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Bess Rowen Headshot

Once Upon a Storyteller

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What do a man talking about Apple products, a one-minute play festival, and a woman in a sparkly cape have in common? At first glance, the answer is that they happen to coexist on this week's page in my calendar. I, the ever-roving spectator, have connected these three pieces of theatre by my very presence. Yet the more I thought about The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs, The Fifth Annual New York One-Minute Play Festival, and Dreams of the Clockmaker, I realized that they are actually more closely related than you might think. Each one of these pieces of theatre makes me appreciate the art of storytelling, and consider some of the places we find it in theatrical productions today.

We live in a culture surrounded and perpetuated by stories. Some are short, like a Facebook status or tweet, and some are long, like a blog post, newspaper article, or movie. When we watch TV or movies, the people speaking directly are rarely the ones telling us the story. In other words, the director, or cinematographer is the one controlling what you see and hear of the performances that are happening in the space. This is normal for us, and we are quite used to it.

I don't know about you, but the term "story" for me is also associated with the term "bedtime story." I picture the cover of Maurice Sendak's Where the Wild Things Are or the Disney version of a fairytale. Young children are some of the most honest audience members around. Telling them a story requires keeping their attention, and they are not afraid to let you know if something isn't holding their interest. The squirming, the sighing, and the interruptions are all reactions that we learn to control as we become socialized.

Now let's fast-forward about twenty years. I am in a theatre looking at one man sitting on stage with just a glass of water, a handkerchief, and a lean stack of notes. He might be in a theatre, but this man is not an actor. He's a storyteller. I can tell immediately, and though his tale is interesting, I am far more interested in his method. Mike Daisey's ability to hold my attention for the entirety of a two hour monologue is impressive. His story about Apple and Steve Jobs goes from the personal to the global as he relates to the audience and engages our imaginations. He literally leads us in a mind exercise at some point, where his experience is imaginatively transcribed into my own. Whether you like what he's saying or not, you have to appreciate Daisey for the amazing performer he is.

A few days later, this experience is fresh in my head as I go to see the Fifth Annual New York One-Minute Play Festival. After seeing 77 plays performed by about 60 actors, I am overwhelmed in the best of ways. The rapid-fire delivery system of the works was like seeing a theatrical sampler of writing and performance styles. What shocks me most is how much I learned in one minute. In just a few lines I find that I can often tell time period, place, relationship and conflict, as well as the occasional resolution, punchline, and alternate reality. In this form, perhaps the polar opposite of a long monologue, the stories were beautifully complete and complex in different ways. Whereas Daisey has taken one story and fully fleshed it out, these playwrights have given me a streamlined story where each word and movement must serve multiple functions.

With these two very different performances in my head, I journey on to Dreams of the Clockmaker, a one-woman show performed by Jillaine Gill. As Gill brings us into her world of mysterious vials and a masked character known as "the clockmaker," her words are what make the pictures clear and crisp. I see what she describes, my brain making the leap from aural to visual as I listen and watch her speak. Gill is a very different storyteller than Daisey in the fact that Gill is explicitly an actor. She is playing a part, leading us into a fantastical world in which she plays all of the different characters. Yet she and Daisey both rely on their ability to create a dramatic arc to the words that they are conveying.

In a way, Gill is the perfect ending to the trilogy of storytelling I experienced this week. I began with Daisey, one man weaving together true stories from the world and his life. I then moved to a one minute play festival, a series of playwrights working under very specific time constraints which they must overcome in order to communicate; and I end with Gill, one woman trying telling us a different kind of bedtime story as she performs parts of it herself. I look down at my calendar and see the ways in which these three stories can talk to one another through their connection: my imagination. There is something primitively human in listening and watching as a story unfolds, and if you are lucky enough to be in the presence of someone who is truly talented in this regard, allow yourself to imaginatively engage and enjoy the experience.