What Is "Theatre Of You"?

It can be hard to imagine this if you haven’t witnessed it yourself – but something remarkable happens when a real-life story – even a mild story – is enacted in front of an audience.

The person who provided the story gets to “see” it from outside, as it were – which can help their storytelling immensely. Additionally, if the story is about their own life, that person tends to feel very “seen”.

The people who enact the story get a powerful insight into what it conveys, and may also sense themselves privileged to have been part of telling someone else’s story.

And the rest of the audience tends to feel moved.

Results aren’t guaranteed, etc etc, but this has been my experience.

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Watch This Video:

2 mins 15 secs

This weekend, I’ll be running a live, improvisational workshop at the EA Festival (twice, in fact). It depends entirely on audience participation.

This post is for people who can’t be there, but would have joined in if they could.

I’ll be posting about it in my Telegram group, Tell Moving Stories.

***

The first time I saw this kind of story performance done was when I was training with Keith Johnstone. Towards the end of the first week, he suggested we play scenes from a show he devised with Phelim McDermott, called The Life Game.

That show was a massive success, and toured all over the place. It was different every night, because the stories were provided by members of that particular audience.

Mind you, it wasn’t put together entirely without a plan. A number of different scenarios might be used on any given night, or left out. One such scenario tended to be used towards the start, after a member of the audience had volunteered to provide the evening’s real life story.

After a little preamble that person might soon be asked to describe a typical breakfast in their childhood.

“Well, my dad always sat at the head of the table,” they might say. And a table would be placed on stage, with a performer at the end to play dad.

“And my sister would never eat her toast”, the Real-Life Person (RLP) might add – and another performer would be enlisted to play the young female toast-refusenik.

Life Game | Theatre of You Breakfast.jpg
I drew this at the time, as a way to remember what Keith was teaching us.

The scene would be played out a few times, as the RLP gradually adjusted the performance (“Actually, my dad had a Glaswegian accent,” he or she might say. Or, “He used to read The Daily Telegraph.”)

I found it thrilling to watch, even if nothing particularly remarkable happened.

It was intimate, touching.

***

Later that week, Keith asked for two volunteers to demonstrate one of the other scenarios. I leaped up, and so did Steve Chapman. Keith set the scene: “You’re sitting on a bench,” he said to me. “And he [Steve] comes and sits beside you.”

To be clear, I was the Real-Life Person in this case. All I had to do was be me: my actual self. Steve was to play a different version of me, Keith explained: me, aged 20. “He wants to know how his life is going to work out.”

We tried it. I sat on the bench. Steve came on and sat beside me. “Hello,” he said. “I’m a younger version of you. I’m you when you were 20.”

Keith interrupted, said we didn’t need to explain anything, just start the scene as if we know that already.

Steve started again: “Would you mind telling me something…?”

I said I’d be happy to answer his questions.

“I’ve always wanted to be a writer. Will I make it? Will I ever write anything?”

Having nothing to do but be myself, it was a simple matter to assure him that he would write – he’d write for newspapers and magazines, get some amazing assignments, and he would write books too.

“More than one book!” Steve looked thrilled. I felt strangely dissociated. I’d forgotten what a thrill that might once have been to me.

Steve went on, asking whether he – I – would ever meet anybody, have children and so on. Again, I was able to answer honestly, found myself telling him that he would soon meet the woman he would marry; and that having a daughter was going to be quite an extraordinary, wonderful thing.

At around this point, I remember feeling overcome with embarrassment. How self-indulgent!, I thought. The audience must hate it. Or just feel bored. But when it was over, I walked off stage past a woman with tears in her eyes. She said it was really moving. I believed her, but at the time I couldn’t understand it. Only now, having subsequently seen others performing something like what I did, do I understand.

***

I shouldn’t really have been surprised. After all, I had spent years writing up stories provided to me by people I interviewed for newspapers and magazines.

Stories about famous people and stories about so-called ordinary people (who never are ordinary). Many of those stories I had then written up in the first person – as a kind of ghost-writer – using only the words provided to me by the interviewee.

So I knew well how powerful other people’s stories can be, and I had a reasonable capacity to extract those stories.

A Simple Idea

Boal sketch by, you guessed it, me.

Somebody who would have understood is Agusto Boal. He used theatre techniques to spread news and political ideas among marginalised people in his native Brazil. He went on to write a book about his work, Theatre Of The Oppressed, describing many of the scenarios and practices he used.

Often, they were as simple as enacting something that actually happened, as described by members of the audiences. Then doing it again, only with a few changes suggested by the audience, because Boal wasn’t interested in telling people what to do or think. As a result of this distributed exercise in theatre direction, participants were liberated to see that alternative outcomes were possible – a revolutionary achievement.

Building up to that kind of richly creative outcome, Boal might start with smaller performances that hardly seemed to be performances at all.

For instance, he might ask people to read aloud a story from a newspaper. (Itself a tremendous revelation to some audiences, who might not have been able to read.)

Then ask someone else to read the same news story as reported by a different newspaper.

Then blend the two accounts, with each reader taking turns to supply a sentence from their own newspaper.

The effect could be transformational. Suddenly, listeners would understand something profound about point of view, and about the contingent nature of truth.

It amazes me that people like Johnstone and Boal aren’t household names. But hey – that’s not why I’m writing this.

***

During the first lockdown, I did a month-long “online pilgrimage” with friends. We gathered on Zoom, and then “walked” from London to Canterbury on Google Street View. Every weekday, that April, I clicked painstakingly down every road, so that it felt as if we really were doing the journey in more-or-less real time.

As we walked, we told stories.

I mention this because on Day 3, or maybe Day 4, we walked through Westminster and past the gates to 10 Downing Street. I used the opportunity to share a story from my own life. But I didn’t want to tell it myself – I get a bit sick of that. So I asked one of my walking companions, David Hutchinson, to tell the story on my behalf.

If you like what you’ve read so far, you may want to watch David reading my story. It’s here:

6 mins 31 secs


Follow Along

As mentioned above, I’m running two Theatre of You sessions at the EA Festival this weekend. I’ll be sharing more about the whole process in my Telegram group, Tell Moving Stories: https://t.me/tellmovingstories

It’s free to join, and (obviously) you can leave any time.

I’ll post more of that story I told in the first video, about that burglary (above, near the top of the page, if you missed it). As well as the burglar’s story I’ll include an account from the person who lived in that house:

I do a lot of my work from my house in Islington, where I live with my wife and my daughter. I was there at about 5.15 in the afternoon, getting my gym stuff together, when I saw a guy standing in the corridor on the top floor and thought: “Oh, Christ.”

When I challenged him, he told me he’d heard a noise and come to investigate. He said he was a neighbour. I asked where he lived, and he said: “Number 2.” So I asked where that was – and he pointed the wrong way.

To find out what happened next, join the Telegram group!
https://t.me/tellmovingstories