Thursday, April 3, 2008

The Storyteller & the Audience - Transforming the Storyteller into a Character

Storytellers who tell stories from “outside” their characters rob their stories of the essential ingredient necessary for producing emotional responses in their audience. Indeed, the storyteller who labours to build characters around the story instead of the story around the characters is more likely to produce melodrama, which is characterised by plot-driven action and characters operating merely as plot functionaries. Such stories are invariably driven by identifiable structural formulae and can become boringly predictable unless the formula itself is disguised. If there is an art to melodrama it resides in the storyteller’s facility to disguise its formula by imaginatively hiding whatever might make the story transparent and, therefore, dull.

In seeking an effective disguise, the successful maker of melodrama is guided not only by those character attributes and actions that promote the successful telling of the pre-determined story, but also by those attributes and qualities that are not directly relevant or germane to the actual plot, but are nevertheless useful in camouflaging those narrative decisions that, were they more obvious, might take away from the story’s unexpectedness or credibility.

In contradistinction to this, drama generates energy through a series of logical and emotionally meaningful actions enacted by ingenious characters that are involved in a quest that is imperilled by risk and danger. These actions are rooted in the character’s genuine emotional needs and desires, and the energy they build and release – when it is fresh, surprising and thoroughly credible – have the potential to evoke powerful emotional responses from an audience. As such, drama is character centric.

In dramatic, or character-based, stories plot is the ongoing outcome of the characters’ desires, hopes and fears as these are expressed in action. Character provides the focal point where all of the forces of the dramatic story meet and are played out. In dramatic stories, fundamental decisions concerning “what happens next?” are based not upon what the storyteller needs in order to move the tale from one plot point to the next, but upon what a character wants and why he/she wants it, and who or what it is that is stopping him or her from having it.

The storyteller/character relationship – including the storyteller’s relationship with both protagonist and antagonist – involves an exploration of the inward emotions of the characters as revealed in actions both on and off the page. The actions themselves are motivated by and grounded in the mutual pursuit of clear objectives and goals, and are may work to either advance or thwart the characters in their quest. Allied to this exploration is the task of the storyteller, namely to effect a transformation in which the storyteller becomes a receptive and responsive vehicle through which the characters speak and act. This transformation can be assisted by employing a vantage point unique to the storyteller/character relationship, and though it also assists in developing the storyteller’s intimacy with the characters, it also serves the story and the storyteller in ways that are quite different from the storyteller/character relationship, by altering the ratios between the storyteller and the characters, and between the storyteller and him/herself. In altering the “psychical” distance from which the storyteller perceives the characters and their actions – as well as the storyteller’s own actions in relationship to the actual telling or finding of the story – the storyteller is afforded a perceptual contrast enables a fresher view of those aspects of character and story that may have been neglected, misunderstood or simply lost in the inertia and entropy of habitual examination and expectation.

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Stories that endure and change the way we look at the world and ourselves almost always dramatise issues that have the most powerful consequences. Prejudice, greed, oppression and faithlessness are perennial themes in dramatic stories that move us because they strike at the heart of what it means to be human. To successfully dramatise the potency of such forces, one must have some experience of them. However, experience is not always enough. To become the vehicle through which powerful dramatic characters and stories come to life, the storyteller must have some feeling for those that have suffered as well as the courage to fearlessly explore and be true to the characters who actions convey the turmoil at the heart of the drama. The feeling with which “Jesus wept” – and his reasons for weeping – cannot be foreign to, or beyond the ken of, any storyteller hoping to connect emotionally with his or her characters. A feeling for one’s characters and the courage to follow them wherever they may take you is one of the surest antidotes to mediocrity and its yoke of predictability. This is rarely if ever effected solely from the perspective of the storyteller/character relationship. If one is to enter into the emotional energy that is the life essence of the characters, and thus become a medium through which they speak and act, then audience is indispensable. One might even go so far as to say that an effective dramatic story requires an audience not only to imbue it with the meaning and intelligence it would not have had without one, but, more importantly, to enable its very creation. Indeed, to conceive and present a story that is told without reference to an audience is absurd, for a dramatic story worthy of its name not only presents change but also creates it in the responses it elicits from both the storyteller and the audience. Until it has elicited such a response a story is not fully functional.

But what sort of response are we talking about? And who is it, exactly, that is responding? First of all, an audience should not be construed as a faceless group of paying spectators. In the context of an evolving script, it is both ignorant and unproductive to reduce one’s conception of audience to mere demographics; to do so misses the important, creative contribution audience makes to the realisation of the story-being-found. Far from dreaming about “bums on seats”, a more productive and enlightened conception of the storyteller/audience relationship, and one that is ultimately essential to the storyteller’s own process of transformation, involves the realisation that, far from being a generalised and sometimes quantifiable mass of potential viewers, an audience is personal, identifiable and capable of lucid visualisation by the storyteller. In short, audience is that person, known to the storyteller, to whom the story is addressed, that person to whom the storyteller is speaking.

