“What right do you have to tell stories outside your experience?”
This question crops up again and again as a director, and while it’s certainly a valid question, I’m wholly disinterested in it. Rather, I actively advocate for engaging in storytelling outside of your own experience. I think it’s essential.
As a director, my job is to listen to the play: not my personal experience as it pertains to the play. It is not my place to superimpose my personal views on a subject onto a piece of theatre. In order to find the motor which propels a play forward, I must give myself completely to a text, unfettered by the baggage of my own experience. I cannot listen if I fail to disassociate from my preconceptions of a topic or event. I am most successful when I am the person in the room who has the most to learn.
There is, however, a monumental difference between storytelling outside your own experience and co-opting another’s culture to serve your own agenda. At this point, it is important to recognize my position as another white dude in the world. My demographic is responsible for a significant portion of cultural appropriation in contemporary storytelling and holds a disproportionate amount of leadership positions in the theatrical community.
Fully engaging in theatre outside of your own life necessitates an admission that you don’t really know what you’re talking about, that you walk into the room to investigate. It’s not about having the answers, it’s about investigating and finding something together. It’s about creating an environment in which all collaborators trust that their voices will be heard, that they’re equals in an artistic process. Breaking down hierarchical barriers is essential to artmaking, and practicing storytelling to which you have no direct experiential connection is an excellent way to shed notions of authority.
But you must be respectful. You must be diligent and uncompromising in your quest to breathe life into the story. You must illuminate the story. The story does not serve you, you serve the story.
There’s an old saying: “Never let a Russian direct Chekhov.”
I heard that once.