Art as handshake

Apr 21, 2014

My new book, What’s the Story: Essays about Art, Theater and Storytelling, has been published by Routledge Press and is now available in paperback, hardcover and eBook and I am delighted to share it with you.  Many of the original ideas in What’s the Story were developed in the context of my monthly SITI blogs.  After I completed the book last September, I was a bit at a loss about how to continue with the blogs. This loss triggered the proposal for Prompts for Anne and may also explain why the blogs during these past months have been so sporadic. But now that the new book is officially published, I feel refreshed and ready to begin again to develop new ideas towards the next book.

In writing What’s the Story, I was interested in the human impulse to tell a story.  I was curious about my own impulse to tell stories. Despite my postmodern, de-constructivist proclivities, I have always craved the journeys that stories engender, both the exposure to others’ and crafting my own. In writing the book, I wanted to examine what sorts of stories make sense in our current environment; Who’s stories do we tell, how to tell those stories, for whom and how are stories useful now?   I dipped into the history of storytelling in theater. I studied neuroscience to find theoretical explanations for human storytelling. I also liberally related stories from my own life’s trajectory.

The next book is provoked by my interest in the uses of technique, a subject that extends the horizons of my own ongoing research into the role that theater plays in civilization. I believe in technique and I believe in a technique that exists in service of capturing nothing less than the vital force of life.  In a letter, Elia Kazan wrote his own feelings about the role of life force in the theater: “A great theater must have an open door through which life flows like a stream. When that door is closed, then the theater becomes a theater in a Broadway sense, and that’s a scurvy thing.”

Perhaps this vital force, this flowing life, channeled and shaped by artistic expression, is nothing less than the transformation of innate human violence into articulate communication.  If civilization is restraint, then it is the artist’s job to transform the energy and danger of meeting, of encounter, into communicative expression.  The Spanish word encuentro is generally translated as encounter but its root, cuento, means story. In the moments of reactionary violence, impatience and despair, art steps in as a tool, a technique that requires skill, patience, a personal point of view and a story to tell. The creative act demonstrates the human capacity to temper violent, reactionary impulses and transform them into communicative display, declaring through various means, “This is who I am. This is where I come from. Do you relate to any of this?”  Through art, fear can be transformed, violent impulses can be tamed and the impulse to protect oneself can be converted into a veritable handshake.

Les Waters, the current Artistic Director of Actors Theatre of Louisville, suggests there are three conditions required to be a good human being:  1. You need food, water and shelter.  2. You need parents who loved you. 3. And you need to be able to tell the story of where you came from. “Imagine two groups strangers approaching each other from a great distance,” he proposes.  “What do they do when they reach one another?  Well, they tell the story of how they got there.”

Les’s notion of strangers telling one another their stories is key to the art of the theater. I would like to continue Les’s analogy:  Perhaps these two groups of people approaching one another from a distance have two options: 1. They tell each other the story of where they came from, or 2. They kill one another.

Human beings and ants are the two planetary species that share the capacity for massive warfare. There are many animals that fight to defend feeding territory, but few that enter into sustained warfare. Even in this century humans continue to manufacture countless artifacts that have the sole purpose of killing other human beings. But perhaps there is an alternative to physical violence.  Perhaps the option of telling the story of where you come from is an alternative to war, alienation and violence.

On Christmas day in 1914, during the most brutal trench warfare of World War I, German soldiers climbed out of their muddy trenches waving to the English soldiers on the opposite side of the  “no-mans-land” that separated them and began to cross the thirty yards toward the Allied side.   Actually, the rapprochement began with sound. The English heard the Germans singing “Silent Night” in their own tongue.  The English joined in in English.  Private Leslie Walkington remembered his own experience: “So then we began to pop our heads over the side and jumped out quickly in case they shot, and they didn’t shoot and then we saw a German standing up waving his arms and we did not shoot.”   The solders on both sides fearfully climbed out of their trenches and began to move towards one another across the “no-mans-land.”  When they met they shook each other’s hands and exchanged gifts. In this interchange they learned that their enemy shared the same misery and the same hopes.  The violence was, for a short time, transformed into an authentic handshake.

Courage, patience, skill, listening and openness are required to sustain a handshake from a stranger. To keep calm and meet danger with patience and skill is also the requirements for solid artistic technique.  In prehistoric times, humans transformed fire from a dangerous and destructive material into a controllable asset to human civilization.  In our times it is key to maintain a connection with the original danger of human encounter, the heartbeat of the theater, and to use technique to shape it into a communicative exchange.