When considered in the context of story and story creation, audience is never merely a group of people; it is a person, and not just any person, but a person with whom the storyteller is intimately associated. The association must be close so that the storyteller can gauge the responses that person would have to the characters and the actions by which the energies of the story are built and released. Conceived of in this way, audience is more a tool of discovery than a final fact of appreciation. As such, it is largely an act of the imagination, for it needn’t be the actual person that the storyteller addresses. The storyteller’s vivid internalisation of his or her audience and the critical faculties that persona brings to an examination of character and story is what is crucial.

A storyteller looking at a script solely from the habitual perspective of the storyteller/character relationship is more likely to read through gaps or contradictions in the emotional logic whilst, at the same time, reading energy into stale or unenergetic action; whereas the imaginative other – the storyteller as audience – functions very much as Hemingway once described it, as “a built-in, shock-proof, crap detector.”

In many ways, the storyteller’s relationship with his/her audience parallels the storyteller/character relationship, for just as the story is not entirely from the storyteller but depends upon the active participation of storyteller and character, so too does a story require audience to which it can be directed and through which its power and effectiveness can be challenged and tested. To say that a storyteller can tell an effective dramatic story without the slightest hint as to its audience is on a par with saying that characters are irrelevant to the creation of emotionally compelling stories. Dramatic stories require both characters AND audiences.

This second vantage point – the storyteller/audience relationship – explores story from the perspective of it being something that is told to someone. It embraces the notion that every well-told story has a good reason for being told, and that that reason is as important a factor in its successful expression as the language that is employed to express it. Hence, the experience of developing a dramatic story is not unlike the experience of entering into an engrossing and life-changing conversation, not only with one’s characters but with the person who needs to hear and see such a story enacted. Indeed, that person – or audience – might even provide an important reason for the story’s coming-into-being.

This dialogue between the storyteller and the audience may at first be largely unconscious, but even at the unconscious level it works to increase the storyteller’s sensitivity to and awareness of where and how the storyteller has intruded into the story. The storyteller’s awareness concerning both his or her unproductive intrusions, as well as those authentic expressions that evolve organically out of the character’s needs or fears or desires, increases as the storyteller becomes ever more conscious and sensitive to audience. Indeed, the ear whose innate understanding of what rings true and what does not, belongs largely to the audience, or least the storyteller/audience relationship.

In the process of “disappearing” into the storyteller/character relationship, the storyteller is still capable of aiding and abetting the dissipation of energy by unconsciously asserting his or her will over the will of the characters themselves. In the act of performing the role of the unseen player, the writer’s first goal is not to find the story that is trying to get itself told, but to answer the needs of the storyteller’s own prejudices and anxieties. The storyteller/audience relationship enables the storyteller to lose him/herself completely without losing sight of who the story actually belongs to – i.e.: the characters. In one’s relationship with audience, one is able to lose oneself completely in order to find oneself as character, and to challenge the wilful and unproductive intrusion of this “character” into the life of the story.

From the screenwriter’s point of view, the critical distance afforded by the storyteller/audience perspective is what renders the re-writing process meaningful, in that it calls the writer’s attention to the fact that an essential element of the re-writing process is a meditative encounter with both character and story. It is, in fact, a necessary part of the process of finding and entering more deeply into a relationship with the characters. From the perspective of audience, the writer is transformed into “character” whose prejudices and choices are now open to same sort of scrutiny that was once reserved only for the characters in the script. As such, the storyteller/audience relationship can be understood as an audience/character relationship in which the storyteller becomes an implicit character operating within the context of the other characters and their quest. It provides the critical vantage point that allows the storyteller to retain what is useful to the empowerment of the characters while at the same time giving the storyteller the strength and confidence to jettison whatever might be irrelevant, including the storyteller-as-manipulator with all of its accompanying airs, pretensions, doubts and delusions. Certainly, the storyteller who ignores this relationship does so at his/her own peril, for to create with a sense that no one is listening or watching virtually guarantees no one will be.

To ask who is my audience is to confront the crucial critical question: why do I care?

The ultimate answer to this question resides with the characters and with the energies that are being built or released in, by and through their actions. But isolated from audience, the storyteller lacks the necessary perspective to ascertain the effectiveness of the actions produced out of the storyteller/character relationship. In order to get close enough to the characters so that they can begin to actually answer the question, the storyteller must be able to view characters from a third perspective.

1 comment:

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