Thank you, Arden!
On Friday, 10 June, 2022, I was privileged to accept Arden Theatre’s Master Storyteller Award. I roamed The Independence Visitor Center with guests for a sparkling outdoor-indoor fête and shared the evening’s honor with (came-through-the-pandemic) Board Chair Bob Elfant, who received the award for Leadership and Service.
Special thanks to co-founders Terry Nolen and Amy Murphy, Granfalloon event producer Jonathan Silver, and presenter Daniel Leneé, who told me I should put my remarks into a blog.
So, once again: go home, comb the drafts, revise…
My husband Bob used to say: Oh, Lord, don’t give her an award; it just makes her think she has to work twice as hard.
He wasn’t wrong.
We live in an environment of bad stories, of lies told so often they sound inevitable, like the fiction of race, for instance, or our dominion over the earth. Storytelling may not be immediately urgent— but for us human beings it is necessary.
About how we tell our stories Poet Stanley Kunitz is quoted as having said this:
Form is a way of conserving energy. The energy soon leaks out of an ill-made work of art.
But how do you form works of art that do not leak? Especially new works, of which Arden has developed and premiered forty?
There’s a genius loci in the culture of Arden. They do not describe it this way, but I’ve thought of it in the terms I learned from poetry: conserving the human energy in the stories they, we, tell.
Or, think: A playwright, director, and funder walk into a bar…
What happens next will not only create the story but change each of them.
Toni Morrison said it with fierce poetic specificity in her Nobel Laureate acceptance speech. The story she told was of young people who challenge a blind old woman to tell them whether the bird they hold in their hands is alive or dead. When the supposedly wise old woman sidesteps, artfully, they chide her for her indirection:
Narrative is radical, creating us at the very moment it is being created. We will not blame you if your reach exceeds your grasp; if love so ignites your words they go down in flames and nothing is left but their scald.
If the theater folk walking into the bar reach together for love, and even if they fail to make art that holds it perfectly, well, then, they will still have created something that holds the energy of that moment of their lives together. And when the run is finished, they will be different, but more human. This storytelling together can be playful, life-giving, even scalding, work. Or it can just be telling stories, as my mother used to call falsehoods. It can be story-selling and drama. The bad kind.
To attempt art, not just product, the people who create theater contract to make themselves, ourselves, vulnerable. Our vulnerability allows fellow/sister humans to sit in the dark and open closed off hearts and minds. God knows, we have our reasons. “Time will come and take our love away.” And has done.
We also close down from fear, or expediency, or just to make it through the day. A well-told story holds — and releases — energy to help us open again. After laughter and a cry, in the presence of human beings who hold in the light their vulnerability and ours, we feel we can accept again the exquisite gift of consciousness — and its costs.
After a very bad half-draft of what was to become My General Tubman, Arden’s Artistic Director Terry Nolen treated me to coffee and asked what plays I admired. It gave me an opening to tell him that the Tubman time-travel thing I was struggling with rested on the story structure of Shakespeare’s Henry V: my own “little Harriet in the night…” To which he responded, “Whoa. Didn’t see that coming.”
But Terry listened deeply to my aspiration. Then he suggested I think about adopting Shakespeare’s Chorus as a character to mediate between the audience and Tubman past and present. That Chorus gave me my on-ramp into the play.
Terry also brought on James Ijames, recently awarded the Pulitzer for his brilliant play, Fat Ham, to direct the new production. James and the cast of amazing actors led by Danielle Leneé, along with our dramaturg, stage managers and design and tech professionals — all of them, despite hundreds of years of combined and variegated theater experience, showed up each day willing to create this new thing. Not “How is this like what I’ve done before?” But “how will we create this new thing for audiences?” That energy was in it. The willingness to err was in it. The search for love, too. And the knowledge that this storytelling will be new again, each performance with each new audience coming together to be replenished, refreshed, reminded, re-membered, renewed — and redeemed.
I accept this award with gratitude.
And, yes, Bob was right. I will try to make the next one even better.