Stories are natural healers, giving a shape and rhythm to our humanity. Thanks to storytelling we develop intuitions about how things will turn out – Russian playwright Anton Chekhov famously said :
Remove everything that has no relevance to the story. If you say in the first chapter that there is a rifle hanging on the wall, in the second or third chapter it absolutely must go off. If it’s not going to be fired, it shouldn’t be hanging there.
What Chekhov is talking about there is a storytelling tool called foreshadowing. It involves giving the audience a sinking feeling that danger and death are coming just with a simple image of a rifle hanging on the wall. This creates suspense, anxiety even, and that’s a powerful tool to have in your hands as a storyteller – whether the story you are telling is written, drawn, read aloud or made into a film or exhibition or design object it should pass a certain threshold of realization and growth, just like a hero of a story.
As an artist, designer, writer or architect, your end product has the same end goal as a storyteller – to make people feel like they can’t look away from your work – because what you’ve created is an unique mirror that both reflects and distorts reality. Ideally, an artwork finds success by striking the delicate balance of being a) relatable enough to provide comfort and understanding to the audience, but b) alienating enough to be captivating, even if that sounds like an oxymoron.
There are lots of dramatic principles we can visit together, to make the way we tell stories more effective, come to life in front of the audience’s eyes and create more empathy with their characters (so that when it’s over they really feel invested in the outcome). The specific principle I’d like to talk to you today about is the “hero’s journey” which is also called the “monomyth,” a concept developed by Joseph Campbell.
Society respects people who make sacrifices, and the hero, in a classic sense, is someone who is able to be elevated from the ordinary world to a supernatural world, and back again. Joseph Campbell calls this crossing a threshold. In our reality it can mean going to war, going to college, getting married or even just going to a party or soccer game.
But to be a true hero you need to have convictions, you need to be called to adventure for a higher purpose. Here’s Luke Skywalker, one of the most classic heroes in contemporary pop culture, being “called to adventure,” “gathering his spirit guides” and considering what it means to “cross the threshold”ie go to Alderon.
No hero is anything without his family, his community. Luke’s reluctance to leave home isn’t cowardice, it’s accountability to his aunt and uncle. We later see him have perhaps one of the most literal instances of the “atonement with the father” when he comes face to face in battle with Darth Vader.
For our work at the Spring Sessions, we should consider the social relevance of whatever hero we create. By giving a figure historical and communal relevance, their struggle becomes real – for example, Christiano Renaldo isn’t just a soccer star, he’s a soccer star with Portugal’s World Cup dreams on his shoulders.
So with any project you work on, it’s important to show how important it is to a whole community of people. Here’s an example from the documentary “Paris is Burning,” of how people like black, gay males in New York in the eighties who had very few opportunities, and created their own community to become heroes in.
A real hero doesn’t do things for himself, or to get recognized, a real hero risks himself on behalf of others. We have someone like Edward Snowden, who basically gave up his life in Hawaii with his girlfriend, working for US intelligence, to show the American public and the rest of the world, this information:
However, Snowden cannot return home, so he cannot finish the hero’s cycle. He is stuck in Russia and is not allowed to come back to the US, he is stuck in the abyss, which is the moment in hero’s cycle where it seems all hope is lost. In the interview he says he would like nothing more in the world to go home. In his case, atonement with the father is actually atonement with the authorities, a difficult challenge given that Barack Obama calls him a “hacker” who isn’t worth his time.
Other than increasing government control over society, today’s heroes have a super difficult battle ahead of them – themselves. Heroes can become deluded about their own grandeur and they can get trapped in their own heads as a consequence.
Someone like the Portuguese footballer Cristiano Ronaldo is also stuck in his version of the abyss – he has injured his knee and has been advised not to play in the World Cup altogether if he ever wants it to heal. He is fighting his own body – the same body that once brought him victory.
In the world of Paris is Burning, these are some of the tragedies of all the heroes that make up the drag ball scene in the 80’s and 90’s:
The heroes of the New York drag world become obsessed with wealth and whiteness, values almost imposed on them by an outside community. This fragments and breaks them up as them as a family, and as we said before, there are no heroes without family or a home to come back to. The kind of individualism they become obsessed with is incompatible with the heroic collective they have constructed. This is on top of many in the collective’s need to make money, often by selling their bodies through prostitution… basically the things that make them heroes, the malleability of their bodies, also turns against them.
If we are to talk about delusional heroes, also called anti-heroes, then there’s the example in literature of Don Quixote, who is a knight but one in rusty armor that falling apart. He is a figure who takes on comically irrelevant challenges, fighting the demons in his mind and hallucinating that windmills are monsters.
There’s also a film by the amazing Werner Herzog, about a man who thinks he is a hero for living with grizzly bears:
The filmmaker/writer/narrator frames the hero by choosing when to let us hear what he says and what he’s been through. He interviews his family, friends and nature conservation community, and he chooses footage and when to speak over it.
The filmmaker himself, as a guide, becomes a new kind of hero … a hero to other storytellers. Herzog reminds me of Scheherzade who keeps people alive with her stories for 1001 consecutive nights, and saves a whole population of women from violence.
Using the camera to tell stories, we have a new awareness of how many sides and views we can give a single story.
For example, filmmaker Joshua Oppenheimer spent 9 years in Indonesia, he learned Indonesian, and got to know some of the men that took over after the government was overthrown in 1965. With direct aid of Western governments they killed over one million people they accused of being Communists, as well as ethnic Chinese people. They continue to be in power today.
This is how they killed so many people:
Oppenheimer told them they could make their own mafia movie about their activities, and as they made their own footage, they watched it.
In this way, Oppenheirmer intervenes in these men’s lives – they can no longer tell themselves that they are heroes after watching themselves commit such callous violence in such a buffoon manner. This is a postmodern take on the hero “finding the boon,” since the protagonists of The Act of Killing “discover the boon” (ie find the lesson to bring back to their community) using the camera as a self-exploratory device. They cross the threshold when they agree to be on camera. Watching the whole documentary is highly recommended. Oppenheimer’s novel methods provide an inspiring way to tell a story because he overturns people’s own expectations of themselves – they see, through their own eyes, when they are being a hero and when they are not.
So I would like to show you a work I did this time last year, where I also tried to experiment with ways of telling the stories of characters that have convinced themselves something about themselves…this was shown in an exhibition called X Apartments in Beirut on two iPads and taken through the apartment building in which it was filmed by audience members who follow the main character throughout his movements.
My collaborator and I’s intention was to frame the narrator’s own delusions by showing his multiple stories about his tattoo and his love life. Using the hero’s journey can be a great way to begin working on stories and films, and I think if I were to extend this film I would like to show him getting ready for battle, so putting gel in his hair (which I have seen him do, he makes Teresa help him).
Looking at the hero cycle helps us to keep our work engaging and challenging, pushing us to ask questions like “What is a hero? Do we even believe in heroes? How do we as storytellers, filmmakers and artists manipulate our audience’s empathy with our protagonist?” As we move forward with the Spring Sessions, these questions will form a basis for creating a compelling main character in our collectively written and performed work.