Stories, Ghosts & The Art of Performance Storytelling

Posted on April 30, 2013 by The Quest

In the third and final conflab between The Quest co-founder Darren Brady and international theatre practitioner and academic Paul Woodward, they make their final reflections on the power of crafted storytelling for the stage and its potential within The Quest provision, as well as heralding the launch of the next phase in storytelling The Haunting

So this is our final conversation about storytelling. I know that you have recently performed yourself and I was interested to know- What do you think happens when somebody shares an important story about themselves with an audience?

Paul WoodwardPaul Woodward
Yeah I’ve been lucky enough to be working with the legendary performance artist and gay activist Tim Miller from the USA – he’s always been one of my performance hero’s.. I’ve learnt a LOT from working with him and am eager to try some of the things I’ve learnt working with a master storyteller with the next Quest project… more about that later… but in terms of your question..

It was fascinating to be actually performing in front of an audience rather than being in my usual role of directing or dramaturgy – it was humbling putting myself in that place of vulnerability I’m asking my casts to place themselves in… One thing that I noticed was a very curious PHYSICAL transformation occurring throughout the show… as I worked through some deeply autobiographical material I began to feel lighter and lighter as the piece progressed.. Literally as I laid it all bare on the stage I felt my baggage lessen… and at one point I had to leap up and be caught by two other performers… and I actually leapt further than I even have been able to in my life… it was like I could fly… and the other guys reported that apparently I weighted less than a feather… I mean I’m a chunky lad… but I had physically altered my weight ratio through this extraordinary catharsis… weird huh?

It’s an amazing bit of magic that happens. That is what makes watching this kind of event so riveting- to see that happen on stage also affects the audience. We get to let go of some of our baggage too. The word catharsis seems central to this process…

Paul Woodward
Yeah it does… its a charged word that goes back to the Greeks of course… that purging of excess anti-social emotions… of the stuff that hinders you through your journey in life… some theatre academics suggest that it was a way of keeping a form of social control, that having audiences emotionally drained leaves them more docile… but in my experience, when you are working through autobiographical material rather than a scripted piece with characters like kings and rulers etc… Something much more rewarding happens… the audience identify with the storyteller, if the story is well told, and the storyteller lets the audience in… And as the material is wrestled with… as real life experiences and issues are worked through in real time witnessed by an audience… something of alchemy happens… as the performer releases, so do the audience… each is crucial to the others transformation… its like a dance… or a trapeze act… each is dependent on reaching a safe place on each other… and we hold each other in the catch.. and we swing to and fro, and we feel that rush of air and emotion as we land somewhere else exhilarated… then its over to the audience… as if to say “come on.. don’t be scared…Its a fun ride… transform, transform, transform”

DarrenDarren Brady
It sounds as though there is a distinction between a ‘play’ and a ‘happening’ where real people tell their real stories. It seems to me that in the latter it can only happen a few times for that ‘alchemy’ to occur. I cannot imagine a West End show running for 8 months being able to have that same effect on an audience

Paul Woodward
Yeah its an interesting one because that notion of replay-ability haunts many performance storytellers. How to keep it alive, when its live but repeated… talking to Tim Miller he has many strategies as do others… but its basic components are always the same… just channel yourself… channel the truth of the moment… remember the textures and sensate qualities of the memory… try and be there..  And in being there… let the audience SEE and FEEL what you FEEL…

I think that when we look at a photograph from our past for instance its rare that we feel the same thing EVERY TIME because we are different from moment to moment ourselves… our relationship to the memory changes.

And so I think that to be true to that relationship you have no choice but to PERFORM that difference and be authentic to that in front of the audience. Otherwise it might seem dry, too completed, and bled dry of its life force.

