What's the Story


by John Porter

“Daddy, tell me a story…” The best thing my two children ever said to me.

No matter what the medium, story is king. True, the story derives from characters, but it’s what those characters do, and how they do it that keeps us on the edge of our seats waiting to see what happens next.

When my children were small, single digits small, I used to love to put them to bed as it was one of the few times we could spend together. It was usually tricky as I was working a couple of jobs, none of which paid very much, to try to keep the lights on. Sometimes I would be getting home just as they were off to bed, so to give my wife a break, I would take them to their room and sit with them awhile.

Like every child ever, they wanted a story, and not necessarily one out of a book. They wanted stories out of their father’s head (and voices). They got stories of pirates, princes, evil beings that lived just out on the edge, and anything that might crop up in their imagination.

If they suggested a character, he or she was immediately thrown into the story, no questions asked. (See, improvisation training does come in handy.) Interestingly enough, when I performed stand-up comedy, I used this same technique using the audience as children substitutes, and they responded much the same way, by going to sleep.

Anyway, I digress, but that’s nothing new. I really just want to talk about story and its importance to theatre. Something has to happen in the show. Let performance art take you on a multi-hour journey where nothing happens, but theatre has to find something – some kind of action or conflict to keep us involved.

In the absence of a story, our minds will connect things that aren’t even related in order to create a story. The psychological term for this phenomenon is apophenia. I’m no psychiatrist, although I’ve been in therapy before (and now), but think of times you’ve listened or seen things that don’t connect and you begin to build a story around it.

I remember my friend Andrew Hamm, a talented director-musician-actor, put together a show based on two of musician Joe Jackson’s albums. I always liked Joe Jackson, but rarely listened to anything but his hits. Hamm took these two albums and created scenes around them – a different scene for each song. It was actually a very good evening of theatre and I’ve always hoped it would be restaged sometime in the future. As much as Hamm insisted that there was no story associated with the scenes, there was no overarching connection, people (especially the local reviewers) put them together in their mind to create a story. There’s no stopping apophenia.

Movies do the same thing. Think about all the times you’ve started to watch a movie, or a television drama and it starts out by showing you a couple of things that seem to have no connection. How many times have you thought to yourself, “What do these things have to do with what’s going on?”

The answer that I always provide to my lovely wife when she asks me this out loud is just to reassure her that at some point it will all makes sense. She just ignores me at that point. Smart woman…

Even with Theatre Of The Absurd, which is often only read these days and rarely performed, something happens. We may not understand why it happened, but even if it is something as mild as walking across the stage or having a conversation over dinner – something happens.

Even the shortest play that I’ve ever seen, BREATH, by Samuel Beckett, something happens. This is the entire play: lights down, lights up, a recorded deep breath plays, lights down. Done. That’s it. What does that breath mean? Is it someone being born? Dying? Something else?

It’s the Rorschach Test of art. What is it we’re seeing? Everybody will experience something different. None of us will ever have the same experience because we filter things through the layers of our consciousness before settling down. We see the same story, but we don’t experience the same story.

What’s your story? Are there events from your life that you would like to see on a stage? How do you tell the story of your life?

I became friends with the late actor-monologist-writer Spalding Gray when he was preparing a new show and was bringing one night of it to the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts. I long admired his work, and have tried to find the stories of my life to create a similar solo piece.

There’s a large gap of talent between Gray and me, so without divine intervention, my stories may not be performed in public. Gray would rivet audiences with nothing more than a table, chair, glass of water, and a notebook. Maybe a tape player if he had sound effects. He showed me his current script, the new one he brought to the VMFA, and it was an outline in an old spiral bound notebook like we used in school. They weren’t even in complete sentences. Just a note here and there.

And he told me something I’ll never forget, “Our stories never end.”

Thank you, Spalding, thank you all of the great playwrights, directors, actors, and designers who work tirelessly to bring these stories to life. Thank you to the audiences that provide witness to the ephemeral story.

Anyone want to hear a story?

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