WHOSE STORY IS IT?
Collaborative Storytelling and Emotional Immersion
Q & A with Christina Kallas
– You have been working with improv as a method for writing for many years now. What does that mean?
I am not the first one to use improv as a development tool. What I have been working on for many years was to apply it as an instrument for finding the emotional core of an idea, of discovering the emotional structure of a story – which, again, is what I believe leads us as writers when in flow, and which is then mirrored in the audience’s emotional journey, when they are watching a movie. That is what I call the Writers Improv method, which is a specific way of setting up a chain of improvs which gets the actors and the writer through that process.
With 42SecondsofHappiness I am doing something different. Usually, when a writer works with the method in one of my workshops, he or she has a treatment or the rudiments of an idea or even less than that. In this case I started from a fully developed screenplay. And when I say, fully developed, I do not mean a first draft. I have worked for about a year on the screenplay I am using, which was based on a treatment, which was based on one of my short stories. And that, again, was based on real life incidents, which I have assembled into one story. After so much work, I was in that place where as a writer it is very difficult to let go and be prepared to re-think and re-feel everything.
– Did you feel the screenplay needed more work?
No, not at all. I was perfectly happy with the screenplay. As happy as one can be, because you do make compromises with screenplays, you have to dramatize things, and eliminate stuff and “kill your darlings,” as we use to say – which is a terrible thing to say, actually, don’t you think? The only reason I chose that screenplay and not a different one, was because I wanted to experiment with emotional immersion in collaborative storytelling. So, while workshopping my screenplay with the Writers Improv Studio ensemble, my plan was to treat the actors in the room, who were not in a scene, as a test audience and experiment around – with the sole goal to find a technique, a method, a prototype for emotional immersion in collaborative storytelling. Does that make sense?
– Why collaborative? Why immersion? Why emotional?
Well, we are sort of going through a (r)evolution now, a shift in storytelling. Emerging technologies, a new medium of connectivity, the internet… Everybody can tell a story or make a film, and they do. So what happens to storytelling? Where do stories come from? I have always said that we are not responsible for them as storytellers, and I have developed exercises to reinforce that, and to get my students and collaborators into that frame of mind: where we can be absolutely free, because it is not “ours,” because we do not possess the story. But now this has all become reality: bit by bit, participatory, collaborative, interactive storytelling is entering our lives, with consequences we cannot even start imagining at the moment. However, the storytelling that is happening is still rather shallow. Partly because of the overwhelming technology, which has taken the front seat for the moment, partly because the storytellers of the new medium are often beginners and in awe of writing and storytelling, which they feel they need to learn first and in our society learning means to learn and follow the rules, but also surely because collaborative storytelling entails the danger “of going down to” the lowest common denominator… For whatever reasons, it is all rather predictable and superficial. And that in a time when cinema and TV have reached a level of storytelling, which is unprecedented in terms of its complexity, multi-perspectivity, multi-dimensionality.
– So you set out to find a method for the creation of such complexity?
(laughs) Not exactly. I have indeed worked on that too, and I have developed something which I call emotional structure theory, which enables the approach of stories which are non-linear, have more than one protagonist and also go into different dimensions in terms of space and perspective. EST is an analysis and composition tool for stories which defy logic but also for complex classic stories, which also have an emotional structure level. Obviously I use EST in this work too, but what I wanted to achieve now was to find a way to go deeper in collaboration with an audience, so to treat the audience as co-storytellers.
– So everyone contributes to the story?
It is easy for an audience to contribute to a story using their logic – which is what we primarily use when we tell stories, thanks to Aristotle. We connect elements, we use cause and effect, we find solutions, and soon we have a story. The elements in that process can come from different people in the audience, and then it becomes collaborative. But are they emotionally invested in it? They are not. It is merely a game, a mind game. I wanted to go further than that. When we write creatively we do not just use our logic – we use our emotions, we write something because something is unsolved in us, if we are lucky we have a question but no answer to it, or we doubt and struggle with the answer, and we write for our lives. That is what creates the best material, that is what keeps us in flow while writing. That is why we chose to be writers in the first place.
