14 December 2011

The Narrative as Liberation

The Narrative as Liberation
© Rhianon Elan Gutierrez
December 14, 2011

I am a storyteller. Narrative is an essential part of my filmmaking, writing, and activism. Part of being a good storyteller is being a good listener and observer. You have to transform that which you've witnessed or experienced into something that is tangible for an audience to experience. If you write about social issues, you must be aware of what's happening in the world. You have to have a goal as to what you'll read, watch, and absorb each day. It's a big world with a lot of information. You have to know how to take it in and transform it into something that engages people. You have to know your audience. The words, images, and actions you choose are dependent upon who is experiencing your story.

Bad cop, innocent citizen. Directing an interactive theatre
workshop at the SilverLake Jubilee utilizing Augusto Boal's
Theatre of the Oppressed methodology in honor of
Voices from Chornobyl's show at the Hollywood Fringe Fest.
Photo by Cindy Marie Jenkins.

This past weekend, I attended a theatrical performance by The Global Theatre Project entitled Especially Now: Create the World Together. Italian and American actors performed the play A Stubborn Woman about slain journalist Anna Politkovskaya. The horror of the events in Chechnya that she reported was manifested in mise en scene that consisted of shades of grey, slivers of newspapers, three perfect wooden chairs, and six wine glasses. The actors used all of these to convey imprisonment, grief, abuse, and death. Their careful movements were paradoxical to the almost volcanic-like stage. The sound of wailing permeated the cold atmosphere. Tension built as the actors whistled and circled their fingers around the rim of their wine glasses to produce this wailing sound. Shades of red, orange, and yellow light appeared, but the landscape was mostly a chilly blue and grey. The three narrators delivered powerful poetic monologues in English and Italian. By the end, I had not processed all the words, but the images remained with me.

The cleaned up stage for Especially Now: Create the World
Together at the Los Angeles Theatre Center.
Photo by Rhianon Elan Gutierrez.

James Cromwell (Babe, LA Confidential) was one of the audience members. He raised his hand after the performance and shared various insights - one that struck me in particular: "The thing has been to kill the speaker of the truth to kill the truth. In the theatre, narrative is a dangerous thing." These were not his exact words, but they're pretty close. Anna was reporting real stories that exposed human rights violations in Chechnya. She was giving a voice to the oppressed. By sharing her story, the creators and performers are affirming that her work cannot be silenced even in death.

We have an epidemic in the United States. We feel that we are powerless whether we are in the heart of a crisis or far away from it. Despite having many tools, we don't know how to use them well. In a panel discussion following the play, Kalaya'an Mendoza, a field organizer for Amnesty International, stated: "We are constantly underestimating our power as citizens." He argued that we should find ways to speak up - from using theatre as a tool for transformation to writing letters and calling legislators. His most powerful assertion, however, was that it was the story of a real person experiencing real human rights violations that convinced people in positions of power to stop the atrocities that were being committed. The voices of active and concerned citizens put a human face on a statistic and a crime. The victims were freed when their stories were told and, once freed, they continued to share them to help others. It was the use of narrative that empowered these citizens and created change in their communities.

Each of us is capable of sharing our narrative, but who will listen? That's where it becomes difficult. People do not always want to hear the truth, especially a truth that devastates with its unflinching brutality. We wonder, how can human beings really be like this? We have to be brave to both tell a story and listen to it.

I believe that it takes time. Telling a story first requires patience on the part of the storyteller that the story may not be complete or what it has been dreamt up to be. This is why storytellers need an audience - not to validate their work, but to serve as figures who listen and offer support. It is the audience who will help storytellers grow. They'll make them feel angry, happy, frustrated, and relieved. The beauty of narrative is the ability to connect with another person in the deepest of human ways - sharing. When a person tells a story, s/he is setting it free. It's out in the world to be experienced.

1 comment:

  1. Teresa Blankmeyer BurkeDecember 14, 2011 at 5:55 AM

    Rhi - I love this! And let's talk narrative the next time we cross paths... I'm a big fan of using narrative to teach ethics, for many of the reasons you write about. Keep on doing good work, dear friend!