I spent yesterday with a bunch of young actors, a Year 13 drama class, and a colleague rehearsing what will be their final piece of performance at our school, a play called Arrival. As is our wont these days, we’re trying to create a story of hope, one that lifts the collective gaze. It seems to me to be the most powerful gift we can offer the kids who pass through our care, the chance to believe that life can be good, that the years ahead are littered not just with things to suffer and survive, but also with those moments of joy and connection that will make their lives worth living.
We can add only a small amount to their worlds in this way of course, for each marinates in their own set of stories, through their friends, their home lives, the movies and the television they watch, the conversations they happen upon, the websites they visit, the social media they consume. And yet, we are inescapably part of their worlds too, as adult role models we teachers stand as one of the options before them, one of the available ways of being a grown up in the world. And as writers and directors in drama, we give our young charges intimate access to the stories they tell; not only will they absorb them as an audience, but they will live them as actors, trying on the emotions, experiences and points of view of another. And then their immediate community, their family and friends, will gather to absorb the story in that atmosphere of immediacy and warmth that school theatre does so very well. They’ll remember the performance for the rest of their lives, many of them; it will become a part of who they are.
With Arrival I’ve wrestled with the usual story telling difficulties. The demands of a school production are many, for as well as creating a narrative to hook the audience, there is also the need to produce a piece where every role is meaningful, that no actor is left feeling their contribution is not significant. Ensemble pieces are the rule of thumb then, in this piece we have ten actors on stage pretty much all the time. That in itself is a writing challenge. Then there is the need to match the resources of a school. Simple, spare sets work best for us, for it is all we can afford; our lighting rigs are minimal, our budgets non-existent. And finally, to properly test the acting craft, I demand of myself that these stories leave the kids not with one more gloomy tale of suffering and trauma, in a culture where they so easily slip into thinking that it is trauma that will win them attention and prestige.
This last challenge is the greatest of all from a writing perspective, which should be obvious but somehow isn’t. Tragedies, from a narrative point of view, are easily constructed. People make errors of judgement and as a result ill befalls them. Problems grow, snowball, and the narrative trick is simply to find ways of connecting the cause and effect of turmoil. This is not to say the art of writing tragedy isn’t complex and beautiful. The difference between a work of nuance and searing insight, and one produced by a plodder, will always be a chasm, and much great art is indeed tragic, but from a narrative point of view, it’s just easier. A tragedy poses a problem, a story of hope poses a solution. Which of those two is simpler, do you imagine? To build a house from the ground up, or to tear one down?
Because there is a tradition in literary analysis to pretty much ignore the merits of narrative, there is a strange snobbery that has evolved in favour of the grim, with the mistake being made of equating misery with profundity, which says more about the lives of academic critics than it does about the world in which we live. But that is a whole other issue. For now my point is simply this – writing stories of hope is difficult, from a narrative point of view particularly so. Not only does a solution to the problem raised have to be proposed, but it must be made dramatically powerful (tricky, as in the real world the best solutions are usually gentle and are constructed slowly) and also credible. Hopeful stores are the means by which we make the young a promise that the world they inhabit can be lived in with peace and joy. We do not shy from the fact that this will be hard work, perhaps the hardest work of all, but stories capture the imagination, and help us believe it is work worth doing.
It is an interesting question what are the defining components of hopeful stories, and one I’ve been dwelling on a lot over these last few years. It is central to the job I do. There will never be a checklist, or some binary criteria such that stories fall into the categories of hopeful or hopeless. But there will be certain elements that, when they are allowed to blossom, make our stories more hopeful.
The most controversial of these, I suspect, and the most complicated, is that hopeful stories tend to eschew the morally ambiguous, that relativistic pose that so often dresses itself up as sophistication, and instead put a stake in the ground within a given context and say ‘no, this is what goodness look like.’ At a basic level, hopeful stories take as their premise the fact that goodness exists, that words like better and more desirable, within a moral context, make sense. On the surface this is not controversial, we are as moralistic as we have ever been (witness the moral fervour with which we turn our attention to the environment and the threats posed to it) but beneath these instincts lurks a deeper and more difficult question which the modern world has little taste for discussing: What are the belief superstructures that must be in place before the notion of goodness can be made both credible and compelling? Must we speak of the spiritual, to make sense of these values, or is there a way of making these notions equally powerful and grounded within a materialistic context? I don’t wish to dodge that question here, but it deserves its own post, perhaps many more posts. Spoiler alert though – the truth is I’m not really sure of the answer.