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Composting the substance of our stories: conscientious storytelling towards community exchange

Who am I to tell you what your story does or doesn’t need, but I think I'm justified in telling you that being a storyteller requires you think conscientiously and compassionately about its substance, and what the substance of your story means in the world.

By substance, I mean whatever it is that makes your story tangible - materials, space, travel, digital equipment, virtual storage space, data, energy, fuel. All of these are interwoven into the fabric of how we make contemporary live work. They need to be held conscientiously, with understanding that the story, though intangible in many ways, carries a substantial weight.

I’m not telling you it doesn’t need to. It’s your story - your thing to do and say and share. I’m telling you as a storyteller you have a responsibility to do so with an expanding understanding of what it means to make things in a relational and interconnected world. Where does the substance of your story come from? Who is it made by? Where does it get stored? Who keeps it safe? Who looks after, takes care of and maintains it? How long does it last? In the event of its demise, how it is disposed of? There is a timeline of usage for the substance of our stories - as storytellers it is our responsibility to consider (though not necessarily answer) these questions as part of the process of making our intangible ideas into realised things and experiences.

It’s understandable to be shocked that we aren’t doing this already. The reason why it’s hard in the live arts especially is because our industry exists upon two very precarious foundations. The grasp of neoliberalism means we lack the time to consider our substance, and the nature of what we do requires a constant outward projection. The guise of flashy and glam is what’s wanted. Audiences want lights in their eyes, rather than a look in on the backstage, the scene dock, the rehearsal room. This has been heightened by the post-pandemic recession where the desire for live experience is limited only to big flash spectacle, easy viewing, joy-spin antics. I’m not placing a judgment value on this kind of work or on our audiences, but more wanting to hold an appreciation for the fact that it’s hard to dedicate time, money and energy to considering deeply the substance of our stories when interest in what goes on behind the scenes is already slim.

So why then is the question of substance, and becoming more conscientious storytellers, important? I think it’s something we as practitioners can easily do ourselves, and also ask others to undertake. Understanding what makes the story tangible is far easier to grasp then attempting to chase the ever-elusive more philosophical questions that climate breakdown presents for live art and collective experience. Substance is a starting point, and whatever the scale and size of our stories we always begin the journey of realisation with questions. A few more cost little to nothing, other than the energy of the person asking them. And quite frankly it’s 2022 - I think we should all be putting energy into asking as many questions of ourselves as possible.

So then we come to the question of want to do with all the questioning about the substance of our stories. What do you then do with the information you gain from considering one or some or even all of these questions? You make better decisions - decisions reflective of a more compassionate and innovative way of being and making in the world. This is where the potential lies to turn the substance of our stories into potentialities for other, less glitzy but nonetheless important experiences and exchanges.

This is where the connection between WILD ONION and collaborative composting comes in. The substance of WILD ONION, our onions, has become a container for a unique exchange in the moment of their disposal. In trying to be more conscientious about the use of a natural material in our work, we have been able to build connections and intersected communities who otherwise might not have found each other.

The crossover of people who are community garden volunteers and theatre goers is small. But these groups of people have things in common - a desire for connection with other people and more than human* beings; a value for presence, mindfulness, and peace; and a tendency towards embodied, feeling-full exchange with the world.

By bringing together these seemingly disparate groups through the collaborative composting arm of the WILD ONION project we connect through these shared feelings, and so present an access point into one another’s worlds, one that opens doors, more questions, and more opportunity to lead community-oriented livelihoods.

The substance of WILD ONION extends beyond the 55 minute performance, beyond the year-long tour, into an exchange that could alter the course of someone’s life. What if a theatre maker becomes a grower? What if a grower becomes a theatre maker? What if we instigate lifelong bonds that turn into relationships, friendships, families? What if we curate new audiences with venues, and new voluntary opportunities within our communities?

When we think consciously about substance we are able to move into worlds beyond our own. We expand out of ourselves only to find reflections of our own beliefs and passions in other people, other communities, other containers of shared experience. When we think about our substance, we can create performance that has tangible impact on the world beyond the theatre. What greater future can there be than one where our stories and all that makes them become portals?


*more than human is a term used in both ecological and performance theory, but refers to slightly different things. In ecology, it is used often in relationship to the 'natural' world and non-human organisms, as well as ‘inanimate’ substances and phenomena (eg. weather). In performance practice it has been adopted by scenographers and practitioners to refer to the aspects of performance beyond the human, including set, props, space, light, sound, make up, costume, video, projection, digital technologies and textual entities.

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