5.1 How do I make a strong beginning?
Story-Strategy, Act 2 Episode 5 – The Journey: Current Reality 2
Upon entering the room where the workshop on Participatory Methods for Learning and Research on HIV/Aids and Sexual & Reproductive Health was to take place, an unusual sight met my eyes. Instead of people straggling into the room and finding a seat either around tables, behind desks or even in a circle, they were forming clusters and clumps around posters and pages of news print on the walls, markers in hand. Was I late? Did they start without me? As I was wondering, a student came up to me: “Good morning, while we wait for everyone to arrive, take a moment and look at the pictures and posters on the walls. On the news print below them, just record any thoughts or associations that come up for you in relation to the pictures. Here is a marker to document your ideas.”
The year was 2008 and I was attending the first Drama for Life Conference at WITS University. The facilitator of the workshop was Ross Kidd. It was the first time I learned the value of beginning a workshop before it begins. The pictures on the walls were of gender stereo types and people’s typical reactions towards HIV. By recording our own thoughts as we looked at the pictures, we were all given an opportunity to become aware of our own positioning in relation to the story in the room as depicted by the title of the workshop. Before Ross Kidd had opened his mouth, we all had formed an opinion and had a story of our own to contribute.
Even if you did not want to be as highly participative as this, it is essential that you help delegates become present to the current reality regarding the story in the room. Most traditional speakers choose to do it by telling a story, raising a case study or citing some research results. However you chose to do it, step one of Story-Strategy is:
Sketch a picture of the current reality
(Once upon a time there was someone, somewhere in a certain fix).
Every story begins with someone (character) somewhere (scene) in a certain fix (plot). Some examples: Little Red Riding Hood at the edge of the forest, wearing the same hood every day. Brave Heart in a particular time in history with his tribe getting murdered by the English. Harry Potter is in Privet Drive being mistreated by his family. The Game of Thrones begin with a young lord on the other side of The Wall (a monstrous wall of ice that marked the edge of the seven kingdoms) killed by walking dead…
In each case the scene is set in such a way that the reader, watcher or listener (from here on the audience) identifies with the plight of the character so as to be drawn into the story.
- How do you acknowledge the current reality and the pain of your audience regarding the story in the room?
- How do you help them acknowledge where they are?
- How accurately do you sketch that current reality?
- How deeply can you empathize with them?
If you remember the SHIFT model, you will know that telling them is not as effective as letting them tell you. Creative participation is essential so that people can connect their own stories to the story in the room. Yet, there are many ways to do this. It begins before the talk, workshop, or conference really begins. From the moment delegates arrive, it is the beverages you serve, the way you let them register, the conference pack or learning material you hand them, the way you set up the room and the way you as facilitator or trainer greet them at the door or from the platform.
The Double Journey
This is because there are two cycles of Story-Strategy – there is a ‘double journey’ at stake. First people must be drawn from outside the room to inside: not just physically, but also with their attention and emotion. Secondly, once willing to be ‘here’ they must be drawn from their current understanding of the issue in the room to a new perspective. First they cross a physical threshold from their everyday existence filled with partners, colleagues, kids, traffic and unanswered emails into the learning space. Then they must cross the threshold from their current understanding of the learning content e.g. customer service, leadership or Learning and Research on HIV/AIDS and Reproductive Health, to a fresh perspective i.e. the one that you as speaker, facilitator or trainer want to convey.
In the example above Ross Kidd did not have to pay much attention to the first threshold because we were already in conference mode, but the conference designers themselves sure had to do it. I remember a carefully planned foyer space with musicians setting a tone, and a clearly themed conference pack. I also remember Warren Nebe starting the conference with a story about Blue Beard, immediately capturing attention and focussing it on the theme of the conference: African Research in Applied Drama and Theatre. He was establishing current reality by asking us to identify the role we see ourselves playing using examples from the story: Are we the naïve one driven by instincts to open the forbidden door? Do we find ourselves overwhelmed and surrounded by bloodied bodies? Are we dealing with the old folk hiding the past?
More examples will follow in future posts. For now, just remember:
Begin before you begin