Stories Grow Everywhere Part 1

To honor the Timpanogos Storytelling Festival’s move to their new home at the Ashton Gardens at Thanksgiving Point, this year’s festival’s theme is Stories Grow Everywhere. The new theme caught my fancy and I decided between now and the festival in September, to put this theory to the test. I’m going to look for stories wherever I go and see if I really do find them growing everywhere.

Yvonne Baraketse

Yvonne Baraketse

Before the week was over and before I even had a chance to start looking, a whole boat load of stories found me. I was telling stories at an elementary school in Provo this week, when I reconnected with a teacher I hadn’t seen for 8 years. I had originally met Yvonne Baraketse when I was a student at UVU and we were in a theatre/dance production together. Yvonne has since formed a performing group called Ngoma y’Africa Cultural Center and she asked if I would help with their upcoming performance.

Many of the members of Ngoma y’Africa came to the United States as refugees from various African countries and were pushed out of their homes by war, natural disasters and other atrocities. The show tells the story of their refugee experiences through music and dance. So as I’ve been trying to help them develop the narrative element of the show, I have heard many stories—I will share one.

At the end of rehearsal Friday night, I watched a single female dancer named Cheryl Neufville rehearse a solo number. I was mesmerized. It’s impossible to relate how beautiful and evocative the dance was—powerful and mournful at the same time. When she was done, I asked her about it. Cheryl, who studied dance at the University of Utah, told me she created the dance in honor of her grandma. 

Cheryl’s family is originally from Liberia. She said her grandma was tall with long beautiful hair. She had a silent power about her—although she was quiet, her presence was strong and she taught her daughters and granddaughters to be strong and proud of who they were.

In 1989, Cheryl’s parents came to the U.S. for a wedding, leaving their two daughters with their grandma. While at the wedding, war broke out in Liberia and they could not get back home. Meanwhile, two rebels came to their Grandma’s house and demanded her home. After hiding the two young girls, Cheryl’s grandma refused. She was not that concerned about material things, but her modest home represented their family traditions and identity. She took a stand against the rebels and what they stood for.

The two men dragged her into the street and killed her. The stories of her Grandma and the things she lived and died for still shape her family—a family that is still separated, but this summer, after 28 years, they hope to finally be reunited.

I feel very honored to be involved with this project. If you want to hear more about the incredible journeys made by members of Ngoma y’Africa, you can catch their performance on April 22 at UVU's Center Stage @ 7:00 pm.

Life is Good - Day Six

Life is Good because of the people you meet along the way. I’ve met so many wonderful people this week, but the one who captured my heart the most was Stas’ Ziolkowski (“Pronounced Stosh, rhymes with Josh” he likes to say.) Stas’ started the Three Rivers Storytelling Festival in Pittsburg years ago among many other things.

He is a gentle soul, a big dreamer and the most grateful man I’ve ever met. He and his wife Terry were so delightful to get to know and they offered so much genuine care and concern for me and my daughter.

If you ever doubt that life is good, just hang around with a bunch of storytellers. They are the most life-affirming people I know!

Life is Good - Day Five

This little cricket sat on the window sill outside my room at the Casa. I don’t know who made it (probably one of the wonderful people who work at the Casa) or how long it had been there, but I loved it.

In many cultures, crickets are symbols of life and good luck. I felt my little cricket watched over me this week. (Please no one tell me it was the figure of a cockroach!)

Life is Good because everyday people take ordinary objects and create something of simple beauty. I saw this in the Mexican people: the care they took to serve beautiful meals, daily sweeping the walks and art work was everywhere! All these expression of life were joyous to me. What are my daily expressions of beauty?

Life is Good - Day Four

The courtyard at the Casa Colonial is full of statues--most of them symbolic of Catholicism, Day of the Dead or native beliefs. This statue of Mary is my favorite. There are similar ones of Mary, most are laden down with more figures such as the angels you see here down her sides. They have children and other figures all down the front as well.

Besides the angels, this Mary has no other figures or children on her because this is the Mary de la Soledad or Our Lady of Solitude and represents Mary at the time of the crucifixion. When I learned this I felt an affinity with this childless mother and bonded with her, as my daughter Olive has been gone for so much of the past six months.

There were other figures of Mary de la Solidad all over the place, each one different, but all with the same features: a crown, holding flowers, no child and a triangular shape.

