Telling it.

Whenever I need inspiration, or my process stalls, I turn to Robert McKee’s Story. Today I opened it at random and got this:

“At last he [the writer] has a story. Now he goes to friends, but not asking for a day out of their lives – which is what we ask when we want a conscientious person to read a screenplay. Instead he pours a cup of coffee and asks for ten minutes. Then he pitches his story.”

The exercise of writing out the story inevitably leads us to write out what happens. But this is not story. The story is the distillation of what happens, the spine under the actions and events that gives them meaning. Telling a story is to select moments out of the infinite scope of ‘what happened’ (for in fiction anything is possible) into an emotionally moving sequence. When you tell someone your story out loud you’ll see if it works in their face and their body language. Then you’ll know if you have story that’ll hook your audience or just a list of things happening. I have never found a more useful exercise than to tell a reacting person my story. At the NAF the Inspiring a Generation folk got in front of a crowd of twenty or so Grahamstown kids. We were all a little nervous. The others read bits of their scripts, scenes or poems; I read nothing. I sat close, made eye contact and told them the story of a boy and his Oupa and the hunt for the Kraken. I got more out of that than the others because I could see what engaged the kids and what lost their attention. When the play is eventually produced it’ll have puppets, projections and performers, but all that is made compelling by the story they’re telling.

My Trip to Sweden

I arrived back from Sweden last week. The journey lasted 19 hours including 2 stops – in Istanbul and in Joburg. It capped off an incredible week in Lund, the tiny university town in the south of Sweden. I was there with Beren Belknap, Lindelwa Kisana and Frankie Nassimbeni as a part of ASSITEJ’s Inspiring a Generation programme; Pieter Bosch Botha was with us as our wrangler. The goal of the programme is to get more voices writing plays for young audiences – phase one back in late May had us in workshops for a week finding our own inspiration; this trip to Lund was phase two. We were visiting during the Festival of children’s theatre and our schedule was packed with shows and workshops. I had my first draft of Get Kraken! in hand and was ready to work on it and have my mind pried open by some European theatre.

We arrived in Copenhagen and were met By Niclas Malcroma, the head of ASSITEJ Sweden, who we hadn’t seen since April. We took the train across the Oresund bridge into Sweden from Denmark and when we arrived at Lund’s station we were greeted by the Swedish participants Christofer Bocker, Jonathan Lehtonen, Isa Schöier and Anna Nygren, and our workshop leader Lucia Cajchanova. There was a lot of hugging, which was awkward for me given the 19 hours of travelling without a shower or a refresher round of deodorant.

Our first day was about settling in, getting a sense of the place and popping out for a late beer because the perpetual twilight was messing with my brain.

On Tuesday our programme began in earnest, we registered and headed off to our first Swedish production – Swan Lake. For kids. But what that means in Sweden is very different to what it means here in Cape Town. The theatre was filled children from about 6 to 10 years old (granted I’m just guessing based on height) and they were clearly engaged through most of the work despite it needing ‘grown-up’ adjectives like ‘conceptual’. It was as fascinating   to watch the kids as to watch the performance for me. It was very clear when they were engaged, when they lost focus and when the performance hooked them again. It dissolved the idea that an audience, any audience, could not be recovered once lost.

Over the week we saw about 10 shows of varying quality and style, all contributed to the question we threw back and forth amongst ourselves: what is it that makes a performance for the youth? Typically we’d discuss whether a show deserved that label on our walks between venues, no one quite agreeing since that’d mean agreeing on a definition – something I think we all consciously avoided for our own reasons. My reason was that I kept thinking of J.R.R. Tolkien’s words in On Fairy Stories, referring to stories for children:

“Their books like their clothes should allow for growth, and their books at any rate should encourage it.”

All temporal art creates a causal chain from which we can infer the thesis of the creator, at its most obvious and didactic we refer to it as the moral of the story. The clearer this message is, the more likely we are to think of it as being for children and the inverse is true too – we believe that work for children should be clear. Tolkien’s words remind me though that an important part of development is challenge. While certainly the delivery of clear principles is important, so is the stimulus of an idea just a little out of reach.

The question on my mind was then about how we balance these two, and that relates to understanding the development of children and the context. The audiences of Swedish youngsters I saw were primed for theatre, ready to be surprised and challenged. Can South African theatre for the youth make such daring choices at this stage?

Most of these debates were kept out of the workshops and happened in informal moments, while walking or eating together. The workshops were focused on developing the proposals that came out of the first round in Cape Town. Lucia was a great leader of these, although I do think she could have pushed us harder to do more writing – the exercises that we did do certainly cracked open our drafts. The back and forth over story ideas were some of the liveliest debates during the trip and the ones I value the most. The most useful exercise for me was having the character tell the story in their own words – by coincidence it paralleled my own attempts to wrestle with Owl earlier this year, but in a more fruitful format. This was where the value of the week really shone.

We finished the week with an over long explanation of our journey to 7 curious people in a huge auditorium and struggled to express the different perspectives within the group or connect to the handful of listeners. It is a challenge to express the complexities of arriving in an alien culture and having to balance the internal process of creating a story with the external interactions planned to stimulate it.

It was, overall, a great experience.