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February 03, 2008

Story and Ownership

Lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about storytelling. How to tell a story? What makes a good story? Timing? Description? Pauses? Crescendo? Suspense? Conflict? The elements of surprise. And, coincidentally, I’ve just seen some plays and a couple of movies that have helped stir the plots on those thoughts so to speak.

I’ve seen a play called The Blonde, the Brunette and the Vengeful Redhead in which the actress, a woman, plays seven characters as part of a monologue. The actress, Lucy Peacock, does a convincing job even when she plays a man and a small boy as two of the characters.

I saw another play that’s part of the See Seven and PUSH festival called Clark and I Somewhere in Connecticut based on the experience of James Long, a writer/actor who was walking in his back lane in Vancouver and discovered a mouldy, old suitcase in which the contents were 7 photo albums. The albums captured snapshots of an extended family’s lives between 1957 and 1987.

The play makes use of monologue and video, refers to cannibalism, and involves a bunny suit. The cannibalism seemed gratuitous and was offputting, as cannabilism is, I think, except where apparently in Japan some cannibal named Sagawa has become a minor celebrity which is too sick for words, except I just used words.

The bunny suit seemed way too gimmicky. It was one of those plays that made me think so this is what the Canada Council gives out money for? Who decides?
Except, because of the real story that was unfolding in parallel to the making of the play as a result of the photos being used, the play was actually becoming bigger than it would have ever been had the issue of copyright and legality never surfaced.

A family was told by accident that their story was being “cannibalized” by some actor for the sake of so called “art”. He was using their real photos which he had found and was writing a play. They decided to make it clear that they didn’t want their faces used in any way as part of a made up story because in fact they had real stories that were worthy in their own right and an imaginary story by some actor/playwright in Vancouver was not necessary or desired, especially if he was going to be using their photos from photo albums that he had found in a back lane. FindersKeepers?

I found the question, not the play, really interesting. Not that it’s a new question. It’s a very old question actually. It began to make me think about how the content for stories and art always come from life, not directly but so often indirectly. Is it ever really possible to separate the experience of the actor or the writer from the bits of flotsam and jetsam of their memory that end up in their own writing or the emotion recaptured in playing a character?

Then my friend, Gwen, lent me the film Swimming to Cambodia which is a monologue performed by the late Spalding Gray, an American actor who had a bit part in the film The Killing Fields in which he created a mesmerizing monologue performance of his experiences around the making of that movie, his small role in it, and his trip to Cambodia and Thailand.

I’ve heard writers deny that any story they write is autobiographical and I always think they are deluding themselves. How can you separate who you are from what you have experienced and even when you make up a story, all you have to bring to it is what you know or can learn, conversations you’ve had or overheard, emotions, scenes that you know have existed for others and your interpretation of that can only be translated through your own lense. What you think you know or believe then takes on a life of its own in which a single kernel of truth based on reality turns into a journey of the imagination.

And I have to ask myself are there times when it’s not okay to use a specific personal experience since almost always those experiences were shared by someone else who may not wish or agree that your interpretation of what was previously a shared experience should be contained and judged and described, packaged and presented as a commodity to be consumed by audiences who will then decide, after it’s over, whether anything about it contributed to their own experience of reality?

Lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about storytelling.

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