– So your question was whether you can get a group of storytellers into that place, where they are equally invested on an emotional level?
Yes, and I know that it sounds like an impossible and perhaps not even desirable thing to do – almost like a hybris. After all, the myth of writing is connected with the archetype of the solitary artist who is painfully fighting his or her ghosts and shadows while creating.
– Yes, writers are not the happiest people on earth, are they?
Why not, actually? Perhaps this is just a story we have been told again and again, and perhaps it is time to stop believing it and turning it into our reality? Anyway, let us not deviate too much. It is true that a first experiment in that context, which I did at DIY Days NYC in March 2012, failed, and that I was convinced that I would fail again. But then, I am stubborn. (laughs) And I also had a slight doubt that I may be failing because deep down I do not want to embark on collaborative storytelling. I am a writer because I want to tell my stories. Why should I want to tell stories together with the audience, who defines what is right and what is wrong.
– So what happened?
I used my usual method of not telling the actors anything more about the story than what they need to “be” in an improvised scene – one scene at a time, and building up the story scene by scene as per the Writers Improv method. Noone had read the screenplay, noone knew how the story evolves or what happens to the characters. I used the world of the screenplay as the story world, and I started working with the actors and the characters, going wider and deeper than a two hours movie ever allows for. Improv is a sacred tool, it is not a frivolous undertaking. There must be freedom and trust for it to work, and there is nothing that comes up there, which may be wrong. With improv you can never go wrong. It is a door to the subconscious – and, perhaps (laughs), also a door to something physicists call the unified field (a term coined by Einstein and still an open line of research…). At least that is how it feels like.
– Tell me more.
(laughs) I will. Let me explain how I work, perhaps that will make it clearer. I cast the characters randomly. Most of the actors are part of the WIS ensemble for almost two years now, some are fairly new – what I mean is that they were long enough with me to be eager to experiment with me. Trying out an experiment, means that you are not result-oriented. If you knew where it was leading you, then why experiment? That is an incredible state of mind – one of absolute freedom. I had no intention to use any of the material initially, all I wanted was to try out different techniques and to assemble as many insights as possible. So I played devil’s advocate, at times I even sabotaged myself and the process. For instance, I would indeed cast randomly, not spending any thoughts whatsoever on the energy of an actor or their age or their life experience. So what if an actress has to be a character who goes through an ugly divorce in which she may lose custody of her baby daughter, while she has never been a mother herself, was never married and has never experienced an ugly divorce in her close environment or any other form of loss? And on top of that is possibly also too young for that level of human pain? I did not care about any of that. I let accidents happen. I went into that state of mind where you stop doubting that everything happens for a reason, and I decided to apply that principle and just trust that I can do no wrong.
– But what about the artist’s free will?
(laughs) Perhaps free will is part of the bigger picture? Don’t get me started on that, I could talk for hours.
– So you cast the parts randomly and you let the actors improvise?
Sometimes I would do character doubling, which means I would exchange two actors mid-process. For instance, if a woman had an affair with another woman’s husband, I would replace one with the other. What I knew I would get was deeper understanding of the other’s emotional state/position and therefore more compassion and depth. What I did not expect and was actually wondering about when I did that, is whether the characters would become different now, as the actresses had no knowledge of the other’s previous work and also had very different personalities. But not only did the characters stay as they were, they even made the same choices, said the same things, had the same sensibilities, desires – they were the same characters, independently of who played them.
– As if it were scripted.
(laughs) Well, it was scripted. You see, that was a further big insight in this experiment. It does make a difference to the work I am doing, whether there is a script or not and how far developed that script is. My method usually highlights the things a writer may be lying to himself or herself about, and helps focus on the actual core. When you have a fully developed screenplay, that part of the work is usually done, and you can go further and deeper. It was impressive to me that the stories and characters that were fully developed in the screenplay, allowed for more story and deeper levels and immediately became the catalyst for the stories of the secondary characters, which were not fully developed in the screenplay (and would never be in the time frame of a classic movie with a classic plot). What was amazing was that the parts of the script that worked perfectly, remained intact, as if there were no other possibility of action or character evolution. I will give you an example: In the story, there is a couple, which goes through an ugly divorce. At the beginning of the workshop they were still happily married. The characters had no idea that that was where they might be heading to. And when we did get to that point where it could go either way, I made a point of reminding them again that they can go whichever way they want. They can stay together and fight for their relationship or split, it would make no difference to me. Please understand that I was thus jeopardizing a very important element of the story world.
