Reflections on ‘Beneath the Surface’ (Part 2)

Posted on February 26, 2013 by The Quest

In the second part of a trilogy of discussions, the creators of Beneath The Surface explore the many issues raised in reviving a live storytelling performance

Paul Woodward: So… in resurrecting the performance Velvet Rage Live: Real Stories which was performed at the Sarah Siddons Theatre in November, it became the revised version Beneath The Surface which was presented last week at The Embassy Theatre at The Royal Central School of Speech and Drama… I wonder if we could reflect this session on what happened in-between these events in terms of the cast and their relationship to the material…  and I guess within that there is a good question that we can use as a conflab starting point and focus…

Is a story completed once it is told?

Darren: The guys had moved on in quite a significant way after they performed their piece the first time. When we regrouped to go through the piece for the performance a few months later there was a different energy to the stories. It was less ‘charged’. They were assured and confident and had a distance between themselves and the events they had retold in their stories. It was actually quite beautiful to witness. It also created a challenge- how do we now make these stories have emotional impact for the audience?

Paul WoodwardPaul Woodward: Which says something about the very enterprise about storytelling itself doesn’t it… something shifts within us when we tell a story for the very first time… its almost elemental, there is a feeling that something is transgressed… its very intoxicating… and then something else takes place in the second telling of the same story… maybe some new insight… its not quite the same as the first time… but still potent… and then there’s the 3rd and 4th time… each time its the same material but the speaker has changed through time and through association with the material… I know this as there are some stories I have performed for many years now myself and I marvel at how my relationship to the material is changed with each telling… its the same in that its a recall of the one memory (and there are lots of storytelling tricks to get that recall back sensually and visually) … but I know that I am different… older and (hopefully) wiser…and so have a different viewpoint on the material…. so when I tell the story I know I have a duty to reveal what that is to an audience… as much as to myself… so there is always something new to bring to it… something edgy that brings an essential vitality to the tale… if that makes sense?
Darren: Kind of! I think that it is about letting go of a big emotional connection to the event being shared. Letting go can be hard as we sometimes think that this is what makes us who we are. If we don’t have that pain or that joy or another emotional connection to a story what will we become? Some people think it actually disrespects the past to let go of it, like forgetting about somebody that has passed away. What I did see happen was that the guys were standing in a whole new place- they looked dignified and courageous and actually quite exceptional human beings. I think the audience also saw this and many said ‘How did you do that? How did you stand up and share such intimate stories…. I could never do that!’

Paul Woodward: Yes it’s interesting when people say that… I always like to challenge people and say ‘well then thats exactly WHY you should give it a go’… I agree with Tim Etchells (director of Britain’s celebrated experimental performance company Forced Entertainment) when he says a great performance is all about cost, risk and investment… In other words what does it cost me to perform this material? (not on monetary terms but personally)… what am I risking to do this? (what do I stand to lose, what do I stand to gain?).. And all of these things are in place then it tells me, and the audience, how invested I am in the project – does this performance MATTER to me? Because if it matters to me then it should matter to you…
Darren: Maybe a way to look at it is to ask ‘what do I risk if I don’t share these stories?’ ‘what hold do these stories have on me?’ When the guys got used to sharing their stories in the group and then to a wider audience it started to become like a game that was enjoyable rather than an ordeal that was terrifying. They started to ‘play’ with the stories and enjoy the process of sharing them. We shake off stories in the same way animals shake off aggression after conflict and then look calm and impassive again.