Life is Good because we have solidarity in our sorrows. Mary is just one of many women I have run into on my journey who have similar experiences and who welcome me in and comfort me--hopefully we comfort each other.

Life is also good because today I got my own day of solitude. While others went on a tour, I stayed behind in the garden to write and be quiet. It was wonderful. Solitude evokes sorrow, but also can evoke peace and centeredness. My day had both.

And like the angels flanking Mary, we are never truly alone in our solitude.

Life is Good - Day Three

Today we visited Monte Alban, an archeology site of the Zapotec people. It is similar to those I’ve seen at Chichen Itza and Tulum--beautifully laid out to align with the cardinal directions and the movements of the stars.

I was so grateful to be able to see this magnificent place and just as grateful when a thunderstorm rolled into the middle of our very hot and sunny day. I often don’t feel well when I'm out in the heat and I had been worried the day would be too hot for me to enjoy.

The Zapotecs centered their whole existence and city around balance and reverence to nature as they understood it. The tender mercy of rain today is a part of that balance, for new growth and life always follows even the driest and harshest of seasons. The more I trust in those cycles, the more I believe that Life is Good and I feel inspired to find balance in my life to the best of my understanding.

Life is Good - Day Two

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The Casa Colonial in Oaxaca maintains beautiful grounds. They are constantly sweeping the walks of fallen flowers, trimming the vines and keeping everything meticulous. Late morning, they bring out cages of birds and hang them in the trees.

Being in this peaceful place that is so lovingly cared for reminds me that Life is Good. It inspires me to do those daily, small loving tasks for myself and others that brings a beauty and centeredness to our lives.

Jim assigned us to write a haiku yesterday and as I was sitting being a curtain of vines, I wrote:

Spider web of green
Living, breathing hiding place
that conceals, reveals

Life is Good - Day One

I spent last week in Oaxaca, Mexico on a storytelling retreat led by Jim May. The last six months have been so intense with my daughter Olive's struggle with depression that I almost didn't go. Things were crazy leading right up to my departure, but my wonderful husband encouraged me to go, so I took a deep breath and went...

I had two goals for the week: 1) To be present with the experience and recenter myself so I can come home and continue to help Olive and 2) To take a picture of something each day that reminds me that life is good and to journal about it. I decided to post my seven "Life is Good" moments:

As we were flying into Oaxaca, the evening sun set the clouds ablaze. It made me wonder how this sunset looked from below, as most of the color seemed to float on top. I wondered if this bank of clouds were grey and gloomy below.

Life is Good because just when we think we can’t take another grey and gloomy day, God shows us another perspective. It doesn’t change the fact that we have another gloomy day to get through, but that the day can be can also be so much more. Paradoxically*, it can also be a day of great beauty.

*Jim says the theme for the week is Paradox

 

Remembering Syd

I facilitate a column in The Storytelling Magazine called Remembered Voices. It’s a place where our community of storytellers can honor those who have passed on but who have left an indelible mark on our world. I’ve been doing this for years and many people have been remembered in the column — many I didn’t know — a handful I knew a little or may have been well acquainted with their work. Regardless, it’s been rewarding work.

Syd Lieberman died this year.  And for the first time, I wanted to say something in the column. I didn’t — I left that to those who knew him better, but I had the chance to talk about Syd for a few moments last weekend as I emceed an evening concert at the Timpanogos Storytelling Festival and it did my heart good. 

I had met Syd on a number of occasions, but we did not know each other well. But I was deeply affected by his work. Syd’s body of work is astounding and you can listen to all of it online for free at www.sydlieberman.com. I am inspired by so much it, but more than that, I am inspired by how he lived.

I’ve been to years of storytelling workshops and conferences. I’ve read stacks of storytelling books and articles, but the best piece of storytelling advice I ever heard, came from Syd. He simply said, “If you want to be an interesting storyteller… live an interesting life.” Syd lived by those words and now I’m trying to live up to them.

Thank you Syd! You live on so beautifully in your stories and in the personal and professional legacy you left behind!

Lost, Broken and Banished

For the past year and a half, I've been heavily involved in developing Suzan Zeder's new play, The Milk Dragon, as dramaturg and now as sound designer. The UVU Theatre Department/Noorda Children's Theatre will be premiering the play on March 5-21, 2015. One of the play's rich themes explores the nature and value of things that are lost, broken or banished. We are exploring this through collaborations with area museums, arts organizations and the community at large.

