Tuesday, June 7, 2016

A Species of Storytellers

by Kelly Johnson

We’re all storytellers. There’s no real way around it. From telling someone about your day to performing on stage and everything in between, every human being is telling stories constantly. We can’t help it. We’re compelled to do so.   

Perhaps what I’m most excited about this summer at the Opera House is the conversation that all our mainstage shows have about this very compulsion.

The story that we all start with is our own – and it’s constantly changing, which is so beautifully illustrated in Orlando. How do we age? And does that process alter us? How do we choose to present ourselves to other and what part of ourselves do we try to ignore?

Time can be viewed as a fairly consistent construct. 60 minutes to an hour. 24 hours to a day. But I’d be hard pressed to say that the flow of time always feels the same to me. Looking back on moments of great joy or great trauma, it can sometimes feel simultaneously like they happened to someone else lifetimes ago and that they’re still happening to me right this second. All of these things impact who we are, but when we choose what to share with others, we craft our own stories. We do what we can to influence how we’ll be remembered. But we’re not the only ones who have sway over that memory.

In An Iliad, the Poet tells the story of the Trojan War and many of those who were involved. And while she undoubtedly feels deeply for those she’s discussing, she also undoubtedly tells the stories of these individuals differently than they would tell their own. Which is the more truthful retelling? Or can they be both equally truthful and significantly different?

And why do we tell other people’s stories at all? Do we do it for them or for ourselves? Is it possible to tell someone else’s tale simply for the sake of telling it, without any of yourself coloring it? Or by telling the story of someone else’s life in our own voice, does that person’s life become part of our own? The Poet certainly has purpose. She states it early on, "Every time I sing this song, I hope it's the last time." She wants to effect change, and that desire and the manner in which she tells this story, makes the retelling as much about her as about anyone else she mentions.

We go through life challenging ourselves to reconcile the linear chronology of our lives with the chaotic spontaneity of the moments within them. We’re born, we live, we die. Therefore we expect a beginning, a middle, and an end to our stories and the stories of those around us. The danger in this is when we begin to guess at what the middle and end will be for others. This can be done as innocently as a parent’s wishful planning for their child or as complicated as the Senate’s fear of the threat Caesar could possibly pose in a hypothetical worst-case scenario. Without question our guesses as to how someone else’s story will progress says more about our own that it does about theirs.

In Caesar, Brutus states:

And since the quarrel
Will bear no color for the thing he is,
Fashion it thus: that what he is, augmented,
Would run to these and these extremities;
And therefore think him as a serpent's egg,
Which, hatch'd, would as his kind grow mischievous,
And kill him in the shell

Sure, Caesar hasn’t done anything wrong yet, but the possibility exists that he could. Better nip that in the bud.

How many times do we do this? Look at someone else’s actions (or inactions) and project our own fears on to them until the person in question becomes the villain of our story? While true villains can and do exist, do we just as frequently create our own antagonists out of those who had no intention of doing us harm? How do we use storytelling as a weapon to prevent other people from reaching their goals? A tool to get what we want?

In Mr. Burns, the human compulsion to tell stories is both center stage and shown as a vital tool of survival. After a cataclysmic event, those who remain use storytelling – in this case, retelling episodes of The Simpsons – first to survive, then to rebuild. Can we tell stories for the sole purpose of escaping reality or do all stories serve a greater purpose? Must that purpose be deemed by the storyteller, or can different purposes be given by each listener? At what points in your life have you used stories as a coping mechanism? How effective was it? What story did you choose – your own or someone else’s?

It is this steep waterfall of questions that has me so fascinated with and so excited about this summer’s season. Nothing impacts our daily lives, and the relationships in them, like the manner in which we tell stories and the stories we choose to tell. I hope you’ll join me in enjoying this summer’s shows, and in thinking about what stories each of us feels compelled to tell and why.   

No comments:

Post a Comment