Tell Me a Story

When I started to write plays I was taught about characters having objectives, journeys, barriers, needs and wants in order to create drama on stage. Apply action verbs to define what is happening on every line. All too often this leads to shallow characters doing vacuous things. Where’s the story, I would ask myself. Where is the beauty?

Stories create an insight into a world that we might be unfamiliar with. They don’t necessarily give us a beginning nor an end, just a middle. Sometimes just a snapshot. We wonder about who the characters are, what happens to them afterwards. The greatest stories live inside us long after we have finished them.

I’m certainly not talking about adaptations of novels here; these are generally awful. Theatre cannot create the inner lives nor the broader world of the book. I suspect most book adaptations are produced for marketing purposes; a well known story draws in the audiences. But what theatre seems well suited for is giving us an insight into a theme – personal or political – through storytelling.

So what is it about stories that appeals?

Your Best Guess from Chris Thorpe and Jorge Andrade (HOME, June 18) weaves together a number of different stories into a single theme of unrealised futures. Andrade tells a magnificent story about a town that is rebuilt as an exact replica in the next valley to make way for a dam, but the project is never completed and residents have to live with the fact that there is a parallel universe two miles away that unsettles them. It is the supernatural and the unknown that works, told in the third person to create a sense of myth.

Of all storytelling, I love Latin American best. There is a fatalism, a sense of the magical, and an empathy with the wider environment that resonates. One of the most memorable performances for me this year was Love of the Fireflies (HOME, April 18) which sees a young woman search for her identity across Norway, Mexico and Guatemala. The play is simply structured, the girl telling her story whilst the various characters from her story enter and leave as if in her mind. These characters are there to move her story along, rarely creating conflict. Yet the story is so compelling, so vivid, so beautifully presented, that we cannot help but be drawn in.

One of the most innovative storytellers in Manchester now is Elmi Ali. His performance Water Seeds Not Stones (Contact, Nov 17 – review here) looks at Manchester street traders but opens out to the entire world. When I reviewed this I said At the root of this performance is a pure joy in what language is able to do.  An understanding that the right words presented in an engaging way can communicate the most complex ideas.  That the right words do not need to spell out the message, but can plant seeds in the minds of the audience. 

Or Keisha Thompson’s brilliant Man on the Moon (Contact, Nov 17 – review here) effectively a short story that has been developed into a theatre show. There is so much I love about this show, the treatment of names and numerology, the love of words and books, the moving moments of observation offering an insight into how people from different backgrounds are perceived, no more so than the passage where Keisha recounts her thoughts sitting on a Manchester bus in the rain.

Recently I went to a storytelling night at an Amsterdam cafe called Mezrab (April 18). What linked the speakers was an ability to perform their story, to bring it to life in a way that drew us into the heart of the characters and the places they describe. There was a particularly memorable story about a San Francisco woman who enters a Buddhist retreat on the spur of the moment. For me, it was the fine observation, the unusual aspects of the character, and the surreal set up that drew me in.

The Real Story: In the Half Light (Kings Arms, May 18) featured five excellent spoken word performers looking at what happens in the place between light and dark. For me the highlight was May-Lan Tan performing Trajectory, the words of her short story recorded and played over the speakers whilst she stood front pulling cassette tape as if it were playing. Not only a fascinating story but an effective piece of performance art.

And what about Simon Stephens’ Seawall. I was fortunate to hear him read this at Stockport Garrick last summer, and I’d like to hear Andrew Scott perform at the Old Vic. It is a powerful, moving and ultimately devastating thirty minute monologue which Simon performed sitting down. But isn’t this just a short story to be read out? Why is this theatre?

Why indeed? How have we reached a point where theatre for many people is about conflict on stage? What is wrong with theatre being a fascinating, well performed story? A story can be read on a bare stage or in a cafe or a bar. Several stories can be woven together to create a theme, a compelling piece of theatre. Stories can be presented as performance art, or complex designs with stages full of props to illustrate the environment, with sound, lights and music.

What I think unites all of the performances I have discussed above is that the fourth wall barely exists. True, there is very little audience interaction in any of these pieces. But very often the lights are shared between the audience and the performers, and the audience are somehow complicit in the stories. We are drawn into a world and we feel what the performer feels. We are ultimately an essential part of the story.

Perhaps what theatre really needs is more performers and directors who have the skill to make a well written story come to life on stage.


Theatre lover, amateur director, occasional actor, writer.

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