We are looking for true, personal stories about the lost, broken or banished things in your life.

You can join our project by sending us your stories:

  • What has been lost, broken or banished in your life?
  • When was this a bad thing? When was this a good thing?
  • On your way to find, fix and restore, what was discovered?

Your story can be written, recorded or filmed and sent to:
milkdragonuvu@gmail.com. We'll add it to our website.

You can share your stories live at our Story Slam
Thursday, March 19th
7:30 pm
Enliten Cafe
Center Street, Provo, UT
This event is sponsored by Speak For Yourself and the UVU and BYU storytelling classes.

You can view the website at: www.themilkdragonuvu.com

You can get tickets to the play at: http://www.uvu.edu/theatre/events/theaterevents.php

 
 
 

A Whisper in the Wind

Have you heard it? A whisper as faint as the wind? Something so soft, it’s impossible to prove it’s really there. Was that it again? So vague… and yet so persistent.

Some changes in life have to be made on faith. I’ve been getting these little nudges for over a year now: It’s time to go back to storytelling. “Really?” I answered back, “With what time am I working on story material?” I haven’t blogged for the past year and a half because I’ve been so busy with theatre work - writing plays, dramaturgy and on and on. I’ve loved what I’ve been doing and yet…

There were those whispered nudges again. The idea of storytelling fills me with joy, but I just couldn’t see how to fit it in. By this fall, the nudges were feeling more like pushes and there was a growing unsettledness - a feeling of being stuck. So I gave in. I still didn’t have the time, but I started telling people I was storytelling again. That was the leap of faith. And sure enough, I got booked in some schools and had a month to prepare.

Working on story material takes an enormous amount of time! As I was in the midst of toiling away, I would ask myself, “Is this really how I want to be spending my time?” I thought perhaps the purpose of this whole exercise might be to show me that storytelling wasn’t really my path anymore and it was time to let it go once and for all. But each time I checked in, I felt energized - I was loving the work!

And then came the first performance. I was watching the elementary kids march raucously in - and I mean raucously! It was the end of the day. It was the whole school, not half at a time. They  were laughing and screaming and filling the entire gym. It felt like a tsunami wave of energy. I thought, “What am I doing? These kids are going to eat me alive! Do I even know how to do this anymore?” I calmed my nerves by focusing on the stories - I trusted that they would be powerful enough even if I wasn’t. And then I began…

It was like taking all that energy and shaping it and harnessing it and letting the story ride it. I watched it unfold and wondered at it. Hundreds of kids were still as stones, leaning in and caught in the web of the story. The storytelling wasn’t perfect, but the moment was. We played, the stories danced, and I was home.

Keep whispering, wind. I’m a little slow on the uptake, but I’m listening…

Letters to Myself

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I just met with David Tinney and Rob Moffat from the UVU Theatre Department and they've asked me to help them put together a new show for them to tour next Spring. I'm very excited to be working with these two talented guys. But here's where you come in...

Letters to Myself

 If you could say one thing to your 17 year old self, what would it be?

The UVU Department of Theatrical Arts is gathering letters from people world-wide to be made into a play called Letters to Myself. The Black Box Repertoire Company will tour the show to area middle schools and high schools during the Spring 2014 term. We want to hear from you! 

What makes a good letter?

  • Confronting an honest, real-life issue that you feel passionate about
  • The use of story
  • Strong emotional content:  anger, laughter, despair, surprise
  • A moment of clarity or hope
  • A time when you were proven wrong or your world just got bigger

Be sure to include your contact info, if you want us to let you know if we use your letter.

How do you submit a letter?

Come share your wisdom, your folly, your story...

 

Reaching Into the Void - The Healing Story Alliance

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When I was at the National Storytelling Network’s conference, I also attended the Healing Story Alliance Pre-Conference. I’ve never done any sort of healing story work, but I’ve always watched with fascination those who did work in detention centers, hospitals, homeless shelters and a myriad of other places. I’ve always wanted to try, but never knew how. Did I need a counseling degree? How would I know how to meet another’s needs? There always seems to be a void between my background and skills and the needs I see all around me.

