the experience of living is also influenced and colored by the stories that we tell about what happens to us.  Similarly the narrative of a play differs from the act of storytelling.  The play Hamlet suggests a parallel to the DNA sequence.  Hamlet is the facts and events suggested by words that are organized into sequential episodes.  In the theater, our method of storytelling employs spatial arrangements, tempo, rhythm, brightness, darkness, loudness, quiet, shapes, and melodies, and so on, to create a journey for an audience.

In the theater we are the inheritors of countless stories from numerous cultures and many centuries. We are marked deeply by the stories that we receive. They impress their lessons upon us and do nothing less than affect the neural structures of our brain. When things are falling apart, stories become increasingly necessary to frame the instability and navigate to new territory. At present we are undergoing a cultural shift in which the stories that we pass along as well as the stories that we invent can help to shape new paradigms. Stories are ways to try things out.  They provide structure and direction. In such moments, the quality and clarity of our storytelling is crucial. Storytelling is the vehicle through which movement and transformation can occur. 

Over the past several years we have experienced a seismic shift in the way the world functions.  Any notion of a certain, stable or inevitable future has vanished.  We are living in what the Polish philosopher Zygmunt Bauman calls, liquid modernity.  We are confronted with challenges never previously encountered and these challenges weigh heavily on the roles and responsibilities of individuals.  It is the onus of each individual to adjust, shift and adjust again to the constant liquid environment of fluid and unending change.

In the midst of all this reeling and realignment, the moment is ripe to activate new models for and proposals about how arts organizations can function and flourish in the present climate and into our uncertain future.   How can we begin to think of ourselves, rather than stagers of plays, as orchestrators of social interactions in which a performance is a part, but only a fragment of that interaction?  How can we develop communities of individuals who are participants of an ongoing dialogue?

The most essential aspect of being alive to and responsible for this new climate of liquid modernity is to recognize the power and significance of individual action. All of our thoughts and actions become, in due course, public.  When we engage in a conversation with someone, even a telephone call, it does not end there.  The conversation is received and may travel paths that are out of our control.  We have no idea where the exchange might stop or what our private action will engender in the public domain.  Emergence, the way complex systems and patterns result from a multiplicity of relatively simple interactions, arises without our direct control. But we can control our own individual contribution to the emergent migration or flow. Ultimately we affect the world around us in our every move and thought and action.  If each of us brings a delectable dish to the table, a feast may ensue.  In the case of the theater, the feast that is informed by the memories of what great theater can do and has done in the past will be a richer meal.

History will be kind to me for I intend to write it. (Winston Churchill)

We dream.  And then occasionally we attempt to share our dreams with others.  In recounting our dreams we impose narratives upon the barrage of images and notions that our dreams produce. We also make stories out of the blips and bleeps of our daytime existence. The human brain is a narrative creating machine that takes whatever happens and imposes chronology, meaning, cause and effect.  We manufacture reasons and explanations for everything that happens.

More important than the facts of any life is the meaning and significance that we attribute to those facts. How we frame and construct the narratives has a profound effect not only upon our own lives but also upon the lives of those around us. Jean Paul Sartre wrote that there are two ways to go to the gas chamber: free or not free.  We choose.  We can choose to relate to our circumstances with bitterness or with openness. The stories that we tell determine nothing less than our own personal destiny.  We write the histories with the meanings that we attribute to the events that happen to us and around us.

On automatic pilot we tend construct narratives that are imitations of other people’s stories or copies of inherited assumptions from family, school, political and religious indoctrination or advertising. But, in fact, stories are one of the few aspects of our lives that we can, given a razor-like attention, control.  We can construct our own stories.  We can choose how to narrate the events that happen to us. And the narratives that we devise can prevent us from becoming helpless. But the option to take responsibility for our own stories requires effort, vigilance and accountability.

All sorrows can be borne if you put them into a story or tell a story about them. (Karen Blixen)

We are telling stories all of the time.  Our body tells a story.  How we walk into a room tells a story.  Our posture, our smile, our actions, our liveliness or fatigue, our stomach, our blank stare, our fitness or lack of fitness, all speak, all tell a story.  We invest our own energy into stories. Deprived of energy, stories die. The clarity and energy with which the story is told becomes a prediction of what will come to pass and exerts an immense influence on the path we choose to follow.

Growing up, it is natural to adopt other peoples’ stories, either from fiction or non-fiction, in order to create our own identities and to fill in gaps in our own experience or intelligence.  This can be helpful up to a point but it is easy to get stuck in other peoples’ narrative structures.  Stories are easily cemented and become inflexible, turning into the assumptions upon which our life is constructed.  Without vigilance, stories too easily become documented history, their origins forgotten. But it is possible to stay alert to the inflexibility of the stories and, with energy and imagination, to transform the stories as we pass them along. Rather than mechanically allowing other people’s stories to guide our lives, it is possible to get involved and narrate from a state of passionate participation.