Interesting. Now then tell me more about the process you will be employing when you return to the UK this June to launch a new storytelling project with The Quest called The Haunting…

Paul Woodward
Gladly… I’m really happy about coming back and seeing everyone, and I’m beyond excited about this project and its themes that I am completely passionate about… I think that starting a new project I have to be a little in love or obsessed by it as its ideas both consume and take hold of me. The artistic process is already a little like a possession in the first place for me…

I guess it started as I was interested in what happened to the cast of Beneath the Surface in the last process… about how, when the material was generated, the memories that surfaced were ones that seemed to have some kind of a hold over the present.. And as such I began to think about how this was, in itself, like a form of possession too…or a haunting

An experience was called up from the ether of memory… stimulated by the workshop process… and they remaining shadowy.. Until this entity becomes encapsulated by the form of a story told by its author… the teller effectively brought this shadowy thing t into another realm… where it could be more tangible somehow… to a place where the memory be faced anew by both the cast and the teller.

It was like a séance of sorts.. And then through the processes of performing the story to an audience the cast commented on that moment of catharsis, and how the experience somehow began to lose its power over them

And so this kind of reminded me of an exorcism

So I began to think of a piece entitled The Haunting

And began to question where in our gay lives we are troubled by the past, like a troubled ghost of ourselves haunting ourselves

And about what we can do about this

What rituals can we make for ourselves to keep the past in the past where it belongs?

Yes. Ade and I talk about how we become ‘Spell bound’ by the version of what happened to us in the past. The story usually has a headline title. It might be something like ‘I was mis treated’ or ‘my heart was broken’ and those headlines then make up a big part of who we think we are- in those cases we would be casting ourselves in the role of Victim. We type cast ourselves!

Paul Woodward
Yes.. Spell bound… I like that… it’s like a mutual possession isn’t it.

I’m interested in the idea of the half hidden in the shadows…of the things that haunt us in our everyday lives but we only see them out of the corner of our senses… a haunting of ourselves by all our more insecure incarnations of self throughout time… the ones that feel ‘less worthy’ or ‘fat’ or ‘ugly’ and ‘not good enough, not good enough, not good enough’

I think that when we are haunted by something that happened to us there is a big element of hiding or refusing to look. When we were children if we were haunted by the idea that a bogeyman was going to get us and was under our beds, we refused to look. We were petrified but did not take the action of looking under the bed to see that nothing was there. That would have relieved us of the haunted feeling.

Paul Woodward
Yes, but isn’t it the ‘I’m not going to look. I’m going to imagine’ impulse that actually fuels the fire of our imagination even further?… the fear transcends the will… and so becomes chronic… and paralyzing.

Refusing to look is like putting fire out with gasoline!

Yes! And very dramatic- like a really over the top horror film- Psycho or The Living Dead!

Paul Woodward
I think it will be fun to play with genre with this storytelling project… a gay ghost story… lots of chills and stuff in the first act… then bringing the ghosts into the real world in the second… and then finding some very powerful rites of passage and physical rituals with which to exorcise them and lay them to some kind of rest. I imagine there will be lots of storytelling in dark rooms, and around fires and in unconventional spaces just to tap into that sense of the taboo, the forbidden… to play with what scares us… as everyone is haunted by something when they turn off the light at night

So will you be looking to show the imagined stories or the ‘just what happened’ which would probably be a lot less theatrical?

Paul Woodward
I want to work with a group of gay men to see what those common themes and ghosts are

So you’ll be exploring Fear more than Reality?

Paul Woodward
I would find a bridging world where these things can meet.

And find a way to describe that meeting point that was satisfying to both the storyteller and the audience alike

Will the audience be aware of which side of the bridge they are on?The-Haunting-TEASERS-5

Paul Woodward
Good question – I think id like to keep them guessing in a way… sometimes its in the in-between spaces that we do our most creative and powerful inner work

Sometimes and sometimes it just perpetuates a sense of confusion between the 2! In my experience making a clear distinction can be a very powerful way of escaping a trap.

The trap of being caught in our dramatic story.

It sounds like it will be a powerful process and a riveting performance. How do people find out more or get involved?

Paul Woodward
Well all the details are available here and there will be an email notification sent out any day now. There’s a Facebook page too which they can like and get up to date info about the project… and if anyone is interested and wants further details then they can contact me at

Like I said, I’m thrilled to be coming back and launching this next phase in performance storytelling with The Quest… its gonna be another beautiful and enriching process!

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