Young Jean Lee has said that she’s constantly experimenting with form to find the best way to attack her questions and anxieties about life. So it makes sense that to explore the thorny subjects of death, dying, and loss, she’d wrap her message in a series of seemingly ordinary stories. Storytelling and daydreams aren’t mere escapism — science backs up that the human brain is designed to lock into focus when listening to or watching a story and to engage in the action, even though we know a story is fiction. This is why we jump out of our seats watching a horror film or feel our pulses race along with the action when we watch an andrenaline-pumping scene in a film like Mad Max.
When you watch the hulk get angry, your subconscious gets angry, too. Science says so.
Jonathan Gotschall, author of The Storytelling Animal: How Stories Make us Human, shares some of the science and psychology behind why stories hold us in their grip in this two-part series of articles. The first article, “The Science of Storytelling,” looks at how the brain chemistry changes when we listen a story, and the second, “Infecting An Audience,” examines how stories are used to convey important cultural messages and values.
Humans live in a storm of stories. We live in stories all day long, and dream in stories all night long. We communicate through stories and learn from them. We collapse gratefully into stories after a long day at work. Without personal life stories to organize our experience, our own lives would lack coherence and meaning. Homo sapiens (wise man) is a pretty good definition for our species. But Homo fictus (fiction man) would be about as accurate. Man is the storytelling animal. — Jonathan Gottschall
Legend has it that Ernest Hemingway once crushed his friends in the literary equivalent of an arm-wrestling contest by writing this gut-punching six-word story on a napkin: “For sale: baby shoes, never worn.”
Well, WE’RE GONNA DIE has a six-word story to rival Hemingway’s:
“Horrible things happen all the time.”
Photo credit: Steve Sarro.
Last week, Obehi and I sat down to talk about storytelling, WGD, and the Boston scene. Comedy has a particular connection to WGD: in addition to being an actress and playwright, Obehi is also a comedian, and music director Steve and drummer Ethan are both involved with Improv Boston. Obehi reflected on the comedy scene in Boston:
“You name any comedian right now and they were here at one point. Boston is more like a training ground or an incubator, and I don’t think that’s a bad thing. I love the fact that the comedy scene in Boston is literally about, “Try out your jokes here.”
We’ve also discussed the style of local comedian Mike Birbiglia, a favorite of both Obehi and Connectivity Managar Jessie. Birbiglia is a Massachusetts native who honed his craft in Boston before rising to fame. His long-form, rambling storytelling style is similar to the style of WGD, where the stories often meander to an unexpectedly tragic conclusion or promise a punchline that never comes as the story turns bittersweet. With his awkward delivery and self-conscious demeanor, Birbiglia could fit right as the singer in WGD.
As rehearsals have progressed, the company has come back over and over again to the question of why these stories work. Common themes we’ve discovered have been truth and authenticity. Because we assume the singer’s stories are true, we are able to empathize with her. When considering the story of the singer’s friend who endures a marital night from hell that ends in an injury that could have come from Greek tragedy, our director Shawn commented, “The worst thing that could happen is going to occur in someone else’s story, if not your own.”
This idea of truth as a comfort is what the storytelling movements of the twenty-first century are based upon. The Moth, a non-profit organization dedicated to the craft of storytelling, has become one of the most popular examples of this idea. Their motto is “True stories told live,” and hundreds of people have participated in their events, from professional raconteurs to high school students. Moth stories are heard live in sold-out events in New York and LA, one the road in the Moth’s tour, and on the radio via podcasts and broadcasts. Moth creator George Dawes Green is himself a poet and storyteller. He created the Moth in 1997, inspired by memories of sitting around his friend’s porch on drunken, balmly Georgia nights swapping stories while moths flitted around the screen doors. And despite his successful literary career, Reeves has said the best part about telling the story of the journey from moths to The Moth, is that he gets to mention his friend Wanda, who owned the porch and who passed away at a young age. The heart of the story is his connection to another person.
The Moth has incorporated the impact of truthful human connection into its mission: “Moth shows are renowned for the great range of human experience they showcase. Each show starts with a theme, and the storytellers explore it, often in unexpected ways. Since each story is true and every voice authentic, the shows dance between documentary and theater, creating a unique, intimate, and often enlightening experience for the audience” (from The Moth website).
Our singer Obehi passed on this great article from Dan Kennedy, The Moth’s podcast host, about how to sharpen your storytelling skills. The nine “rules” are simple; my favorite is the first rule — make sure your story is a story: that it has a beginning, middle, and an end.
Want a sneak peek? Hear Obehi tell a story, and get excited to hear her tell more and rock out during WE’RE GONNA DIE!
The mission of Young Jean Lee’s Theater Company — which originally created and produced WE’RE GONNA DIE — is “to produce the work of Young Jean Lee,” and the mission of the work of Young Jean Lee is to destroy the audience.
Young Jean Lee in WE’RE GONNA DIE
Described as “the most adventurous downtown [New York] playwright,” Lee roots her playwriting process in fear, starting with the story she thinks she is least allowed to tell or the one that scares her the most. She says:
“When starting a play, I ask myself, ‘What’s the last show in the world I would ever want to make?’ Then I force myself to make it. I do this because going out of my comfort zone compels me to challenge my assumptions and find value in unexpected places. Our goal is to find ways to get past our audience’s defenses against uncomfortable subjects and open people up to confronting difficult questions by keeping them disoriented and laughing. My work is about struggling to achieve something in the face of failure, incompetence and not-knowing. The discomfort and discovery involved in watching this struggle reflects the truth of my experience.”
Because of this fluid aesthetic, a Young Jean Lee play looks different once piece to the next. She’s tackled the Korean-American experience in SONGS OF THE DRAGONS FLYING TO HEAVEN (Lee herself is Korean-American); she’s written King Lear totally out of King Lear in LEAR; explored black identity politics in THE SHIPMENT by merging vignettes that are uncomfortably close to a minstrel show into an absurd drawing room comedy; turned the trappings of female submissiveness into empowerment by stripping performers of clothes (and dialogue) via dance in an UNTITLED FEMINIST SHOW; and went inside the pysches of straight white men in a play appropriately titled STRAIGHT WHITE MEN.
Lee created WE’RE GONNA DIE, a theatrical memento mori wrapped in self-conscious cabaret and pop music, to overturn the universal human desire to be special. Her goal was to create a piece that any ordinary person could perform, and to back up her point, Lee herself took the stage in the original production. The idea of WGD is not to affirm the talent and special performance abilities of a singular star but to create a connection among the audience by creating space for honesty and vulnerability. The stories in WGD could happen to anyone. Assuming we’re special protects us from tragedy — or so we think. Lee turns this assumption on its head.
Not being special is both a comfort and, in the world of WGD, a death sentence. Yet everybody dies, and this fact connects us to every other human being on the planet. So we truly aren’t alone.
STRAIGHT WHITE MEN
UNTITLED FEMINIST SHOW