The Task of the Storyteller

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  • Heather Wallen

It is through telling stories that humans communicate, and problem solve. We tell stories to gain empathy, to make money, to steer one to action, to gather support, and (not nearly often enough) to teach. When I purchase a newspaper, I expect to find the facts presented without bias. When I find out that I have been misled or flat out fed false information, I feel manipulated and betrayed.

Readers have expectations, some of which writers have a responsibility to acknowledge. If one picks up a novel from the romance section, there are specific points that the story must hit on for a reader to feel as if they have indeed read a romance novel. The storyteller has a bit of flexibility, but at the heart of the story, there needs to be, well, heart. When I write a play, I know there are certain things that the audience expects, and some things that I have the power to change to convey the message that I wish to send. I have certain obligations as a storyteller that I stick to for me to feel like I have done my job.

I have written and produced two plays in the last two years, and both times, the motivation to complete the project was driven by a strong desire to send a message. I want to entertain as well as create something that gives value to the audience. I understand that some writing is ‘mindless fun,’ it’s something to pass the time or give the brain a break. Those are just not the types of stories that I usually set out to write. I like to write about morally grey areas from as many angles as I can fit in a production. I want as many characters straying from expectations just enough that they seem like they could be people you know. My favorite trope to bend and break has been that of the ‘mythical gay.’ Members of the LGBTQ+ community have often been portrayed as the best friend/makeover consultant that spouts out the best advice on love and relationships. Too often they don’t have real stories; they’re cookie cut from decades of assumption and stereotype.

When I created a bar owner named Noah, I didn’t want the actor to speak in a stereotypical way or drop fashion tips without provocation. Noah is a tattooed metal head that gives sometimes questionable advice but means well and wants his friends to be happy. His sexuality isn’t brought up in a way that feels like an afterthought or pandering. When we meet the character, he’s past his ‘coming out’ story, he’s comfortable in his skin, and it shows. His sexuality is not his defining characteristic, but one of the many things about him that helps to make him a real and well-rounded character. Not to say there isn’t a place for coming out stories or characters still exploring their identity.

There will always be a need and desire for those stories. It just shouldn’t be the only option for these characters and the actors who want to bring LGBTQ+ stories to life. When I wrote Noah, I didn’t think about making an LGBTQ+ specific statement, I wanted to make a universally human one, and he blossomed into the perfect way to tell that particular story. I had someone in mind to play him, and I based him loosely off someone else that we knew. The first time the show was performed in front of an audience, it was mentioned that Noah wasn’t a ‘Traditional’ gay character. That statement started a discussion that has blossomed into a goal of mine in my writing. Go with the assumption, and then break it to make it better. My obligation as a storyteller is to make my audience think, question, and start the conversation that leads to the next step.

Culture is created through what is displayed to people through the media bubble we are trapped in every day. After hearing and seeing things a certain way over and over the assumption is that is the way things are. Much like a stereotype, this may be a sample but not representative of our world as a whole. You are also digesting the world around you through the lens of another; you see what they are letting you see.

I understand that there are things in our society that are hard to dissect, and there are many reasons for this, that vary from topic to topic. I can say that I am writing for myself and that I write complex characters and ideas because I want to explore them. There will always be someone out there with the same questions, but they may not be able or willing to share. No one owes you their story, but that doesn’t make anything they have to say or think less valid. Though it seems like it is always up to those who tell stories to translate, to create the platform for dialogue and communication, not all of us can speak to the vast experiences of those around us. The best that we can do is be diverse, listen, and create a starting point that is open to critique and an analytical lens. Storytellers become the voice to ask the question and pose a possible answer. That does not mean that we know the answer in absolutes, or that we are always right. Only that we are trying to understand the questions needing to be asked, and we do our best to explore them.

In theater, it is commonly known that you are about to see an opinion or observation. Live theater is meant to make you react a certain way. In the shows I write, as well as the ones I enjoy by other playwrights, problems are presented in many shapes and sizes. I make observations and create many characters with varying opinions.

All of this is on display to provoke a thought process and start a dialogue. If you walk out to the lobby after a performance to discuss what was just presented to you, the show has been successful. Kickstarting the discussion, as opposed to escapism, is my primary goal. My second goal is to make sure that everyone is invited to the conversation. More diverse voices breed more diverse audiences.