Friday, April 4, 2008

The Storyteller & the Tribe - A Way of Being

“Each and every one of us is born into a tradition; even when our parents do not profess a belief, we still have access to a variety of histories—familial, local and national—that help to define us. What makes one history more ‘sacred’ than another is perhaps the measure to which it gives our life meaning. For some, meaning comes readily from inherited tradition; for others, it is much harder to acquire.”  -  Nora Leonard, from Sacred History

Character and audience provide the more conventional vantage points from which a screenwriter can usefully view and assess the effectiveness of a story’s dramatic action. As the relationship with character and audience deepens one is less inclined to make judgements and choices based upon personal prejudices and fears; instead of taking refuge in formula, the storyteller operates from the inner life of the characters and the audience.

There is, however, an indispensable third perspective that references the subtle and powerful relationship a storyteller has with his or her origins. It evolves out of the storyteller’s relationship with his or her tribe, and enables the storyteller to view story not only as a work of individual self-expression but as a “mythos” or weltanschauung grounded in ontological affiliations with which the storyteller identifies. As employed in the present context, tribe refers to those ancestors or antecedent characters – physical, historical, cultural and spiritual – that inhabit the storyteller’s being and whose lore, both real and imagined, connects the storyteller emotionally to the world of the story.

The writer/tribe relationship in concert with character and audience provides the crucial lynchpin in the process of finding and entering the drama, and, when vividly apprehended, lends authority to the telling of any story by building courage within the scriptwriter to jettison the fear-driven strategies that all-too-often interfere with the natural selection and evolution of the characters.

In the context of dramatic storytelling, a storyteller’s relationship to tribe operates as both the cause and effect of the writer’s imaginative apprehension of the sources of the story’s coming-into-being. These sources – which are cultural, historical, sociological, psychological, political, philosophical, geographical, mythical and spiritual – represent the totality of tribal circumstances from which the storyteller derives two fundamental and dramatically pertinent notions or insights concerning his or her identity vis a vis the story: the notion of belonging and the notion of separateness. The writer/tribe relationship both affirms and negates the storyteller’s identity and individuality. In addressing the question: by what authority do I tell this story? the storyteller cites the authority of the tribe, thus stimulating the sense of connectedness that exists between the storyteller and his/her origins, while affirming the developing bond and intimacy that is developing between the characters and the storyteller. As this bond grows stronger the storyteller is more likely eschew every inclination to inflict his or her personal and/or momentary enthusiasms and anxieties onto the characters.

Effective dramatic stories will always cause us to feel and recognise something about ourselves that is extraordinary. Great stories offer much more than mere flights of fancy, or some idle, imaginative aberration through which we might temporarily escape the so-called real world. Dramatic stories driven by characters whose actions build emotional energy also build courage by providing and provoking fresh and lucid visions concerning our place in the scheme of things, whilst enlarging and deepening our sense of involvement in the creation, apprehension and appreciation of the world’s they dramatise. Indeed, stories are the means by which the tribe propels its vital energy into the field of human experience, along with whatever hopes, fears and wisdom promote or impede that energy.

The act of apprehending character and story from the perspective of the storyteller/tribe relationship frees the creative potency of a self that is larger and far more generous of vision than the storyteller’s own ego-driven immediacy. The fullest expression of this is the transformation of the storyteller into a medium, which is the fullest expression of the dramatist’s self-actualisation, via self-denial, and the disappearance of the storyteller’s will into the will of the characters.

The storyteller/tribe relationship takes seriously the notion that dramatic journeys – for both the storytellers and the characters – are always journeys of self-discovery. Certainly, from the storyteller’s point of view, it could be said that every story-in-the-making represents that part of the storyteller’s self that is yet to be discovered. It is also that part of the self whose origins are rooted in the tribe or tribes whose story the writer is finding and telling. The tribe operates then as both a goad for and a source of self, as well as a goad and source for story and feeling.

Like the other perspectives, the storyteller/tribe relationship contributes to the storyteller’s ability to connect with the characters and their actions not only in fresh and unexpected ways, but also in ways that are far more intimate than might’ve been possible without a tribal perspective. Characters are personifications of tribal attitudes, values, beliefs, and affiliations. Characters act out of both the wisdom and the foolishness of their tribes, and are in turn affected by the consequences of their tribal-related actions. It is the tribe that creates the circumstances for dramatic tension; and it is this tension that cajoles and challenges and builds character. In addition, in the act of identifying and affirming one’s origins and ancestry, and in the identification of oneself with the characters and their actions (the story), the storyteller – in relationship with the tribe – enters into an entirely new region of the story’s meaning. Looking at character actions from the perspective of one’s tribe also alters one’s psychical distance to audience, permitting another contrasting reference point from which to apprehend one’s characters, including the character that is the storyteller interacting with his/her characters! In responding to the claims and sensitivities of one’s tribe one is more surely conducted towards a mediumistic grasp of character wherein the story appears to tell itself, and in ways one would never have thought possible if left to the predictable devices of the storyteller’s knowledge of dramatic convention and its allied forms of sophistication.

