Roadside’s ensemble members grew up without television, immersed in a world of local stories and oral histories. The oral tradition, often in ballad form, is the most prominent feature of our shared Scots-Irish heritage, and it has shaped the content and determined the form of Roadside’s plays.
If you have ever sat with friends and kin singing, spinning tales, and recounting oft told histories, you will quickly see where Roadside is coming from: the play’s tellers sometimes carry the narrative, sometimes take on characters, and often call out a phrase in unison with lines suddenly doubling and overlapping within a general motif of call and response.
In our Appalachian performance tradition, as well as in other performance traditions into which we have been invited to perform (the southern African American and Puerto Rican traditions come right to mind), call and response extends beyond the stage to include the audience. The grand result is the rich choral effect of harmony and counterpoint that is group storytelling, whether on a front porch or in an auditorium.
Not only can the oral tradition effectively generate content for building plays from scratch, but, after performances of the staged play, story circles with audience and cast can provide a nuanced feedback loop for audience members to integrate the play’s experience into their own lives, as well as for the play’s artists to deepen their understanding of the performance. In effect, such circles continue the play’s action into a new Act, providing a way for the community to talk to itself about the play’s themes, and for the performance itself to mature.
It has been Roadside’s experience that the stories we’re able to tell ourselves and others, those we can understand and imagine, define not only what we understand to have occurred, but what we think can be possible in our individual and collective lives. In the course of sharing stories, difficulties in a community often rise to the surface, including issues from which its members are suffering.
Roadside’s particular Story Circle methodology supports a basic principle of such community change work: those who directly experience a problem must make up the generative base for devising and enacting the solution. In this work, Roadside uses its Story Circle methodology to help individuals discover their own truth of the issue, and then to test and develop that truth in dialog with other community members.
By periodically collecting and organizing the knowledge about the issues generated by the stories, communities have an informed basis for taking action, supported by an enhanced sense of mutual trust. To sustain the momentum for change, the process of individual and collective learning about an issue must continue to inspire and shape change.
For example, Roadside worked in a rural Montana county where the community was bitterly divided over a proposal to close the last one room school and to consolidate the small high schools into one large county school. Many students and parents supported the change, but the elders of the community were stubbornly opposed. Participants in Story Circles held after Roadside’s performances turned to this as their topic.
At first, younger people shared stories about difficulties getting the classes they needed to get into college. Then the first elder, a woman in her eighties, began her story with, “They just don’t have good fights in schools like they did when I was a girl.” She went on to tell about the Saturday night dances at the one room schools, and how some of the men would go outside to take a nip, and a fist fight over a girl would inevitably ensue, be broken up, and the dance continued – and to paint a picture of the weddings held at the schools during the summer full moon so everyone could waltz across the prairie in the moonlight.
After her story, the next teller, a younger man with teenage children, said, “I couldn’t understand why you were so against getting a better education for our children. Now I see that the old schools weren’t just places to learn reading and writing, they were the heart of the community. If big consolidated schools can’t be that, how can we develop heart another way?”
Because stories are powerful and can easily be used for purposes of domination and exploitation, rather than collective development, Roadside is formal about its Story Circle approach. In essence, the group sits in a circle, and each person tells a personal story based on a mutually agreed upon theme. In the facilitator’s introduction, it is noted that stories should have characters, a setting, some aspect of conflict, and a beginning, middle, and end. No one can join the story circle late, and everyone must participate.
Calculated by the amount of time allotted for the circle divided by the number of participants, each person is asked to tell a story of approximately the same length. The circle begins when the first person starts, and then moves to the individual to that person’s right. Even if someone tells a controversial story, there is no cross talk in response; participants must wait to respond through their own story. As the telling moves around the circle, one can pass if not ready to tell, for the opportunity to speak will come around again.
The story circle as practiced by Roadside encourages a meditative quality of deep listening. Naturally when the circle’s theme is decided, participants immediately begin thinking about what story they are going to tell; however, it is suggested by the facilitator that they not tell that story, but rather let the story they tell come to them from listening to the stories of the others.
There is no circle timekeeper, as it is expected that the group will create its own rhythm – for example, after listening to the preceding story, the timing of beginning one’s own story is the teller’s choice. After everyone has told their story, the group reflects together, now with cross talk, about what just happened. Were there common or strikingly divergent themes? Was there now a new story in the middle of the circle?
Story Circles engender appreciation for the unique intellectual, emotional, and spiritual qualities of each participant, and develop oral expression and listening skills. Each one of our stories is a gift to those who are listening, with the quality of the listening a gift in return to the storyteller.