Attending the pre-conference was like taking the first step into that void and what I found was beautiful. Elisa Pearmain is a counselor who presented her work on forgiveness. She uses folk tales to get her clients to accept and overcome their past wounds and find a new way to rewrite their stories. One of my favorite things she said was, “Forgiveness is giving up all hope of having a better past.” She talked about what forgiveness is, what gets in the way of it, how to grieve, having empathy for ourselves and finally, how to tell a new story. It was very powerful. You can learn more about her work at: http://www.wisdomtales.com

The Garden of Exile at the Jewish Museum Berlin

The Garden of Exile at the Jewish Museum Berlin

We also heard from Pati Hernandez. She’s a fiery Chilean woman who works in the prison system in Vermont. I’ve heard of a lot of people doing story work in prisons, but what I loved about Pati’s Telling My Story program is she trains and brings a group of ivy league students to facilitate the program. These two very different worlds collide and begin to break down barriers. As they share their stories with each other and create a performance piece, both groups are changed. Pati brought along Kim, an alumni of the program who now serves on the board of Telling My Story. Kim’s involvement in the program was a turning point for her life. She now owns her own business and is attending college. You can see an amazing movie about Pati’s work, here: http://tellingmystorymovie.com/home.php

I learned that I didn’t need a specific degree to do healing story work, although it might not hurt to partner up with someone who does. One good place to start getting experience is to speak with an organization’s program or volunteer coordinator. I think the main thing is to be observant, listen intently, and as Pati’s says, “Be willing to be profoundly uncomfortable and to not know what you’re doing - yet wanting to be there. That’s beautiful; that’s courageous.” As I tentatively step further into the void, I’m going to keep that in mind.

To learn more about healing story work, visit the Healing Story Alliance at http://healingstory.org

 

A Fool's Errand

I haven’t done a lot of performance storytelling in the past couple of years as I’ve been finishing up my degree and developing my playwrighting, but attending the National Storytelling Network’s conference this past week reminded me, once again, that storytellers are my primary breed - my clan.

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We’re a diverse group, but I would say the biggest commonality between us is a passion for crafting and telling stories in a meaningful way and a willingness to take the road less traveled. Armed only with story (our sword) and an open heart (leaving shield behind,) we are the Don Quixotes of our era, titling at the windmills of the world. Often we get knocked off our horses, but consider it a worthy part of the journey if it leads to the discovery of Dulcinea.

The conference allows us to be each other’s Sancho Panza, dusting each other off, raising our glasses and sharing a song. While I attended many amazing classes and events, it was the people that made the conference for me - the new ones I met and the acquaintances that deepened into friendships. Thanks to all who took time out to spend with me. It’s good to know I’m not the only fool on the road and I’m honored to share the journey with you.

“Too much sanity may be madness. And maddest of all, to see life as it is and not as it should be.”  Miguel de Cervantes Saaverda, Don Quixote

 

Tell It To the Walls - My Year of Growing Graceful

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I grew up in a society that values journal writing, but besides a few spurts here and there, I have never been a consistent journal keeper. I’ve had this running dialogue in my head telling me (in a rather disapproving tone,) “You should be passing down your stories” or “You’re never going to remember all this stuff!” or even, “You call yourself a writer? You don’t have a daily writing practice. You don’t have a way to capture all your creative thoughts!”  Yet all these “shoulds” never motivated me to get started.

Then at the beginning of the year, I read The Artist Way by Julia Cameron where she sets forth a practice called Morning Pages: Three written pages first thing every morning. Beyond the reasons given above, she uses journaling as a way to process your life. A place not only to explore what you think, but shape what you think. At the time I was trying to get past some heavy emotional issues, so I decided to give Morning Pages a try. What happened changed my life.

Tell It To the Walls - A Tamil/South Indian Tale

A poor widow lived with her two sons and two daughter-in-laws,

All four of them scolded and ill-treated her all day.

She had no one to whom she could turn and tell her woes.

As she kept her woes to herself...

She grew fatter and fatter.

Her sons and her daughter-in-laws now found that a matter of ridicule.

They mocked her for growing fatter by the day...

And asked her to eat less.

One day -

When everyone else had gone out somewhere -

She wandered away from home in sheer misery...

And found herself walking outside of town.

