The Public Theater
Oftentimes you hear a director or filmmaker say, “Well, what I really am is a storyteller.” And to that I say, “No you’re not.” I get what they mean, and they’re not wrong per se. But to me, a storyteller is a person sitting in a chair telling you a story. And that’s it. No other actors, no jump cuts or soundtracks. Just the person, the chair, and what they say.
By this definition, Mike Daisey is a storyteller par excellence. His recent work, The Last Cargo Cult, features Daisey seated behind a desk, on which are a few sheets of yellow paper and a bottle of water, and that’s it. For the whole show. All two and a half hours. And from this comfortable perch, Daisey tells us a rather uncomfortable story about our culture’s relationship to money. It’s thoroughly engaging, funny, and significant, and I encourage everyone to go see it. He’s going on tour. Check your local listings.
It takes a certain talent to reel an audience in with just your words. My boyfriend and I took note of this after attending a Moth-inspired birthday party a few months back. All the guests were asked to bring a story to share, and the best one belonged to a friend named Brian. His was a long and outrageous tale about exploring Disneyland in an altered state of consciousness while on a high school field trip. It would have been a good story coming out of anyone’s lips, but Brian made it a work of art. Rather than go the obvious route and deliver his nefarious account with bombastic showmanship, Brian spoke quietly at first. He sat there with a soft look in his eye, as he conjured the images from his memory and set about describing them to us. He took his time, but not unduly. He offered detail upon detail, and in so doing captured nuance and tone. But most of all, he allowed the memory of the event to affect him in the retelling of it. So that as the story progressed, we too felt the exhilaration, the wildness, and the fractured absurdity of his journey, as if it were in fact happening to us.
That’s not easy. It takes confidence. How many times have you tried to convey a story that you know is hilarious or otherwise incredible, and yet you find yourself skipping over things, rushing it along? You get skittish when your audience doesn’t immediately respond the way you want them to, and you give the story short shrift. Your fear gets the better of you and disappointment wins the day. Not so with Brian. He took the risk to soften up and take his time, confident it would pay off. Of course, he had told his tale before and knew what parts to enhance or leave out, an advantage over us skittish story-rushers. But that is part of the art as well. Trying again after you flop the first time. Honing the story over time.
Mike Daisey, of course, enjoys all the same advantages as Brian in The Last Cargo Cult, and more so. He’s a storyteller by profession and crafts his monologues for performance over long periods of time. While maybe a little less thrilling than the high-wire act of informal storytelling, the overall effect of Daisey’s expertise is one of relaxation. He sits in his chair behind the desk, flips over a yellow sheet of paper (serving more as theatrical convention than crib notes), opens his mouth, and you immediately know you’re in good hands. Which is helpful when you’re simultaneously getting the rug pulled out from under you regarding our collective faith in the abstraction we call money.
I guess what really fascinates me most about storytelling, though, is that it’s an act of mutual creation. I’ve written about this idea before, in my posts for Our Town and Los Elementos, so it’s clearly an important concept for me. In storytelling, there are two imaginations at play, the teller’s and our own. And there’s this double-translation that happens – sounds a little far out, but follow me. An event happens to the storyteller, which logs in her mind as images. She then translates these images – her imagination – into words. We hear the words, and our brains translate them back into images – our own images this time, our own imagination at work. And it is actually the experience of our own imagination that is so exhilarating when we hear a story. But it’s an experience we could not have had without the storyteller.
This is exactly what happens when we read a book. Or see a painting. Or engage with any art. The artists help us experience our own imaginations in ways we would not be able to without them. And yes, this includes directors and filmmakers. So I guess they are storytellers after all. Go figure.