Reflections on a storytelling lab in the Costa Rican jungle.
I’m home, back in the country where since I left, the forest behind my house has exploded in the hopeful green of spring. I might be back in a familiar place, but I am looking at it through new, widened eyes. As I hoped when I wrote my application in a frantic rush, too close to the deadline, my horizons have been expanded. In a very physical sense, watching lightning flash through a lilac sky, while the Pacific threw itself at volcanic sand I walked on, I saw a horizon I had never seen before. In an intellectual, emotional and personal sense, I have met 21 people who have introduced me to their worlds, welcomed me, and shared the possibilities that exist there.
On the way home, just after take off from Newark, I became aware of a cloud, perhaps twenty miles to the north. The sun was slipping over the horizon behind us. The seat I had swapped with a woman so she could sit next to her husband happened to be on an empty row. I moved toward the window and peered out at a long, blue cloud. The cloud seemed to be heading towards New York, where I knew new friends would be settling back into their lives and their rhythms. Suddenly a light flashed on in the cloud, as if someone carrying a torch had tripped, and sent the beam over their head. Then came another flash. Over the next few minutes lightning flashes lit up different portions of cloud, and a one point a great fork of lightning cracked from top to bottom, splitting the inky blue.
A gentleman joined me at the end of the row, we had a polite conversation about Scotland, about upstate New York where he lived with his Scottish wife of 52 years. I kept turning back to the storm, and he kept asking me questions. I said: ‘Watch that cloud, there’s a thunder and lightning storm right there.’ He looked out. ‘I can’t see anything’ he said. I persisted, mentioning each flash but he could not see what I could see.
I’m sure it was good luck, or good eyesight, but it did occur to me that perhaps the three days I had spent with some of the most interesting minds from across the world, had shifted my outlook. Was the thunderstorm even there, or was it my imagination that constructed these electric currents fighting a vicious war with one another in a cloud?
Imagination was not something that was in short supply over course of the weekend in Costa Rica, where game makers, producers, directors, writers and theatre makers came together with one thing in common. We all tell stories.
To give too much away about the content of the weekend would be unfair, both the participants in the future of Forward/Story but also to the temporary diaspora of storytellers that was built on trust. To try to explain some of what passed, I’ll talk about some of the words that seem to keep appearing in the river of thoughts that has engulfed me since my return.
Storytellers have empathy. That’s not a new piece of knowledge, but one that was planted when Iain Banks said it at a guest lecture at my university over a decade ago. The importance of empathy however, has been teased out, confirmed, tested, engaged and played with and is now a supple organism and something much more part of my everyday. Designer Fan Sissoko mentioned it in her work as a designer reconsidering how local authorities might restructure their services and how important it is to listen to the people for whom the services are being designed. The empathy with which each participant listened to one another’s talks and ideas helped to foster an environment of cross-fertilisation, which I am sure will see many new projects arise as a joint effort between people who met in the Costa Rican jungle.
Without exception, each member of the group who came together at Playa Guiones, was brave. There’s the act of boarding a plane to a destination that you are not quite sure of, in a tropical, Central American county. (Fortune favoured us: the location was nothing short of glorious – The Harmony Hotel and Sunset Shack)
But more importantly, each person’s own work requires bravery. If not shouting out for an idea sidelined by the mainstream, then working with technology so new, it doesn’t yet have a name. Or perhaps picking a script from the slush pile and championing it until it becomes a classic, still talked about two decades after it was aired. In our own ways, each member of the group is looking over the edge of a cliff, and they can’t see what is at the bottom. If we all arrived nervous at the achievements of the other participants (and they are impressive) the bravery carried us over a hurdle to the relief at the other side. One of the revelations many of us felt was just that: here we are out on a promontory, but look over there, there’s another promontory, and someone else looking over the edge, and oh look it’s Rosie! Now we know who the others are, and even though we are on promontories, we’re all within reach, digitally or otherwise.
I came home with a pocket in my bag carefully zipped, enclosing gifts. A book of poems, torn and tattered, a crouching Buddha, and a book. These gifts were the material manifestations of a generosity of spirit that encircled the weekend. There were many more gifts, fine bourbon and rum, and countless thoughts, ideas, and games. While I treasure the material gifts, made more precious by their stories, it is the unfinished conversations, the outpouring of images, thoughts and the continuity of the sharing across multiple digital platforms that is the biggest gift. There’s this global family, or tribe, that I now feel part of, that keeps pushing my brain in a different directions. One of the articles shared on one of these platforms, by Lee-Sean ‘Why Do We Experience Awe?’, suggests that those more regularly exposed to awe are more generous. The awe inspired by the howler monkeys and the Pacific sunset helped to inspire generosity of course, but it felt like a very intentional part of the experience of Forward/Story as constructed by Lance Weiler and Christy Dena.
Living in the Highlands of Scotland, you forgo large-scale cultural happenings and cultural centres for the dramatic landscape and the space. My experience of Forward/Story has opened up a whole world of knowledge, ideas and thinking, without the need for a big library. It gets delivered straight to my phone via a hashtag.
Since I came home ideas are pouring out of me, no back of an envelope is safe from a project idea, a short story or a doodle. This piece was begun on a word document soon crowded with the idea for a story, a business model and a reflection on hope.
Some years ago, a friend, (the immensely talented musician Kim Moore) took part in a theatre adaptation of Takeshi Kitano’s film, Dolls. I recall Carrie Cracknell’s director’s note [i] talking about emotional technicolour and how she wanted to maintain that state. This came to mind when at Forward/Story Rosie Poebright talked about Abraham Maslow’s concept of peak experience. On Sunday evening we stuffed post it notes with our hopes of what to take away from Forward/Story into a glass bottle. Sergio from Sunset Shack surfed out into the Pacific with the bottle and sent it on its way. On my note I wished for maintaining ‘peak experience’ or the state of thinking and inspiration that had germinated in the tropical heat. Peak experience is described as “rare, exciting, oceanic, deeply moving, exhilarating, elevating experiences that generate an advanced form of perceiving reality, and are even mystic and magical in their effect upon the experimenter.” So far, so good.
A delightfully ungoogleable term introduced by Claire Marshall has come close to becoming the motto on my not-yet-designed coat of arms. It is knowing when to ride the wave and when to let the wave wash over you. (Marc Ruppel and I giggled at the profundity of Steve LaRue’s surfing advice to Jamie King on the beach on Monday morning after Forward/Story).
It’s the balance between The Plan and The No-Plan Plan. (See Simon Staffan’s blog on the subject) For me it is making sure I have time to explore, play and be surprised. It’s also about making time to write. It’s probably what meant five of us could meet up in Bristol three weeks after the residency for more idea sharing and discussion, and it is what makes me sure I will be drawing on the wisdom, bravery and generosity of the rest of the tribe for many years to come.
For more information about the people mentioned in this blog visit http://www.forwardslashstory.com/storytellers/2015-participants/
[i] Read an interview with Carrie Cracknell, director of Dolls, here http://www.nationaltheatrescotland.com/content/default.asp?page=s482
Tags: storytelling costa rica