Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Story Quote: Avoiding madness

We create stories to define our existence. If we do not create the stories, we probably go mad."

- Shekhar Kapur, from his TED talk, We Are The Stories We Tell Ourselves.

(c)2013 Laura S. Packer Creative Commons License

Monday, June 24, 2013

Video: Ze Frank asks us, what are we doing with each of our days.

Life visualized in jelly beans. Maybe that's why President Reagan kept them on his desk. Maybe we all need to keep some kind of reminder on our desks. In our cars. Beside the mirror.

(c)2013 Laura S. Packer Creative Commons License

Thursday, June 20, 2013

Some thoughts on tv storytelling, James Gandolfini and why we love the ordinary villain

Not so long ago (but well before the advent of Hulu, Netflix or decent content on YouTube) I was one of the people who quite proudly proclaimed, "I don't watch television." This wasn't really true. I didn't own a tv, but I'd sneak a Simpsons episode here and there, watch Star Trek at a friend's house, you know, the standard behavior of a reformed addict. But I didn't really miss it, nor did I feel a need to watch tv regularly. It wasn't well written, it wan't compelling, it didn't tell a story I found engaging.

All of that changed with The Sopranos. I missed the first season, but by the middle of the second, I found myself thoroughly enmeshed in the trials and tribulations of the Soprano family. I kept telling myself it was just another soap opera, that my addiction didn't make any sense, but what I came to realize was this: 1) it was a really well-written soap opera, 2) the acting was superb, I could believe everyone and 3) soap operas matter to us because they tell such human stories.

At its core, The Sopranos was the story of a man trying to do right by his family, do his job, find a place in his community, all while being deeply flawed. Who among us hasn't tried to do right while being deeply flawed?

After The Sopranos, television began to change. We are now in a new golden age of tv storytelling, with many shows where story and writing really matters. You may argue with me, that there was great tv before The Sopranos, that's fine. For me, that one show was the tipping point. Before there was very little I found deeply compelling, certainly nothing that didn't also include lasers, space and maybe a giant lizard or two. Now I have to choose between riches. It's as though The Sopranos helped audiences realize we could actually consume things that weren't bad for us, there was more than junk food and the occasional laser-enhanced apple. Where before the best written show I could find was Babylon 5 (which was often spectacular and, if nothing else, had great special effects), now I am offered good writing not only in sci-fi but right here on earth. Television producers have realized that good storytelling matters. That the audience's intelligence matters. That believability matters.

Which brings me to the quality of acting we now find on tv. The Sopranos raised the bar not only for writing/filming/directing, but acting. By casting James Gandolfini, Edie Falco and others, the producers were putting a stake in the ground, stating they wanted their characters to have all the visible unspoken nuances of any living person. That takes real acting chops.

James Gandolfini made Tony Soprano more than just a standard mafia don. His acting skill brought a very human complexity to the part. The writing opened the door, but his acting meant we were able to step into Tony's shoes. We could empathize with his love of eating leftovers from the fridge because of the delight on his face as he snuck that bite of lasagna. We felt his frustration with and love for his kids. Our hearts broke as he yearned to be a good husband but didn't quite know how.

None of this would have been possible without Mr. Gandolfini's skill as an actor and the opportunity he was given by such superb scripts. Just watch this clip from the very end of The Sopranos (really the end, the end of the last episode ever). Watch the play of emotions on his face as he observes everyone coming in. Watch his hope and frustration with his son. The ordinary conversation with his wife. The very mundanity of it all makes it real and makes it ours.

That we could identify so closely with Tony Soprano means we were able to have morally ambiguous feelings when he erupted into a murderous rage. We liked Tony. We understood so much about him. Did this mean we understood his dark side as well?

Ordinary villains, well-portrayed, allow us to connect to our own darker yearnings. We all have those stray uncomfortable thoughts. By empathizing with fictional characters, ordinary villains, we can live those thoughts out, just a little, without feeling too much guilt. Truly evil villains are too repugnant for most of us to want to identify with; we need to feel sympathy for the devil to get that fictional release. We all want to be bad, but we all also want to be loved. Tony Soprano let us experience that. James Gandolfini made it possible.

Since The Sopranos, there have been many other superb tv shows, well-written, well-acted, well-produced. Good storytelling, no matter the format or topic, gives us a doorway into our own lives, a chance to reflect and identify that we might not have otherwise have had. Yes, this is wildly different from live storytelling, but there is still value here that I didn't admit to before The Sopranos.

I now own a tv. I'm hooked on a couple of shows. And I'm grateful for the life and talent of people like James Gandolfini, who open that door and say, "Look. Here you are. Here we all are."

P.S. What are you watching? What do you consider good tv storytelling? I'd love to know.

(c)2013 Laura S. Packer Creative Commons License

Sunday, June 16, 2013

Happy Bloomsday, Happy Father's Day

Today has the happy coincidence of being both Bloomsday and Father's Day.

Bloomsday honors the day the novel Ulysses, by James Joyce, takes place. It celebrates the life of the author, love, literature and the potential of the written word. Ulysses is one of my desert island books and I encourage you to take a year or two to read it. Every Bloomsday I take the time to reread a random passage and Molly Bloom's soliloquy, which closes the book. I've included it below. For me it encapsulates a couple of very important things about the world. When you read it, read it aloud. It will make more sense this way. And yes, the picture is of my arm.

Today is also Father's Day, so I'd like to take a moment to honor a few fathers who matter to me.

First and foremost, my own father, Harvey Packer. My father taught me to love language and the stars, that silence is of great value, that crying at music makes sense, that the world is full of great pain and beauty. Thank you, Dad.

Second, Brother Blue. I've written about Brother Blue elsewhere. Brother Blue taught me that listening is paramount, that story matters and that kindness always, always makes a difference. Thank you, Blue. I miss you everyday.

Third, Kevin Brooks. The love of my life, the father of my step-children, the man who teaches me daily that the world is full of enormous possibility. Thank you, Kevin.

And lastly the many men who have fathered different parts of my life and the lives of those I love. Thank you for your humor, your patience, your unexpected gifts.

(c)2013 Laura S. Packer

Molly Bloom's Soliloquy

…I love flowers I’d love to have the whole place swimming in roses God of heaven there’s nothing like nature the wild mountains then the sea and the waves rushing then the beautiful country with fields of oats and wheat and all kinds of things and all the fine cattle going about that would do your heart good to see rivers and lakes and flowers all sorts of shapes and smells and colours springing up even out of the ditches primroses and violets nature it is as for them saying there’s no God I wouldn’t give a snap of my two fingers for all their learning why don’t they go and create something I often asked him atheists or whatever they call themselves go and wash the cobbles off themselves first then they go howling for the priest and they dying and why why because they’re afraid of hell on account of their bad conscience ah yes I know them well who was the first person in the universe before there was anybody that made it all who ah that they don’t know neither do I so there you are they might as well try to stop the sun from rising tomorrow the sun shines for you he said the day we were lying among the rhododendrons on Howth head in the grey tweed suit and his straw hat the day I got him to propose to me yes first I gave him the bit of seedcake out of my mouth and it was leapyear like now yes 16 years ago my God after that long kiss I near lost my breath yes he said was a flower of the mountain yes so we are flowers all a woman’s body yes that was one true thing he said in his life and the sun shines for you today yes that was why I liked him because I saw he understood or felt what a woman is and I knew I could always get round him and I gave him all the pleasure I could leading him on till he asked me to say yes and I wouldn’t answer first only looked out over the sea and the sky I was thinking of so many things he didn’t know of Mulvey and Mr Stanhope and Hester and father and old captain Groves and the sailors playing all birds fly and I say stoop and washing up dishes they called it on the pier and the sentry in front of the governors house with the thing round his white helmet poor devil half roasted and the Spanish girls laughing in their shawls and their tall combs and the auctions in the morning the Greeks and the Jews and the Arabs and the devil knows who else from all the ends of Europe and Duke street and the fowl market all clucking outside Larby Sharans and the poor donkeys slipping half asleep and the vague fellows in the cloaks asleep in the shade on the steps and the big wheels of the carts of the bulls and the old castle thousands of years old yes and those handsome Moors all in white and turbans like kings asking you to sit down in their little bit of a shop and Ronda with the old windows of the posadas glancing eyes a lattice hid for her lover to kiss the iron and the wineshops half open at night and the castanets and the night we missed the boat at Algeciras the watchman going about serene with his lamp and O that awful deepdown torrent O and the sea the sea crimson sometimes like fire and the glorious sunsets and the figtrees in the Alameda gardens yes and all the queer little streets and pink and blue and yellow houses and the rosegardens and the jessamine and geraniums and cactuses and Gibraltar as a girl where I was a Flower of the mountain yes when I put the rose in my hair like the Andalusian girls used or shall I wear a red yes and how he kissed me under the Moorish wall and I thought well as well him as another and then I asked him with my eyes to ask again yes and then he asked me would I yes to say yes my mountain flower and first I put my arms around him yes and drew him down Jo me so he could feel my breasts all perfume yes and his heart was going like mad and yes I said yes I will Yes. Creative Commons License

Sunday, June 9, 2013

Storytelling Alphabet, Q through Z.

As you know, I decided to blog a storytelling alphabet in May. I've posted summaries here (A-E), here (F-J) and here (K-P). This is the last summary. I hope you've found this useful and interesting. I'd love any feedback you'd care to share. I'm going to expand this into a book and am looking for other topics, things you'd really like to see. Thanks!

These summaries are quite short, since there are so many in this post. Please click on the links for thoughts and more information.

Q is for Quiet. Some thoughts on what we need in our creative process. I need quiet. What do you need?

R is for Research. Do your research for every story you tell. Whether fiction, fairy tale or fact, make sure the verifiable parts are fact-checked so, if you choose to deviate from the agreed-upon truth, you know what you're doing and why. A variety of good research sites are listed.

S is for Scary. Tips and tricks for telling scary stories. Make sure you find the story chilling, as well as some hints for more effective telling.

S is also for Storytelling. Some thoughts on why organizations need storytelling.

T is for Triangle. Performance storytelling is actually all about mediating a set of relationships between teller, tale and audience. An exploration of the storytelling triangle, how it works and how you can use it.

U is for Uncomfortable. Growth is uncomfortable. We need to be willing to try new, uncomfortable things to learn more about ourselves and our craft.

V is for Voice. A storyteller's voice is her instrument. Some thoughts about how to most effectively use your voice.

W is for wx5+1. A little math for story structure and development. Good stories answer who/what/where/when/why/how.

X is for X the Unknown. Every storytelling performance will have unknown elements. The weather could change, the world can change, your audience might all have food poisoning. Some thoughts on how to cope with the unknown.

Y is for Yes, and... Improv and flexibility is vitally important for every storyteller. Some thoughts on accepting all ideas and circumstances.

Z is for Zowie plus an announcement. Some thoughts on blogging the alphabet, the fun of being a storyteller and announcing the storytelling abc book.

(c) 2013 Laura Packer Creative Commons License
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