– They chose to split?
The actors said there was no other way. They wanted to fight it out but it was like they were hitting on a wall. Now, explain that.
– Wow. And that happened throughout?
There were parts where I felt that I had gone for a compromise while writing the screenplay. Ninety pages or even a hundred are a very limited space, so as a writer you need to combine characters or use short cuts, and sometimes you sacrifice some emotional truth on the way. As if magically, the improvs returned those parts to where they were before – to where they should have been to capture the emotional truth in my real life stories.
– This gives me goose bumps.
(laughs) It does, doesn’t it? It felt as if these things (and many more) were written somewhere and as if the actors, when in the zone, had access to them.
– They were written in your screenplay, so in your head.
We feel so much more comfortable when we can find a logical explanation – or one that is as close to logic as possible, don’t we? Why is that? I say: defy logic. My work has nothing to do with logic – or very little. I don’t know where emotional truth resides, but I feel like we are working with energies or frequencies rather than with thoughts. So how did they get this information, when I never gave it to them or even went out of my way to mislead them? I do not know. But perhaps we are connected and share knowledge (cognitive and emotional) on a level, which is beyond our understanding. Some of us are more open than others, and the work we are doing here is certainly supporting our opening up and becoming more perceptive and communicative on all levels – not only the one connected with words.
– You said that you had originally no intention to show the results. And yet you were filming the sessions.
I started filming the sessions right away with a new iPad, which has quite a good video recording quality. I wanted to be able to watch the improvs later on for details, which may have escaped me during the sessions. But then once I started watching I was so excited that I decided to share it. What was there rang truer and more authentic than most traditionally produced material. Initially I thought it is me, or that it is because of my small, how do I call it… (laughs) personal crisis with conventional storytelling and filmmaking, it all feels a bit predictable and staged and therefore fake – and I am including myself and my professionally crafted work in this, whether as a writer or as a producer. So I started showing the material to friends, of all generations, and they became as interested as I was in the process, which made me think that we should broadcast the experiment, initially in the form of a web series made from improvisations. And start up a discussion about all the issues which our experiment touches upon: the nature of reality, the way we perceive and create our realities through storytelling, the layers which lie between us and emotional truth, the difference between surface and essence, love and fear as the two basic emotions governing our lives… the works.
– You have made a conscious decision to give the videos a very basic and raw, almost amateur feel. Can you explain why?
Well, in the context I am working aesthetic style becomes disposable: the audience is invited to participate as a voyeur, watching experiences which mirror their own in terms of the shocking beauty (or, to some, banality) of everyday life. This is not a story acted out under controlled conditions, where control is of the essence – so why should I go for control in the production process? Or why should I manipulate perception of the story towards a single emotional perspective, using the tools of traditional editing, when the whole process defies that? Of course, the slightly out-of-focus, messy image rendered through the digital video camera creates the illusion of reality more fully than a sharply focused high-definition image. But it is not just that. In our case, the search for the object becomes part of the story. This is even more so if the camera is held by one of the actors. The actor holding the camera is usually the one directly or indirectly involved in the scene: whatever happens here may determine his or her future. Where would we be focusing if we were invisible voyeurs in a scene, which may determine our future? What would we choose to see and what would we choose to hear? In that context, even the sound accidents are intriguing. Unpredictability and chance, randomness, spontaneity are anyway part of this kind of filmmaking. Other than that, I believe that to meet the challenge offered by the ever-changing technology, one has to overcome the temptation to imitate conventional media. Like TV in its early stages was mimicking the theatre and then the cinema, till it found its own true and unique nature (the long form narrative and multithreading,) our web series and transmedia are usually imitating TV. We cannot compete with the production values there, but we try. That might be the way to go – or it might not. It surely depends on how we want to meet the challenge. Is the web simply an incubator for breaking into TV? To me, imitating as best one can TV and film, is not only impossible, due to the huge production value differences, it is also not desirable. My ambition would be that the web is a field for experimentation and research into new forms of storytelling, challenging the way we watch films for more than a century now.
