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Tuesday, 2 July 2019

Mechanisms for Storytelling

This month I’m taking the Inspiration Exchange to Derby, to be part of the brilliant Departure Lounge, in the pretty amazing looking S.H.E.D. I’m already thinking about what stories I might select to tell on the day, and looking forward to discovering what stories I will be told in return. One of the things I love about Inspiration Exchange is that usually people do not know what story they are going to tell in advance. They choose in the moment, and often I have the privilege of watching people remember the story as they tell it.

[If you’re coming to Departure Lounge, you can book a slot for Inspiration Exchange, or just drop in on the day – details here, and, er, later in this blogpost.]

Last week I was lucky enough to attend the third annual conference of the Memory Studies Association in Madrid, through my role at Leeds Beckett University. The conference was probably the biggest I’ve been to, with over 1,500 delegates – demonstrating how interest in the field of Memory Studies has grown massively in recent years.

I was there to run a workshop that I called Mechanisms For Remembering, as part of the Performance & Memory Working Group, and to attend other panels and sessions. It was really interesting to be at a conference that was not primarily concerned with performance, and I got to hear papers about research into how memory works for live translators, how humans ‘attach’ memories to objects and the distinctions between individual and societal memory and the political implications of this – which inevitably made me think about what The Department of Distractions are up to. 

Of course there was a lot about story-telling, too. Indeed, the overriding thought I came away with was about how human beings/societies spend a lot of time, energy and intellect just trying to understand what we have done/built… but our knowledge of what we’ve done - the civilisations and societies and cultures we have constructed – our knowledge is all from imperfect and contradictory memories. Which might make it sound like the conference was rather bleak, but it didn’t feel like it. It was a few days of really interesting conversations and connections. 

In my workshop I ran two exercises that might be familiar to you if you’ve been taught by Rachael or I over the last few years: ‘Eyes-closed Room Drawing’ which we developed to make both Senseless and Where From Here, and ‘The Chapters Game’ which was the main making-engine for The Lad Lit Project. Sometimes it feels like you have exactly the right people in a workshop and this was one of those occasions – with everyone picking up the prompts of the exercises in their own way and the conversations flowing. 

Whilst running the session, I was reminded how creating workshop exercises is very similar to devising and creating shows. Through repeated delivery of exercises/games, I find that I hone the way I phrase the instructions, refine what order to give the participants the information they need, at what point I hand the game over to them. Many exercises have specific phrases I always use, or stories that always accompany them, as I have discovered that these help people to understand the invitation of the game – or where the material it generates might go in terms of telling a story or making a show. 

In Third Angel’s interactive/conversational work, the distinction between performance or workshop exercise can often feel blurred. This is partly because when we’re making a new show we will often come up with new games to help us generate stories/material for it – and then we take those exercises out of the rehearsal room and into public contexts. I’ve said/written before that in these projects what we’re usually trying to find is a mechanism that will allow people (participants and/or performers) to discover that there is a story they would like to tell, in that moment. These devising exercises aim to give people prompts to remember a story that they want to tell, and then to give them a format to fit the story into (if they like): following the rules of the game, telling the story in a prescribed way - just answering the question - takes the pressure off having to ‘make it good’ or ‘interesting’. And, apart from the very rare exception, people always find that they do have (at least one) interesting story to tell.

Inspiration Exchange worked the opposite way round. It was originally devised as a workshop exercise for a Café Scientifique event about where ideas come from. The brief was to come up with an activity that people could drop in on, rather than having to attend an hour long session. Since that first incarnation, different versions of the Inspiration Exchange have been presented across the UK and internationally – usually as a show, but sometimes as a sharing mechanism for artists/companies. But the essential exchange is always the same. We have a collection of story titles – stories of things, people, ideas, events, that have inspired someone. You choose a story title that you like the sound of, and then after hearing it, you offer a story back to the Exchange to swap in.

As mentioned earlier, and in keeping with the evolving nature of the project, we’re varying the format slightly at Departure Lounge. Firstly the Exchange will be part of the programme in The S.H.E.D. – an innovative new multi-purpose mobile arts and performance space led by our friend and collaborator Rhiannon Jones of In Dialogue. (The S.H.E.D. will also host Jake Bowen’s remarkable Plea Bargain the next day – a must see).

Secondly, you can book a slot in to Inspiration Exchange in advance. The show is free to Festival-pass-holders, and you can book in to a particular half hour slot when you get your pass, or you can just drop in on the day. Hopefully this will even the audience out across the duration of the Exchange (sometimes the first hour can be a bit quiet). If you’re going to be at Departure Lounge, I hope you can drop in.

**

Thanks to Kirsty Surgey for letting me photograph her room drawing.

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