All of us know what a story is. We might feel puzzled when asked, but if someone told us to tell a story, we know exactly what to do. Telling stories is an inextricable part of daily lives, both in connection with other people and with ourselves.

In my last workshop, we did a story circle—we sat together and told stories one after another. I gave a prompt to loosely guide us: stories from childhood, stories from your family, myths or urban legends. Starting from the act, we parsed out what constitutes this thing we call ‘stories’: there is always a figure or a character (a child, a parent, a random person), there is often a problem (ranging from ‘needed to buy something from the shop’ to ‘fleeing a war’), a climactic event (an argument, an accident, a near-death experience) and often a lesson. Stories also exist in a particular world (the house I grew up in, a holiday place, in my dreams). We also found within that circle that stories invoke emotion, and creates closeness and connection between the teller and the witness.

Of course, the theatre is not necessarily a place for story that is told through words in the same way as story circles. Years ago, I saw William Forsythe’s Impressing the Czar. The first act was like a Jan Matejko painting brought to life: knights, ballerinas and courtiers pranced through the stage in total chaos, there were arrows being shot. In the second act, we came into a minimalist blue landscape, save for a cherry hung in the middle. The dancers cut through swiftly, sharp as steel. The third act ‘Bongo Bongo’ was the most electrifying, where the entire company dressed in school girl uniforms and wigs (even the men), marched and danced this crazy, tribal, percussive number. I had no way of truly understanding what the piece was, but I went on a journey with them. And my experience of seeing this ‘story’ unfold on stage became a story in itself.

Below, I’ve outlined some ways that I have discovered are useful ways of looking at stories in devising theatre. These are far from exhaustive, and perhaps part of my desire to write this down is to start a conversation where this research can keep happening.


3-Act Story Structure

The 3-act story structure is the scaffolding behind many great plays, films and epics.

I learned the 3-act story structure especially from David Glass1 who simply put each act as follows:

Act 1 – in the beginning, there is a person in a place and a problem. By the end of Act 1, the person/people should know there is a problem.

Act 2 – the problem gets deeper, and wider. At some point in the end of act 2, there should also be a recap for the audiences of what the problem is (especially if your story is 3 hours long)

Act 3 – the problem is resolved, and by the end of Act 3, the people should know the problem is resolved.

There are many wonderful books, PDFs, PhD dissertations, etc. written already on this, so I won’t go into too much detail here. 🙂

The Sonata Form

My experience of watching Forsythe made me realize that using purely aesthetic forms, we can create a sense of a story or a journey. All those balmy afternoons spent studying music theory when I was 12 has finally come full circle! The sonata form is a very interesting precedent to look at.

The sonata form is a musical structure that consists of 3 parts (an exposition, a development and a recapitulation) – it is abstract in so far that it is a means of organizing tonal and melodic material, but its characteristic expressiveness, drama and dynamism has always given it a ‘psychological’ element.

If you’d like, you can try it yourself—lie down with your eyes closed and listen to a symphony or a sonata (I personally recommend Borodin’s Symphony no. 2 in B minor) and just follow the images that come to you. A lot of people (myself included) would often see an epic film unfold in your imagination.

Here is what I discovered in terms of how the aesthetics of space/physical action can borrow from the sonata form:

Exposition – the first movement is always upbeat, and introduces the main aesthetic motif/theme (in theatre, this could be movement qualities/gestures or even a literal topical theme).

Development – the 2nd movement is slower, but it is also the shortest. The 2nd movement also transports us to another world—in music, if the 1st movement starts in major, the 2nd movement would be in a minor key, vice versa. So there is a sense of the world shifting from major to minor/from day to night: in theatre and stories, there should be a sense of being transformed into a different space.

Recapitulation – the 3rd movement is the fastest. It returns us to a transformed main motif/theme within the world of the 1st movement.

I find that this creates a useful technical checklist when making a piece—am I starting with good energy? Am I enriching the piece by moving the audience to different spaces? Does the piece slow down too much in the middle (mine tend to!) and are we ending with good energy?

The Gathering

Live theatre and performances are gatherings, they are ultimately an encounter between the performer and the audience. Within the world of the fourth wall, we sometimes forget this, and it’s sad when that encounter only happens at the very end as the audience politely claps.

Priya Parker wrote ‘The Art of Gathering’—where she speaks about some of the necessary aspects of one:

The Beginning – a gathering needs to have a distinct beginning. There needs to be an acknowledgement that everyone who needs to be present has arrived, and the doors are being closed, and that we will embark on an experience that is ephemeral and special and only shared wiht all of those present. In other words, how do we start a piece by creating complicity with the audience? How do we invite them into the world of the piece?

The Ritual – Every gathering has a climax/a ritual—whether it is the bride and groom’s first dance, or the casket being dropped into the earth (or set in flame, if you’re in Bali). This climax is often the point of greatest intimacy between all who is gathered. Therefore, from the beginning up until this climax, the gathering is preparing everyone to rise to the occassion of this ritual.

The End – Likewise, the experience has to have a distinct end and closing. It also needs to safely return the gatherers/the guests back to their respective worlds outside of this gathering.

This is something that I have found very useful as a maker, and one that many of my students have also found enlightening. My hope is that this research is kept alive, and there will be many more ways and lenses to look at this elusive thing we call story 🙂

One response to “Stories”

  1. Thanks Elisabeth,
    Some other reading/viewing in case it’s useful:
    – Kurt Vonnegut on story shape
    – Into the Woods, John Yorke
    – A Short History of Myth, Karen Armstrong
    – Dan Harmon on the Story Circle
    – The Carrier Bag Theory of Fiction, Ursula K Le Guin
    – The Hero With A Thousand Faces, Joseph Campbell
    – The Encounter: Amazon Beaming, Petru Popescu
    – Folk Stories (introduction), Alan Garner
    – Staying With The Trouble: Making Kin in the Cthulucene, Donna Harroway

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