Last Saturday evening, after a second, and even longer and deeper than yesterday’s, massage that left me feeling euphoric and toxin-free and wondering why I don’t get massages more often, I bundled up and made my way again to the old schoolhouse to hear Megan Wells tell “Helen’s Troy.” It would be the third and final storytelling piece in the 2008 “Going Deep: Long Traditional Story Festival” in Bethlehem, Indiana.
Megan Wells came to storytelling from theatre. Her theatre background continues to inform her work as an oral tradition storyteller.
When we entered the schoolhouse’s meeting room, the chairs had been re-arranged to face the small raised platform – the stage – that was at one end of the room. The huge American flag on the back wall had been covered by a large piece of white cloth. Other pale cloths were swathed at the window and draped over two strategically placed benches and a large folding screen. I think the light cans on the ceiling may have been adjusted to fit Wells’ blocking of this piece, too. Or perhaps she adjusted her blocking to fit the lights.
Wells was dressed in a pale, flowing costume, talking quietly to her daughter as she adjusted her hair extension. She also greeted people as they came in. When it was time to begin, the MC, Liz Warren, welcomed everyone and introduced Wells, but then Wells greeted the audience, too, before she began her actual storytelling.
She stayed herself the whole time as she moved about the stage. She stayed herself telling a story, but she embodied (not just talked about) several characters in the story as she narrated. For example, Wells is a tiny woman, but I leaned back reflexively when she portrayed Achilles’ shaking and roaring with rage at his friend being killed.
She knew the story so well that it came out as smoothly as if she knew it by heart. But she knew the story in her heart. She had not memorized the words.
It was a powerful, powerful piece.
I didn’t know much about Helen of Troy (aka Helen of Sparta) going in. Oh, sure, I had heard the phrase, “The face that launched a thousand ships” and I knew about the big wooden horse trick that got the Spartan soldiers into the city of Troy so that they could burn it down. I had heard of Homer’s “Odyssey” and I knew about Zeus and some of the Greek goddesses: Aphrodite, for example, and Athena and Hera. But I didn’t really know how they all fit together or who Helen was.
I learned at the same time Helen did that she was not a regular girl but the daughter of a human woman, Leda, and a god who had disguised himself as a swan.
I felt as puzzled and rejected as Helen did when Theseus whisked her away but then left her alone.
I felt as overwhelmed as Helen did, I think, when she came back and her father made her many suitors vow on dead horse parts to always protect her, even when she married Menelaus instead of them.
I felt as disappointed as Helen when Menelaus turned out to be a clueless lover.
I felt as conflicted as Helen did when Paris came along and tempted her to follow her passion instead of her duty.
And later, I believed completely that Helen could love truly love both men and want neither of them harmed.
Wells’ telling left me satisfied (weeping, actually) but it also made me want to learn more. Her telling was poetic and densely filled with imagery, but also very accessible.
The next morning, Wells opened her workshop with a guided meditation that she had learned from a woman who had died from a rattlesnake and come back, bringing this meditation with her. (If I can find the woman’s name, I will add it here.) We stood in a circle and imagined ourselves trees, with white light reaching down our bodies into the earth, forming a sort of straw for the earth to drink from. The earth sucked down from us anything that we no longer needed. It wasn’t a hardship or a sacrifice on anyone’s part. What was waste to us was nourishment for the earth, like the partnership between humans breathing out carbon dioxide and trees breathing out oxygen.
After the earth had drunk her fill from us for the moment, the white energy changed to red and came back up and filled our bodies, healing and energizing us all the way to the tips of our leaves/fingers.
Then we imagined a purple-white light coming down to us from the stars. The purple light swirled and mixed with the red light that was already inside us and formed a comfortable bubble around our heart.
We imagined that bubble gently expanding to include our whole body, and then expanding further until it touched, and gently merged with, the bubbles of the people standing next to us. All of our merged bubbles formed a sort of donut, which we then gently expanded further in our minds until the hole in the middle filled up and our communal bubble surrounded the Storyteller’s Riverhouse where we were meeting, and then the whole town of Bethlehem, and then the whole planet.