There she saw a deserted old house.

It was in ruins and had no roof.

She went in -

And suddenly felt lonelier and more miserable than ever -

She found she was unable to keep her miseries to herself any longer

She had to tell someone.

So she told all her tales of grievance against the first son...

To the wall in front of her.

As she finished...

The wall collapsed under the weight of her woes...

And crashed down to the ground in a heap.

Her body felt lighter as well.

Then she turned to the second wall...

And told it all her grievances against her first son’s wife.

Down came that wall...

And she became lighter still.

She brought down the third wall with her tales against her second son...

And the remaining fourth wall too...

With her complaints against her second daughter-in-law.

Standing in the ruins...

With bricks and rubble all around her...

She felt lighter in mood...

And lighter in body as well.

She looked at herself...

And found she had actually lost all the weight

She has gained in her wretchedness.

Then she went home.

This is exactly what has happened to me this year. I filled stacks of notebooks, I toppled walls, I unburdened mountains... and I am lighter. Over the months, the change was remarkable; even miraculous. 

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I have a friend who went to Africa with Richard Leider’s Inventure group and there around a campfire during a story, Richard said, “And as they told their stories, they grew graceful.” That phrase has become the theme and goal for my year.

I don’t know if I’m graceful yet, but hey, I’ve still got five months to go. I do know I still write my three pages every day, and you’ll find much more light and joy there. So with all the story work we do every day, let’s not forget the most important story: our own. The more we write it, the better we’ll live it.

 

Breathing Spaces

I recently reread one of my favorite plays, A Raisin in the Sun, by Lorraine Hansberry. I had first read it in my 20’s where it had a profound effect on me. I grew up in mostly-white California suburbia, so Hansberry’s play opened a door into a new and foreign world that grabbed me round the throat and knocked the air out of me. 

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This time, after a span of 20 years, the effect was no less profound and much closer to home. I felt the playwright deftly described my own world and painfully laid bare its ambivalence and contradictions. Somehow the play was not only about the deferred dreams of black families, but also about the suffocating nature of being squished down to fit into a space that is defined by others who don't resonate with your truths; others, who at times attack, ridicule or even bleed the life out of the truth that burns inside of you.

I saw myself and others close to me mashed up and mixed into every page. Where are the spaces where it’s hard for you to breathe? Is there a relationship where a distorted image of you is constantly reflected? Are there times as a woman or minority when you hit up against walls of preconceived limitations? Are the very gifts that define you dismissed and devalued? Chances are, if you work in the arts, you have come to know these spaces very well.

I felt that suffocation as I read, and wondered - what's a person to do? We still need to live and choose to live in some of these spaces. We may feel it's our path to stay and learn from a difficult situation. We may have an end goal that is too important to abandon. Unless we want to be hermits, we all operate as members of different communities. But that leaves us with difficult questions:

Where do we fight and where do we compromise? Where do we speak out and where are we silent? Where do we integrate and where do we separate? These questions hit very deep for me with the ultimate one being how do I operate in this space while retaining integrity to my truths?

I have very few answers for any of this, but what the play reminded me of was the absolute necessity of holding on to those dreams and truths. All I know is when Walter was going to sell his home to that squirrelly little man - it felt like death. For me, I have to keep hope that my truths can define my spaces, even if it's only for me - to do otherwise is death. And lastly, I have to allow everyone their own journey, even if I don't agree with their truths. Where can I show compassion and patience for their truths so their spaces don't become defined by mine? 

One other thing I know: This is why I write - it’s one of those spaces where I breathe best.

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Are Stories the Secret to Happiness?

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I believe that Story can be a powerful tool in our families, businesses, schools and communities - but can stories also make us happier? Researcher Matt Killingsworth recently conducted a happiness study through an app and website called trackyourhappiness.org.  The app gathered over 650,000 reports from people all over the world as it asked three questions at random times: 1. How feel you right now? 2. What are you doing? and 3. Are you thinking about something other than what you're doing? a) no b) yes, something pleasant c) yes, something unpleasant d) yes, something neutral. 

The study revealed that people who were focused on the present moment were significantly happier than those who were "mind wandering." This proved true even for people stuck in traffic! The study also revealed that we spend 47% of our lives mind wandering, most of the time on unpleasant thoughts. We are churning our lives away with worries, anxieties and regrets, but when we simply focus on the present, it's like giving our overstressed brain a rest and this simple act increases happiness. 

