A few short weeks ago, when we all reached that wonderful, beautiful, seemingly-never-to-arrive point of December called “Winter Break,” I left my school with a holiday tune in my head, warm mittens on my hands to keep out the chill, and a truly overwhelming pile of tests and papers to grade in the backseat of my car. In my non-camp life, I’m a high school English teacher. Which means many of my days are filled with research papers, Shakespeare analysis, Harper Lee, dangling modifiers, and many a paper to grade.
But this December, I was directing our school production of You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown!, which was exciting, challenging, fun, and a story for another blog. While working on the show (because we all know what a tech week is like, right?), I kind of let my grading of papers slip. Whoops.
So I had to bring it with me over the Holiday break. And, really, I had every intention of getting to it, getting it all done, being efficient about it.
And then I picked up a book by Ken Follett. I’ve been a fan of this author for a long time. A huge fan. If he wrote a cereal box, I’d buy that cereal, just read what he wrote on the packaging. And like many a well-crafted story, this one by Ken Follett grabbed me in the first few chapters and just refused to let go. So while I should’ve been grading those tests, I was on the couch reading. And when Kiersten asked if we should make dinner, I said “one more chapter. Okay, maybe two.” And when I woke up in the morning, the first thing I did was grab for that novel to continue reading. And I knew I had to keep reading at every available moment until I finished it.
I love it when this happens. When a book, or a play, or a radio show, or a tv show, or a movie catches you up so fully that you, well, kind of have to put your entire life on hold until you finish it. I remember when the published script of a new Neil Labute play was delivered to my house, I cancelled my plans so I could read it that very night. And don’t get me started on the last Harry Potter book.
We’ve all experienced this, right? Especially in this age of streaming television, when Netflix tells me the next episode of “Scandal” or “Breaking Bad” or “Fresh Prince” is going to start in 5…4…3…2…1. And you have to watch the next one, just to find out the next piece of the story!
On the radio, NPR calls these “driveway moments” – when you’re listening to a story that is so compelling that you sit in your driveway after returning from the grocery store, letting the frozen vegetable medley thaw because you just have to find out what happens next.
These “driveway moments” have always fascinated me. What is it about the storytelling that draws an audience in so completely and refused to let go? Is it a character with a secret that you find out, bit by bit? Is it the next challenge, the next obstacle, the next episode that the hero must overcome? Is it the structure of the story, the voice of the author, the way that they tell the story that makes it so you have to continue?
As theatre artists, we’re all storytellers. As actors, directors, designers, musicians, technicians, we’re all working together to create that moment of performance, so compelling that the audience is pulled to the front of their seat, that they can’t wait to see what happens next, and that they have to keep talking about the show well after the curtain call. Whether it’s linear or not, narrative or an image revealed over the course of a performance, we all seek that level of complete, breathtaking audience engagement.
And moments like these are a mystery to me. I don’t know what it is about a certain author’s writing, or the construction of a story, or the performance of an actor that draws me in so completely.
But I love that feeling, when a story rips you away from real life. And I guess I’ll have to keep reading and watching and creating stories, to keep exploring this mystery.
For the moment, however, I’m trying to avoid Netflix and novels and National Public Radio and even Neil Labute. You know, so I can get these tests graded.
Happy New Year, Happy Storytelling!