Every year, masses from around the globe flock to Jonesborough, TN, a small town that less than 6,000 people call home. They gather in Jonesborough for the National Storytelling Festival. In 1973, sixty or so people gathered on hay bales and wagons to share stories with one another. Today, those wagons have been replaced with crowded lines of tents and the festival has been dubbed one of the top 100 events in the United States. What is all the fuss about?
If you were to attend the International Storytelling Festival you’d see storytellers and performers from around the globe, all giving glimpses of their own stories and cultures. The phenomenon is reflective of a fundamental truth- stories bring people together. The unifying power of a good story was one of the driving reasons I chose to pursue acting in college and the more I learn about the power of stories, the more I am convinced of their indispensable value. When it comes down to it: timeless stories touch us, exercise our empathy, and are fuel for the soul.
Timeless Stories Touch Us
Ever since the beginning of time, people from different walks of life gathered around campfires to hear a common story. Live theater and cinema are that very campfire but on a modernized and grand scale. They bring people together, clearly. The real question is why?
A good story touches on something universally human- fundamental truths that people, regardless of cultural background, can relate to. The stories that manage to do that last for ages and are praised worldwide. The ones that don’t tend to die off. Furthermore, the stories that tap into uniquely human attributes are retold- updated to fit a changing society (new language, storytelling mediums, etc.) See if you can name this story:
A king is slain at the hands of his own brother, who subsequently seizes power of the kingdom. The young prince, seeing his father appear as a ghost, is called to action against the aforementioned murderous uncle. After spending some time in exile and wrestling with some internal turmoil, the prince faces the uncle to avenge the father and take back the throne.
You might have said Hamlet. You might have also said The Lion King. You wouldn’t be wrong in either case, the two have very similar plots and they are both immensely popular. The difference here is that The Lion King is the updated iteration of an age old story, tailored to fit a new generation. (You can read all about their similarities online, it’s pretty neat.)
Shakespeare likely wasn’t the first person to tell the story of Hamlet and he most definitely will not be the last. It taps into something deeper about what it means to be human and the struggles we grapple with on a daily basis. Putting our finger on that specific ‘something’ can be a little harder, but it is undeniably present. If a story manages to do that, it can universally resonate- leaping over cultural differences. That’s significant. That is empathy embodied. That is a unifying force.
An Exercise in Empathy
Stories are reflective of the culture that they are born out of. As such, each story is painted with unique cultural elements: the history of that culture, their specific storytelling medium, aesthetics, language, etc. When a story is able to tap into that universally human element, it allows people outside of that culture to drop into and better understand it. It’s an exercise in empathy, which to me, feels especially important in such a divided time.
For example, The Korean film, Parasite, won best picture at the Oscars this year. It is a fantastic film and I recommend watching it if you haven’t. The story resonated in the States despite being culturally different. Regardless of whatever message you took from the film, it exposed many people to Korean filmmaking and storytelling. Additionally, stories like this bridge the gap between cultural divides, breeding an understanding that, as a species, we all grapple with and long for the same things.
This was part of the reason I wanted to move to NYC for college. The city is incredibly diverse and people from all walks of life come and share their stories through the lens of their own life experiences. I find that incredibly fascinating and it is something to be celebrated.
Fuel For The Soul
I know that this post is about storytelling, but I want to talk about athletics for a minute. Similar to stories, athletics bring people together. People unite to support a team. Teammates experience an intense camaraderie, just as the cast of a play does. There is something fulfilling about a good game of football. If there wasn’t, the NFL wouldn’t be a multi-billion dollar industry. More significantly, sports wouldn’t be a worldwide phenomenon. It doesn’t matter where you look, athletic events are present in every culture (as are stories).
That’s because athletics fuel a deeply tribal and physical need we have as human beings. Admit it, the community found in rallying around a team (regardless of whether you actually care about the sport) is satisfying. So is witnessing the tightly spiraled pass of a football or an energized, precise rally in a match of tennis. We need sports because they serve as a healthy outlet for that tribal and physical inclination we all have. How does that relate to storytelling?
Well, storytelling is also an outlet for some of our deepest biological processes. When characters on stage (or screen) battle with their struggles, it can be cathartic for us. It is powerful to witness someone trudge through and overcome challenges we face in our own lives. People look at that actor and say, “Yes! That’s me! I’m seen! I’m not alone.” More-so, these characters can be guiding forces. When a character faces a challenge that we can relate to, they do it in either a manner we should emulate or avoid. More often than not, when the character succeeds it’s because they did the right thing (the thing we should emulate). When they fail, it’s because of their own tragic flaws that we should do our best to avoid. If Oedipus wasn’t so damn cocky, he might’ve avoided his tragic fate (the details of which I’ll spare you from).
It can be easy to think, “Yeah, okay, sure… but Marvel is a wildly successful franchise. Those stories resonate, but they don’t relate to me.” Yes, they do. No, the average person isn’t battling against a giant, purple madman from outer-space (we’ll leave that to Chris Evans and Robert Downy Jr.). However, many people are dealing with loss. They’re overcoming fear or self-doubt. Those films say, Heroism is having strong moral character (Captain America). They say, Heroism is overcoming selfish inclinations for the greater good (Iron Man). They say, the only way we can face the brutal reality of existence is together. Those films, while fantastical, accomplish what many mythical stories did for the Greeks and Romans. The story of Icarus is about pride, not being able to fly.
The Importance of Storytelling
Clearly, stories have value. We should never stop telling them. People live on after death through stories. Stories bring humanity together. They help us navigate the world, telling us how we should and shouldn’t operate. They’re the snapshot of the human soul in a specific moment. Take the time to support an artist. Go see a local show at a community theater. Sit down and write a story in your journal (fiction or non-fiction, it doesn’t matter)- something important to you. Ask your parents or your grandparents about their lives. See what you can learn. Experience how it brings you closer together. Storytelling is important, essential, really- which is why I am thankful for the opportunity to study acting on a daily-basis.
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