This got me thinking about story. It's a well documented fact that story listeners often enter what is called the story trance - a qualitatively different state of consciousness. Slack-jaw, intent eyes and slow breath all indicate someone who is being present and immersed in story. As we relax and focus, our hearts and minds become open to the powerful message of the story and maybe to happiness as well.

So pull up a chair, turn off the regrets of the past and the fears of the future, take a deep breath and be present with story - listen, read, write or watch. You'll learn, you'll laugh, you'll energize new ideas... and perhaps you just might find a little happiness too. 

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*Repurposed from the 2013 Welcome Message at the Timpanogos Storytelling Conference.

 

Reflections on the Boston Marathon Bombing

Whenever I hear about horrific events like the bombing that took place this week in Boston, I always think, “Someone’s been listening to the wrong stories.” 

We’ve all wondered what kind of thinking would lead to such a dire choice. Peter Coleman, psychologist and author of The Five Percent: Finding Solutions to Seemingly Impossible Conflicts, offers some insights. He says “In almost all difficult conflicts, people’s way of thinking and feeling can freeze into something like this: ‘We’re all good and they’re evil.’ This creates a huge wall between people that acts to fortify their hate.” 

Those who are frozen, operate in a feedback loop where they only listen to stories that feed their good/evil viewpoint. These stories can escalate feelings until people feel justified in committing atrocities in the name of fighting evil. Whether a terrorist group or a disgruntled individual the process is the same.

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Mirrors or Windows

We all participate in this feedback loop on some level. Think about your views on a  political issue or candidate or a person with whom you’ve had a long-standing grudge. What kind of stories do you tell yourself or listen to? When you look at them are you looking at a mirror or a window? Even if your worst atrocity is to slaughter civility, I think the cost is worth looking at. 

 

 

The Stolen Ax

An old Taoist parable tells of a woodcutter who cannot find his ax. He was beside himself when he noticed the neighbor’s son standing near the woodshed. He thought,

“Look how shifty he looks. I’m always a good judge of character and I can plainly see he’s guilty.” 

Although he could not prove it, the woodcutter vowed revenge on the boy. The next day, the woodcutter found his ax lying by a pile of wood, right where he had left it. The next time he saw the boy, he thought,

“That’s funny, somehow the boy has lost his guilty look.”

Cracks in the Wall

Fortunately, this week has also shown us that light always follows dark. When negative stories create chaos, a vacuum forms that fills with positive stories. It only took moments to hear of people stepping in to rescue and sacrifice; culminating in a whole city opening its doors to anyone in need. These are the stories I believe in. 

Dr. Coleman says that cracks can begin in even the most intractable wall of hate and fear. They are caused by people who are willing to sneak over the wall and share new stories - stories from diverse voices - stories that remind us of our shared humanity. I believe this is one of the bravest things a person can do.

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Safe Places

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If you were asked what’s the most important aesthetic about creating Theatre for Young Audiences (TYA), what would your answer be? A week ago I pondered that during a group discussion at the Write Now Conference led by Jason Loewith, former director of the National New Play Network. The room was filled with TYA playwrights, directors, artistic directors and professors from across the nation. I heard a lot of great answers:  theatre should challenge ideas, inspire conversations, illuminate diverse voices, and provide hope. I listened for a long time, until my own answer synthesized...

I believe that theatre for young audiences should provide a safe place to explore a scary world.

It’s not a be-all, end-all answer, but it was the one that resonated with me the deepest. I’ve decided the same holds true for all story and it’s one of the reasons I love story so much. It creates a space for us to rattle around in someone else’s skin, try new ideas on for size and risk making mistakes - all from the safe distance of our comfortable chairs. 

That doesn’t mean that story can’t be uncomfortable or painful even. El Gallo’s line from the play The Fantastiks illuminates part of a playwright or storyteller’s job: 

“Who understands why spring is born out of winter's laboring pain? 

Or why we all must die a bit before we grow again? 

I do not know the answer, I merely know it's true  

I hurt them for that reason. And myself a little bit, too.

But no matter where the journey leads, the story always leads us home again. I hope this blog will also provide a similar safe place, where story and the human experience can be explored in all its complexity.