Eventually, Wells guided us back into our own bodies and we found our seats.
Wells said, “Now I’d like to open this up to however you want to talk about the story we heard last night.” Someone asked her to talk about her process in developing “Helen’s Troy.”
Wells said that when she first started working on it, she knew that she wanted to go beyond the superficial ways that Helen is usually portrayed: i.e., as either a cruel slut or a vacuous, helpless innocent.
Then she found herself trying to make it a projection of her own, personal story about the time when she was raped as a teenager. But it is not her story. It is not even a “feminist story,” whatever that means. It is Helen’s story, with all of the complexity and uniqueness that comes with any individual’s personal story.
Yet there are many, many universal resonances within Helen’s story, too.
“This whole thing is about agenda,” Wells said. One of the many powerful lines in the piece is when Helen says, “Is it my fault my father was a swan?” and her mother answers, “No, Helen. It is not your fault. It is your fate.”
And a little later, “Don’t be a woman withered from hoping for change.” In other words, move towards your fate, rather than away from it.
We talked a lot about fault vs. fate. At one point Wells had us find new partners and tell each other about a memory we have been carrying about something that was our fault. Then we were to retell is as if it had been our fate. It was a fascinating exercise.
As with each of the other workshops, we talked about ways to work on a story for telling, as well as ways to unpack the story we had just heard.
In Wells’ workshop, for example, we talked about structure, and about using a variety of ways to make a story tighter and clearer by letting the structure tell you what you can leave out. Wells shared a handout of several “structure windows.” You can look at your story in terms of the stages of the Hero’s Journey, for example, or the standard points in a folktale’s classic arc.
She also gave us another handout and demonstration on how to deepen our understanding of each individual character in a story that we are working on. Wells makes a set of character cards out of strips of construction paper, with each color representing a category such as education, age, attitude towards love, and so on. Within a category, each strip is different. “Education” might include “homeschooled,” “high school grad,” “college grad,” “apprentice,” etc. She puts all of the strips face down on the floor and then thinks of the character she wants to understand better. Then she pulls one strip from each category and reads it to see what she might discover about the possibilities within that character.
As she demonstrated this for us using the character of Harry Potter, it seemed to me that even though the tarot-like aptness of most of the cards was amazing, what was most interesting and useful was the rare card that did not seem to fit the character at first glance.
We talked about ways to turn a story “upside down” in order to discover something new about it, just as Einstein solved the problem of how to mass-produce his new light bulb by turning his one prototype bulb upside down. He found he could get the elusive and necessary volume measurement by filling the upside down bulb with water and then measuring the water.
We talked about storytelling as an inherently participatory art form, not something you can just passively watch.
We talked about the three overlapping circles of authenticity: the authentic voice of the teller, the authentic voice of the story itself, and the authentic listening of the audience. When all three of these are truly authentic AND when they interact with each other in a deep and balanced way, then…Stuff happens. Bliss happens.
This happened at the “Going Deep” festival, both in 2006 and 2008. That’s why I love it. I can hardly wait until 2009!
Current and future projects for Megan Wells include a play called “The Riddle Quest,” which she wrote and which she is directing at her daughter’s middle school. It is based on the Celtic story of “The Lady Ragnelle.” The riddle, as you may already know, is “What do women want?” That show goes up May 9. (Break a leg, Megan and Claire and everyone else involved with it!)
In October, Wells will do a 10-week run of her storytelling version of Bram Stoker’s “Dracula” at the Evergreen Theatre Company in Naperville, Illinois. For more information, please visit her website: www.MeganWells.com
The dates and tellers for the 2009 “Going Deep: Long Traditional Story Festival” have not yet been set, but I will post them here on my blog as soon as they are. You may also want to check in with the Going Deep blog from time to time as well.
Hope Baugh – www.IndyTheatreHabit.com