– You mentioned that you are planning to have more interactive components.
Indeed. I am thinking about ways to translate this into a dynamic live-streaming experience for today’s wired 21st century audience, possibly even to open it up to a more interactive experience, using emerging technologies. The landscape is currently changing by the day, which is exciting but also confusing. I am actively looking for someone, who is going to be creative on the technological side, matching our creative process.
– What about the actors? This surely allows for a different kind of acting?
Indeed. Human performance replaces conventional acting. Forgetting that one is filmed or even more so, that one is acting, one starts being. What we do here is the opposite of what is required in film acting, which is usually done in bits and pieces. Hitting marks, finding their light, not blinking: this is all of no importance whatsoever. Being in the moment, and being open is all that matters. As I said, the action is happening everywhere and the camera just chooses randomly (or emotionally, as I am giving it to the character who is influenced directly by the scene in question) where to direct its attention. Sometimes we will have more than one camera, but the actors will forget about them. They do not work for the camera lens. And they do not work for an audience. In fact they do no work at all. They will just be, not act. They live in the situation as the characters they are. But at the same time (and this is an amazing insight) they are in safe distance from their ego i.e. the ego of the character – because after all, it is not them. Which allows them to go beyond the surface, because they do not have to “save face” – or whatever it is we think we are doing when we stick to our egos. What is also important: in a normal process the actors are in a different position than the characters. The characters do not know what is going to happen to them, the actors do. In this case, the actor knows as much as the character, no more and no less. In that sense this is a gift for an invested actor. The goal of an actor is always emotional truth. Perhaps this process takes it as close to the bone as possible.
– What about editing?
Being able to do this, is based on being able to go no budget (so long prep), multiple cameras and mics, and DIY in desktop editing, where you are telling the story again. For me, that is where the third stage of the writing is happening. You know, it is funny, because there is a notion that improv means no writing, but actually the opposite is the case. It means more writing. My process has three stages of writing:
(1) The first is the writing of the conventional screenplay; (2) the second the set-up of the improvs, what you choose to be improvised each time, how and when you distribute the knowledge, what you do with characters and details that pop up unexpectedly during the improvs, do you ignore or take them in etc. Actually, the work is endless and very intense in this stage. Fellow writers will understand, when I say that it reminds me of the work we do as writers when we structure and restructure a screenplay, that mind boggling decision-making process; and (3) the third is the editing, where you assemble whatever you have into a story which allows for an emotional journey.
– Is there any pitfall in the way you are working?
I guess, as in life the biggest pitfall, and our biggest enemy, is doubt – and doubt comes from our insecurities, our fears. Everybody’s fears including mine. Again, let me give you an example: In the first season of the web series we have three episodes which are called The Dinner I-III, and these episodes were shot in a real apartment with multiple cameras, at a real dinner setting. So it was all one action. I would still interrupt from time to time especially in the beginning. One of the actors, confessed to me later that he felt insecure about me interrupting, because he thought that I was doing it because I was not getting what I wanted. In fact, the opposite was the case. I wanted to make sure that they are going the way they are, not because they think that this is where I want them to go – so, it was my insecurity against his. How funny is that? We are all focused on our fears. The work we are doing is amazing also in that sense: we all learn so much about ourselves and the way we all function.
– So whose story is it?
(laughs) I have no idea. I lived. I told myself what I lived. I wrote it down. It comes back to life through a collaborative process, and in doing so, it opens my eyes to dimensions I have never perceived. So it belongs to all of us, I guess. It certainly feels that way.
The interview was conducted by Dollena Campbell and Avantika A Shankar.
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