Memorials, Narrative, and “Audience Engagement”

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My gorgeous grandparents on their 20th anniversary.

Diane Ragsdale’s spot-on post about coercive philanthropy today reminded me of this post I wrote for Theatre Bay Area’s blog in May.

While I applaud “audience engagement” pieces– works created alongside the audience or that incorporate the audience as performer in some way, I still believe, strongly, in the power of traditional storytelling. Here’s the post. You can also click on the link above to read it in its original posting.

I recently went to a memorial service for a remarkable woman, Jane Lind. To say that Jane was “remarkable” or even “unique” just doesn’t cover it—she was so much more than your garden-variety “unique.” She was magical, and that is not a word I use lightly. She left an indelible mark on everyone she knew. She was unforgettable.

I’ve been to far too many funerals and memorial services, for so many different kinds of people. Some were people whose lives and personalities were more conventional, and some were more like Jane: singular, magnetic, extraordinary. Yet every memorial had one thing in common: the most memorable, important aspect of each memorial were the stories people told. At Jane’s memorial, people got up and told story after story after story highlighting her exceptional presence, her magic, her humor, her nurturing. Yes, we all nodded. That was Jane. And every memorial I’ve ever been to has been the same.

What does this mean? I can string together descriptive adjectives all day, but they are, essentially, meaningless without the narratives that created the impulse to use them.

When we die—when our physical presence has evacuated—what is left, what lives on in the minds and hearts of others, are our narratives. Our memories of others are made of narratives. We are, to others, a collection of narratives, down to the bone.

It doesn’t necessarily need to be linear narrative, or complete narrative. I can walk into a building and tell instantly if someone is wearing the perfume my grandmother used to wear, and it will stop me dead in my tracks, even after all these years. Jane’s perfume will always be Jane to me. These are small narratives—I remember being in your physical presence, and how that made me feel. And then there are the more lengthy narratives—stories that we share, and laugh, and remember.

In all this talk of “audience engagement,” and the push toward incorporating audience participation into all kinds of theatre, I can’t help but wonder if this is a good direction. Yes, audience participation events can be amazing, life-changing, deeply satisfying, artistically profound. But I still think that we, as humans, need each other’s narratives. We need to tell stories, and, perhaps even more importantly, we need to hear each other’s stories. “Tell me another story about Grammy, Mommy,” my son asked as we sat next to my mother’s grave. And I told him story after story after story of my mother—irreverent, brilliant, hilarious. That was all I had of her to give him. It was the best I had of her. And he sat, five years old, rapt.

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My mother was head cheerleader at Washington High School in Fremont, CA in 1959.

We need to hear narrative, because we are all narrative-based creatures. Yes, we need to make stories together, but we also need to hear each other’s stories. That will never change. I applaud audience engagement events, but we need to leave room for, and continue to honor, traditional narrative events as well. Sometimes listening to someone else’s narrative is the only way to access that narrative, or someone who’s gone, or a unique, extraordinary moment we could never have imagined before. So perhaps we should push pause on this burgeoning idea that audience engagement as participation is the future for theatre. It is a future for theatre. But we will still, and always, need to tell stories and to hear them. That’s what humans are.

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2 thoughts on “Memorials, Narrative, and “Audience Engagement”

  1. Yes. This. Absolutely. This is why I am a writer. Thank you!

  2. NN says:

    Good post. I tackle this too when I write. I remember a line from a song, “Unbelievable sights, Indescribable feeling…” I guess you had to have been there.

    When a tragedy happens experts tell us to beware of people who seem to be acting “weird.” What does that mean? It seems hardest to put what we mean and how we feel into words sometimes but that’s the goal.

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