The Art Of Storytelling

Jo Randerson is the artistic director of Wellington counter-culture theatre company Barbarian Productions, which has produced works such as Brides, an installation of audience views on marriage equality, and Political Cuts, a ‘salon’ of discussion about the 2014 general election. Max Rashbrooke is a journalist and author who has written extensively on inequality and edited the top-selling book Inequality: A New Zealand Crisis. Jo and Max got together for The Generosity Journal to discuss their experiences within the delicate art and craft of storytelling.

Jo Randerson: I guess we’re both trying to tell stories about inequality, justice, those kinds of issues – but it’s not straightforward, is it?

Max Rashbrooke: Well, no. Telling stories is both at the heart of what I do – 90 percent of journalism really is just telling people’s stories – but it’s also the most challenging thing to do well. When someone is sharing their story with you, but it ends up getting used in a bigger piece of writing, it’s very easy to impose your own narrative on their story, to use it in ways that maybe they didn’t anticipate. And I think the average person, going into an encounter with a journalist, has almost no idea what’s going to happen, so there are really big ethical issues that come up around that.

JR: And are people happy to share their stories with you?

MR: Not always, no. I remember one group of people in Porirua East who said, ‘Actually, we’re a bit sick of being studied, everyone comes and asks us what’s it like living in a low-income community, and it’s a bit intrusive.’ And you can see why they would feel like that. But most of the time it’s a fascinating process, because I’m a relatively private person myself, and I’m aware of how intrusive this work is. I’m asking people very personal questions – ‘How much do you earn, how poor are you, tell me more about the terrible things that have happened to you in your life?’ So, a part of me is always surprised that people will talk to me.

But what I always have to remember, and what is deeply true, is that people can find it incredibly empowering, because very often nobody has ever asked them for their stories. And what do we have that is more important than our stories? Our stories are ourselves. So it can be really fulfilling. In a way, the interview process is me saying to these people, ‘I value your lives – and so will other people’.

The thing about the interview process, though, is that it’s not always very subtle. Whereas art has a lot more indirect ways to get people to reveal things, I think.

JR: My mum always says that, when I was a teenager, if she asked me to tell her something face-to-face, I wouldn’t answer her, but if we were driving in the car together, because we weren’t looking at each other, I would just tell her all of this stuff that was going on. In other words, an indirect way can be a really powerful way to get at what is happening with someone. And so I’m very interested in using theatrical techniques to help people reveal things without them having to feel like they are “telling a story”. It’s like a parallel path to what you’re doing in journalism, but really grounded in the arts. And it’s inspired in part by that idea that art helps you reveal the truth that you don’t know you know.

MR: Which I think is absolutely true – but how do you help people bring to the light those things that they didn’t know they knew?

JR: With something like Brides, what we did was  get people to put on a wedding dress, as a way to start to unpack what they think about marriage equality without directly asking them. A lot of it is about theatrical skills, thinking about what the visual appeal for people is going to be. Brides was set up like a gallery installation, so people would see these dresses but, hopefully, quite quickly see other people in the shop and realise it wasn’t a normal bridal shop. And their curiosity then drew them in.

It’s also about finding the right questions to ask. Partnering with ChangeMakers Refugee Forum recently, they approached us with a group of passionate young people from refugee backgrounds who wanted to do an art project. Together we figured out we wanted to ask a question that would provoke interesting, unconventional responses, and we talked a lot around what that question should be. And people talked a lot about the phrase, ‘Where do you come from?’ as a predictable and patronising question, and the group talked about alternatives, such as ‘Where would you like to be?’ But what we ended up with was, ‘What makes you happy?’ – which seems quite general and vague, but in that context was a really accessible question to ask. And it drew out some really beautiful, poetic stories of simple things like families being happy together, or ‘a smile’.

MR: So it’s about asking the right questions – but also it’s about opening up spaces where people feel comfortable saying a range of things, right?

JR: Yes – like with Political Cuts, where some of the MPs that came along to the salon said to us, ‘Thank you for having an open space – normally, all the scenarios we go into are very oppositional, it’s all, “We speak, you attack, we defend.” ’ Which is also what it’s like in Parliament. And for us, Barbarian Productions, in general we really try to ensure that we are not about opposition, we are about dialogue. What we find is that when you set up that space properly, in a way that makes it clear you want dialogue, you actually have less hostility, because you haven’t created the environment for that.

MR: I find that, too, in journalism – that if you set up the space right, in the sense of you make it clear why you want to talk to someone, you’re open and honest about the nature of the project, then it’s amazing what people will share with you.

I often go into these projects thinking, ‘Why on earth are people sharing this information?’ For Inequality, we had someone who shared her entire weekly budget with me as a way of showing that the problems people face are not because they can’t budget, it’s simply that they don’t have enough income. So we went through her whole budget, we printed it all in a book – and it’s so personal! I’m amazed by the generosity. They are making a gift of their own personal information, their deepest stories, and are sharing it with me and trusting me to accurately represent it to the world. But I guess that, as with the best relationships of any kind, it’s a gift exchange. They are gifting me their story, and in return I am giving them a voice that they wouldn’t otherwise have. And it’s that honest exchange that is at the heart of what I’m trying to do.

JR: And providing a platform for people’s expression is really exciting. I still like writing, and authoring plays in the more traditional sense – but it’s equally exciting to create platforms for other people to say something. That kind of empowerment where people tell their own stories, especially less-heard voices, is pretty exciting. Bringing people out of their normal, everyday zone, seeing people engaging with people they don’t normally engage with, that’s also a huge driver for me. When I see all of that happening together, I feel very, very happy. I’d like to keep working that way.

Image by Sam LaHood.


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