To operate as a medium for character and story is not so much a matter of what the storyteller does, as what the storyteller doesn’t do. It is akin to the Chinese idea of wu-wei (non-action), a concept that denotes effortlessness, spontaneity, or what Chuang Tzu refers to as “flowing”. Every well-told story flows. Every event, every action, moves the story forward, naturally, in a kind of karmic dance. The art of flowing, as applied to drama, requires that the writer get out of the way. One becomes “empty”, unobtrusive, so that the characters can become whatever the characters are, so that that which is yet-to-be can come into being, allowed to birth itself through the agency of the storyteller-made-medium. Indeed, one might say that unless a story is birthed in this manner it can have no lasting raison d’être, and as such, cannot endure.

In the search to discover those tribal associations that may be relevant to the storyteller and the story he/she is trying to find, the storyteller must be open to a self-interrogation process every bit as demanding as the process by which the storyteller interrogates the characters, and with a similar degree of passion and curiosity. Fundamental to this interrogation is the question, who is it that is speaking through me? or who is it that I am speaking for? The wisdom to ask these questions, and the patience required to effectively reflect upon the possible answers, depends upon one’s willingness to entertain the nature and meaning of one’s ancestors and antecedents. In craft terms this ancestral consciousness is not infrequently referred to as a tradition, and, when fully appreciated is associated with a deep and abiding faith in the conserving forces of Nature, what Alfred North Whitehead has called “the consequent nature of God” .

Whatever metaphors or symbols one uses to characterise the tribal perspective, the willingness and courage to connect with one’s tribe are elemental to the storyteller’s ability to become fully open and accessible to the characters. In connecting with tribe, the storyteller gains the first important insight of the mediumistic experience of dramatic storytelling: the fact that a story functions not only as something that one gives to an audience, but as something that is received by one’s tribe or clan.

So how does one come to know one’s tribe? And can we belong to more than one? Or is it possible that we might not belong to any at all?

A storyteller’s tribe manifests as the person or persons, culture, clan or community that the storyteller identifies with by virtue of a substantial emotional connectedness. Tribe is ontological. To be is to be part of a tribe. The storyteller/tribe relationship acknowledges the fact that in order to find and effectively enter into the lives and drama of the characters, the storyteller must connect with the story through a context that is larger and more encompassing than the storyteller’s (or the audience’s) individual ego and its drive to express itself. One could say that the storyteller/tribe relationship is the super-ego of the creative process. It is the conscience that is embedded in every part of the story, the “gristly roots of ideas that are in action” .

So how does a writer who isn’t already aware of whom it is that is speaking through him or her, come to find out if anyone is there? Where does one look in order to answer the questions: who am I speaking for?

Given the complexity of the modern world, it is not surprising that an inexperienced, unfocused storyteller may be psychologically if not spiritually crippled or fragmented by competing allegiances and claims made upon him or her by seemingly incompatible tribal associations. It might even be the case that the fledgling storyteller will be completely unaware of his or her tribal affiliations, or not cognisant of how his or her tribal connections impact and give meaning to the story that is being found. Nevertheless, all successful and truly dramatic stories are, by definition, tribal. Indeed, it is inevitable that the tribe with its complex customs, attitudes, laws, and traditions, will inform one pole or bias of the circumstances that stimulate and compound the tension that compels a dramatic character to be or not to be, just as it does the storyteller. Recognising and embracing one’s tribal identity is, therefore, essential to any storyteller in pursuit of meaningful relationships with authentic dramatic characters.

Most storytellers, indeed most people, belong to many tribes. Tribe, as discussed here, is any association of people who identify with one another based upon significant, commonly held values that they recognise and adhere to. To identify with a culture and the beliefs and mores the tribe espouses is but one example of the possession of a tribal consciousness. To have one’s identity linked to a group of humans who recognise that their very being is dependant upon upholding and promoting their survival as a group, is to experience the essence of tribalism. In speaking about the tribalism akin to human nature, the playwright, David Williamson once remarked: “(There) is something deep in human nature that does find meaning in tribal activities, and I don't know why; I don't know where it comes from, but somehow part of our identity is wrapped up with the tribe or the tribes, or the groups we belong to. (Sport) is a very powerful generator of identity in that sense. Who do you barrack for? seems to be the first question anyone asks in Melbourne.”

Insofar as we are storytellers involved in a storyteller/tribe relationship we are custodians of a “dreaming” that we are obliged to attend to and work with and birth, in order to share the dream in all its potency with both the tribe and the audience. Story-as-myth, as an embodiment of the deep values of the tribe, has always been an essential ingredient of the meaningfulness of drama, whether it is the expression of a Shakespeare or a Tarantino. Only by seeking an effective dramatic address to an audience, after having been addressed by one’s tribe, can the writer truly enter into a collaborative relationship with character. Indeed, a writer’s talent for being transformed into a medium for character is directly related to the ease or difficulty with which the writer navigates the shadow world between the characters, the audience and the tribe.

No comments: