4 October 2017 •
What are stories? Ellen McDougallWe began making The Unknown Island by asking lots of questions about stories.
We talked about the way our understanding of the world, and ourselves, is shaped by stories: news stories - history - even scientific fact is shaped by the context and frame in which it is presented. So perhaps one answer is that stories shape who we are, or how we see ourselves.
We went back a step further to ask - what is a story? A way of shaping the chaos of experience into a more ordered shape? A way of understanding the world? What are the shapes of stories and what can that tell us about ourselves?
We looked at 3 and 5 act structures, and at the basic rules and mechanics of how stories work. A brief - anecdotal - summary suggests a basic story consists of a singular (male) hero, who leaves the comfort of his (known) world to adventure (into the unknown) in search of his fortune. On this journey he will be beset by challenges (e.g. hostile natives to battle with), and he may also pick up a 'helper' (woman) along the way. He will finally reach his destination, returning home with treasure and/or a renewed sense of his self worth. Of course there are huge variations, but this serves as a general frame to work with.
So in other words, there is an idea of linear progression, singularity, overcoming outside/dangerous obstacles, being helped by a secondary character. When you look at the history of our culture and economics - the idea of colonialism, industrialisation, capitalism, a philosophical idea of each man for himself, it is unsurprising that our stories are shaped this way.
We had a brilliant post-show conversation with Ben Okri after The Unknown Island the other night, and one of the things we reflected on is the idea of how stories can trap us - they don't just stay as imaginative fictions in our head - they become concrete, they shape reality. The story that some people are less human because of the colour of their skin, the God they worship, the food they eat, has led to horrific acts of murder (see above on 'obstacles the hero might encounter'). We know we are telling the wrong stories when they result in unacceptable realities, Ben pointed out.
There's a brilliant podcast on RadioLab here in which the question 'will there ever be a time without war?' is asked on a busy New York street. The resounding answer - 'no' - is based on explanations like 'we are hardwired that way', 'it's in our dna', 'it's who we are as a species'. The podcast then goes on to tell a range of stories about the possibility of seeing ourselves differently - that questions the thought of us always being a particular way, by looking at changes in culture and behaviour and how they come about. It reveals that the ideas about our eternally true predilection to war to be, of course, based on albeit a popular, but very particular story about who we are - that perhaps we are trapped in.
Saramago said of his work that it was about 'the possibility of the impossible' - 'who will write the history of what might have been' he asks at one point in The Stone Raft.
His story, The Tale of the Unknown Island considers, and then upturns, the shape, and the assumptions of the old, classic adventure stories. It was written for the Portuguese government, so it plays with their national story of themselves as a seafaring nation of explorers with a glorious history of conquering (and raping and pillaging) the world.
But it also begins with a man asking a king for a boat. It starts with an extraordinary challenge to authority. And a ridiculous request - to go in search of an unknown island. The idea of the unknown becomes a thought exercise in thinking outside the received shapes and architecture that tell us who we are and what we are capable of. It is a story that opens up possibilities, that maybe begins to free us from the tyranny of the classic adventure story where only men get to be heroes, that people who look different are less human and therefore expendable, that only violence changes things, and women only get to play supporting roles. It ends with the notion that together it might be possible to imagine no need for 'port and starboard' - the divisions of things; that perhaps there is a collective narrative, an adventure that begins with taking a leap of faith in one another, of recognising our common humanity, that could underpin a different kind of story.
Looking ahead to Suzy Storck - the next show in our season - we have a story about the danger of dreaming - of overturning a stone that might be hiding things we'd rather not look at. Magali Mougel's play explores the possibility that we don't all fit into the story our culture wants us to. That there are other stories to tell, that are straining to find a voice, an expression. This story is one of those - its about a woman, a mother, trying to work out who she is, the choices she made - or wasn't allowed to make, and how to survive them. It's a haunting, passionate story with a wry humour and humanity that is irresistible. I hope you can join us for it.