Here’s the transcript of a talk I gave at TEDx Ealing on 21 September 2012. On 22 September, I went for my first skydive. For real.
Tomorrow, I’m doing my first skydive. Note the optimistic use of the word ‘first’.
And it’s at times like this, when you’re staring imminent death in the face, that you start to think about your legacy – all those stories left untold, all the wisdom that you said you’d pass on to your grandchildren – and I don’t have any grandchildren. So you’ll have to do.
So listen up. These might be my last words.
MIRACLE OF FLIGHT
When you’re facing almost certain death, as I am, you come to appreciate the little miracles of life – like aeroplanes. Flying is something I find consistently wondrous, any time I get to fly anywhere. A hundred years ago, only a handful of human beings had experienced that feeling of flying above the clouds. Now – right now – at any given moment, there are a quarter of a million people in mid-air. That’s more than the population of Derby, where I was born, at 30,000 feet.
The point is, the miraculous is now everyday. What was once the preserve of a privileged few is now open to anyone who is brave enough to fly Ryanair.
MIRACLE OF BROADCASTING YOUR VOICE
And over the past few decade or two, storytelling has gone through a similar revolution. You don’t need a publishing house to publish a book. You don’t need a movie studio to make a film. You can print, you can blog, you can tell your stories in all manner of ways.
And that’s fantastic. Around 400,000 books are published each year, and the fact that there are so many doesn’t make each those stories any less astonishing. The power to broadcast your voice to the world is a privilege that’s no less miraculous than being able to fly. Never take it for granted.
But. But. Tomorrow I am jumping out of a perfectly good, perfectly functional plane. And that takes some explaining.
I’ve been telling stories for longer than my adult life. That is a privilege and I don’t take it lightly. But if you’ve ever been on a long-haul flight you’ll know that after a while any miracle… wears a bit thin. It gets boring. And in storytelling, you can write a story in the comfort of your desk and you press PUBLISH and you’re done. I’ve done that now. A few times.
So this summer just gone I thought I’d try something a bit different. The story equivalent of skydiving.
What that meant was letting go of control. I put the story – to some extent – at the mercy of my audience. And I’ll quickly explain how that worked because you might want to try it too.
ABOUT THE SEED
This was a project called The Seed, which I wrote for a theatre company called Goat & Monkey as part of the Cultural Olympiad. It included a series of four plays set in and written about four stately home gardens just outside London. One of these gardens is home to the Millennium Seed Bank.
Each play focused on the real-life story of one of four Victorian plant hunters – real Indiana Jones figures who had amazing adventures collecting plants and seeds. And my little bit of fiction was to suggest that all of them had been looking for one particular seed – and if you watched all four plays, you’d notice the same characters cropping up and notice clues for where that seed might actually be hidden, now, in the 21st century. So it became a treasure hunt, and we actually buried a seed (encased in gold) for someone to find. And they did.
There was an online part as well, but I’ll get to that later.
Now when you think of a play staged in a garden, you probably think of Shakespeare in the Park. That’s not my style. We wanted to really involve the audience – to break down that comfortable, hygienic barrier between the audience and the performers. It was immersive promenade theatre. At one point we had them running at night across a muddy smoke-filled battlefield with the sound of artillery and sniper-fire around them – this was not Two Gentlemen of Verona.
And during one of the shows, we gave the audience the freedom to explore a forest in the dark for a while. And one of the audience-members – a young guy – was suddenly confronted by one of the villains of the piece as he came out from behind a tree – and this guy just shoved the actor to the ground and legged it. He was really apologetic after the show. And he said, “I’m so sorry – I just got carried away.”
Which is the best compliment I could ever hear. I’m not advocating violence against actors but… it made me happy.
And that level of involvement was a result of the way the story was being told. It is much, much more difficult to achieve that when the audience is separated from the action by a proscenium arch. Like now, even though I’m only a few feet away from you, and you might violently disagree with every word I’m saying, I don’t think any one of you is about to storm onto the stage and push me over…
It’s like that bit in the wedding where the priest asks if anyone objects, and all you can do is hope for nothing to happen…
But if you’ve ever been to a Christian wedding, you’ll know how that moment feels: suddenly the focus isn’t on the happy couple, it’s on the guests. It’s like the spotlight has swung round, and everyone wakes up a bit. They’re being given the option to take part. And most of them won’t. But being handed that power for one moment… it’s a very empowering experience for the audience. You’re making them part of the action.
TRUST YOUR AUDIENCE
Now if you’re staging a wedding, you know the guests and you can trust them to behave. But at a stage play or, even worse, online you really can’t be sure if people are going to behave.
