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Devoted & Disgruntled 12: What Shall We Do About Theatre and the Performing Arts Now?

What's the Story? Where Storytelling meets theatre

Clare Murphy - 15 January 2017

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Where does storytelling meet theatre?

As a storyteller I am often confronted by strong arguments from people about what is and isn't storytelling, what is and isn't theatre. It seems that we spend more time defining what we are not than looking at what we can be. I was curious to find out what the theatre makers at D&D thought around story, what it does and where theatre and story meet, collide, corrupt, infect, inform and inspire.

For me, as a storyteller, story is the root of theatre, and theatre has much to give to storytelling.

Over the course of the session we wandered through a wonderful variety of topics around the theme of story.

What is a story? Can it be clearly defined? It can often come down to the context of the questioner…is it an academic? a theatre maker? A clown asking what is a story? Does defining this territory help or hinder?

Can story exist without theatre? Yes, and it often does. But when theatre tries to exist without story it can fail its' audiences.

Story and theatre can differ greatly in the performer. In theatre the performer is often a set character (or set of characters) and they are not themselves. In storytelling they are closer to being themselves on stage with a range of options to shapeshift into characters and landscapes. With Fooling (a form of clowning) you begin as yourself and then move into solo improv.

We discussed theatre companies like NIE who use the freedoms of storytelling (i.e. no fourth wall, direct speech to audiences, improvisation around content) as a playful platform to develop their work. It allows a certain amount of breathing space on stage that is not always possible in theatre that is strictly bound by script.

Where storytelling meets theatre is a liminal space. Where are the liminal spaces in our work? What liminal spaces are we interested in being in?

The members of this group have a wide variety of work. Academics who teach scriptwriting, clowns/fools who work with theatre and storytelling, directors who devise and also work from set scripts, artists who use verbatim texts and no fourth wall theatre,

Is it possible to make work without a traditional beginning and ending? Do theatrical elements enhance or detract from storytelling?

Then we moved into a discussion around submersive experience and performance. What is it that is happening when we are so completely consumed (as audience) by a piece of work that it becomes a felt experience? For me as storyteller this is much loved territory.
When a performer and the audience can meet in the space between, the most interesting liminal space) there is a chance for transformative experience. The audience engage the cinema of the mind, they go with the performer to a place where the physical room can often “disappear”, and they feel everything and see everything that is being communicated. This alchemy between performer and audience is unique, one offs, intoxicating and exhilarating. It can evoke real transformation.

We are alchemy junkies. We adore the sublime. Story can take us there quite quickly.
Ellie, who works with spontaneous storytelling and children has uncovered the deep language of symbols that is available instantly to all human beings who begin to dig into storytelling. In this place, where we make and explore story, we are exploring our own psyches, the dark and the light, and we are empowering the imaginer.

Is what we tell important? Is the content of the story important or is it a vehicle for the performance? For some in theatre it can be a vehicle for exploring performance. For some of us in storytelling what we tell is very important, as stories are seen as medicine. Stories are ways in which we can create and destroy reality (look at politics in 2016, or anytime. We make and unmake the world all the time with the stories we tell).

Alchemy became an important word for this group. When audiences deeply listen there is an alchemy there. The deep alchemy of performance can jettison performers into a state of feeling high, can push audiences into trance like states. Alchemy invites audiences to take what they want. Alchemy allows for sublime experiences for all involved, and it might be what we all seek the most. That there is enough space in the performance and between performer and audiences to allow transformative things to happen.

We finished without knowing that we have clear definitions for story, theatre or storytelling. But that perhaps the liminal space between all these places is the most interesting place to be.



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