Paul Woodward: YES… its like seeing something scary during the day… like a horror film… and thinking ‘great, I’m going to have some real nightmares about that later’… its like an admission that we half see things, or rather, half FEEL things as they happen… and then deep in the dark of night our subconscious mind processes and tries to work out what the hell went on… it reminds me of when I was in Africa last doing a series of empowerment workshops around storytelling with AIDS orphans and vulnerable children… some of the things I heard there were incredibly moving, but out of respect I didn’t get too emotional in front of the children as they me their stories during the days work… but at night, that was a different story… I kept waking up with my bed wet, and I couldn’t realize what it was, until one night I woke up and my pillow and face was completely wet… it took me a while to figure out that I was crying in my sleep and not even realizing it… I guess what I’m saying is that even when we don’t let on how stories and memories are impacting upon us… in the dark they are still there with us… haunting us…. like ghosts that have yet to be exorcised
Darren: Yes and telling them is like switching on the light. The bogeyman disappears. The problem from a performance point of view is- ‘where’s the motivation for the guys to continue to want to tell stories they have let go of?’ The motivation may be that they see the benefit in sharing to an audience who will be hiding some of their own ghosts. It may give courage for others to share. I know that the performance was the catalyst for lots of conversations and perhaps during those conversations more stories get ‘exposed to the light’

Paul Woodward: Personally i think its a very brave thing indeed to tell a personal story in the first place… a primary disclosure is a rite of passage… but then there is this curious condition of re-telling a story again and again… and that itself becomes a whole new rite of passage… I think that it takes even GREATER courage to do that in some ways… because that’s where the REAL work begins on both the story and the storyteller… it raises the question, ‘how much do you want to find out’? … repeated visits to a same place mean that you will see different things, less obvious things that were missed the first time round… are you brave enough to uncover those places and spaces and events?

I guess in that sense, a story is never fully told is it? It’s a continuum…

Darren BradyDarren: It can be if the teller is prepared to go deeper- like peeling the layers of an onion. Some stories simply go to one place and the teller keeps them there without further inquiry. Ade and I have spoken before about how we are sometimes ‘spellbound’ by our stories. Maybe the story was ‘I was abandoned’ ‘I was the victim’ ‘I will survive’ they are all narratives we can hold on to and that help to justify behaving in a similar fashion for the rest of our lives. It’s like the story casts us in a part that we can learn and perform really well, even if the part does not serve us we can make it into our sense of self. This can be very limiting. For instance I have met people who state very confidently-  ‘I’m shy’ and then proceed to share all kinds of stuff with me that a shy person never would. Then they become surprised when they realize that they have gone ‘off script’  “That’s so unlike me” they exclaim. Its quite funny sometimes!

Paul Woodward: I had an ex partner who used to be the metronome of all storytellers. At dinner parties and stuff I would know that certain stories would come up and I would listen to him telling them exactly the same way each time, with the same vocab, even the same pauses for breathe in-between – and I kept thinking to myself ‘go on, change it up, just this time, stray off the path, recreate it for yourself, make it new for you‘ I kept willing this because in this endless repetition I knew that there was a fundamental lie and that it was very very important to keep to THIS version of events and not deviate… it was like propaganda if you like… And I knew that it was a kind of death, this stagnation of story, and that the relationship would never work whilst there was no motion here… as I’m too too keenly aware that I’m constantly and dizzyingly in a state of flux as a person… and I think that this is how most people are really… but sometimes its expedient, in a political sense, to keep alive the notion that human kind is fixed and unchanging… it’s a way of keeping us in our place…

and this is where stories can be very conservative and trap us into limited versions of ourselves… both personally, socially and politically… as storytelling practitioners I believe its our duty to keep nudging nudging nudging by any means possible to get guys out of that narrative rut in which its all too often easy to fall into sometimes in life…

some times we think stories are the things that make our world safe… but sometimes they can be the very things that help us harbor fears…

and i guess in this work in particular… in developmental work on the self… we need to foster the stories that can set us free
Darren: I also think it’s important to understand that in any one moment we are only a part of an event and that our part isn’t the truth, just our take at that moment. What’s powerful is when we can play with different ‘takes’ on something that has happened rather than get stuck with just one and then to believe this to be the truth. There is no truth. A story is just a ‘take’ on something. In that vein, our lives are just ‘takes’ too. When we understand that we can alter, change and adapt our ‘takes’ on life we can start to be creative with it too. Rather than stick to one script we can invent another one. It’s all just a creative process so we may as well make it one that inspires and excites us I reckon.

And on that uplifting note I think I have to say goodbye. Thanks for the conflab Mr W!

Paul Woodward: its always a pleasure…. I look forward to our 3rd and final conflab next time…

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