It’s understandable to be nervous. But the most important thing I can say – the one piece of wisdom I can leave with you, my surrogate grandchildren – is that you should trust your audience.
Because your audience likes you. If they’re reading your work or watching your performance, they’re probably interested in it to start with. They want to see you succeed and they want to have a good time. They won’t deliberately try to wreck your story.
But also, your audience is smart. They know how to behave. They are increasingly fluent in interactive media, knowing how these unconventional stories work. They’re savvy. Don’t think that they’re stupid.
And they will have great ideas – whether you ask for them or not. I’ve had fun watching audience-members speculating online about what the characters will do next – and sometimes their ideas are pretty damn good. They’re worth nicking. And if you’re flexible you can take advantage of your audience’s collective brilliance.
MISBEHAVIOUR CAN BE FUN
And if the worst happens – if they actively misbehave – it can lead to some lovely creative moments.
As part of The Seed, I was playing a fictional character on Facebook called Helen Furnival. Helen was a fictional modern-day researcher at the Millennium Seed Bank who had stumbled upon the story of this lost seed. For ten weeks, I was writing her status updates and holding conversations with hundreds of people as she led the search for the missing seed. Facebook actually has a category for ‘fictional characters’ now: it said ‘Fictional Character’ under her photo and… We made it clear she wasn’t real.
But one young man got carried away. He was rather smitten by Helen. And he started posting images of roses, and poetry, and women riding unicorns and then pictures of wedding rings – and I, as Helen, kept saying, “I’m sorry, mate, but I’m just not interested.” And privately, I sent him messages making it absolutely clear that Helen was a fictional character, who was part of this story called The Seed… but he said that didn’t matter. It was like the end of Some Like it Hot.
The thing is, this turned into an entertaining subplot for everyone. Instead of damaging the audience’s experience, he was adding to it. It was fun. And I was flattered, of course.
YOU SET THE TONE
Now that was fun because it didn’t wreck the whole story for everyone. And it didn’t wreck the story because there were certain social pressures and boundaries in the way the story was presented – and these are things that you as storytellers can control. You set the tone and the expectations when you’re telling a story. You guide behaviour.
If you tell a story that’s full of F-ing and blinding and you invite the audience to engage in conversation, you can expect a sweary response.
Or in the wedding example. It’s staged as a big, expensive formal event with hundreds of people and a solemn atmosphere – you’d have to be a real sociopath to intervene at that vital moment. You’d never be able to show your face again. No, it’s much more likely to kick off at the reception afterwards, when the boundaries are relaxed are everyone’s had a drink.
In the same way, I’m standing here at a TEDx event, it’s the morning so I don’t think many of you will have been drinking, and we have this raised stage layout which means nobody is going to heckle me. Nobody.
…Even when they’re given an invitation like that! TED doesn’t do Q&A. It’s always a monologue.
They stage panto in this theatre. The building’s the same, the staging is pretty similar, but the conventions of TEDx and a panto are different. Audience participation is encouraged in panto by the storytellers – the people on stage are always in control, even if the audience has the illusion of telling the characters what to do.
The point is, by inviting the audience to participate, you’re not jumping out of a plane without a parachute. You dictate the terms, and you still have a large degree of influence, even when you’re exposing yourself to the elements.
There was one thing about The Seed that really took me by surprise. On the third day of this ten-week online story, a woman called Ginette Racine posted a message complaining about the translation of Helen’s posts. Ginette is a French-Canadian and Facebook has this automated translation system that can be pretty ropey. So Ginette volunteered to translate every one of Helen’s posts, every day, as it went live. And I was very happy to let her.
And then Ginette asked if she could translate the scripts of the four plays as well. And if she could stage readings in Montreal in parallel with the performances here in England. And I was able to say yes again.
And then she went further. She wanted to adapt the plays. She wanted to rewrite them for a Canadian audience and stage a French-language version of The Seed with Canadian characters, in French, in Quebec, next summer, using my story as a template – and to that I said a definite yes!
Because that is seeing your story fly. I could have clung to my intellectual copyright and demanded royalties – but this show was never going to have much of a life after our production. By handing it over for free to the audience, that story will find a new audience and it will fly again.
TAKE A RISK
Which brings me back to my imminent death.
I realise this kind of risk-taking isn’t for everyone. And it’s not for me every day. If, by some fluke, I survive tomorrow, I’ll not be jumping out of a plane for a good long while.
But I encourage you all to try throwing a story from a plane. At least once. Let the audience get their hands on your work. I’m giving away my rights to The Seed, hoping that it will enjoy a more exciting life than it would sitting comfortably in my bottom drawer.
With that story, I’m taking a chance. And hopefully it (and I) will live to see another day.