The Power of Storytelling
On a September day, a flamenco dance teacher arrived for a month-long storytelling workshop, a pilot for Ron Bunzl’s project CIRC/US, only to find her own former dance instructor, the one whose classes she’d left with abiding body shame and corrosive self-doubt, was a fellow participant.
“They went through an amazing process together which actually healed it,” Bunzl remembers. Resolving traumatic conflict wasn’t his explicit goal, he says, but storytelling has that power. The resulting performance revealed, among other things, the story of how she conquered her feelings of inadequacy. In the same performance, her old teacher came out publicly as a gay man for the first time, while another participant, a violinist, combined words, music and theatrical performance to relate her narrative of coming to terms with sexual harassment.
The audience was deeply touched, Bunzl says. He’s a performing arts specialist, theatre director and film maker who has spent almost the entirety of his 71 years as a practising artist. Aside from a 3-week stint in his early 20’s filing architectural drawings, it’s the only job he has ever had, he says. Although he studied painting, drawing and music, he spends most of his time producing theatrical productions like CIRC/US.
Storytelling, he explains, “is basically our fundamental human activity of organising, observing our environment, and organising it in ways that make some kind of sense for us.” Our lives, in other words, are ongoing stories we tell ourselves, “and that story reflects our values and our preferences and our worries and our fears and our hopes and our dreams, and it is the way that we shape our identity.”
He continues, “It’s also the way we create our relationships, because we share those stories with others, and where they resonate, connections are made, communities are made, families are made, businesses are made, football fan clubs are made, religions are made. Everything comes from that.”
Embracing both darkness and light
That’s why Bunzl’s brand of storytelling isn’t always about dealing with the past. Just as often, “It’s about envisioning present and future possibilities, and things that are really positive, things that are in people’s hearts that they actually long for,” he says.
He measures the success of both his projects and his life by how completely he and his collaborators “are able to embrace the full gamut of experience.” That doesn’t mean dwelling unnecessarily on our demons, he adds.
“If we’re going to explore some form of personal suffering or trauma or pain, it needs to be for the purpose of creating a compassionate connection with ourselves and our audience,” he says. That connection can then be both a source of comfort, and a catalyst for personal awakening.
To stimulate the creative process in participants, Bunzl often begins by asking why they came his workshop. “It doesn’t really matter what people might answer to that question,” he says, “because you start on the surface, and you always go deeper, because there’s always something behind that.”
He also employs tools like automatic writing and word play. Participants often explore themes related to Bunzl’s own journey of personal development. The theme of the September workshop, for example, was “community impact and respons-ability,” which Bunzl defines as “the ability to respond”.
Making art in spite of obstacles
The process of finding our stories isn’t always comfortable, he admits. Often, it entails confronting our darker sides, and people who make a living telling stories often have to contend with external discomforts in addition to internal ones. Bunzl himself has spent portions of his life sleeping on couches, and, these days, taking care of himself financially means spending more time than he’d like “hustling,” filling out grant applications and promoting his work.
“Perhaps even a bigger challenge is to not let those things be an excuse for not creating,” he says.
One of his current projects, for example, is called Songlines. It’s a partnership with fellow “artistivists” (Bunzl’s term for artists/activists) to create a travel company based in Italy.
“We’re actually looking to take people on a journey that has to do with discovering themselves, and discovering others, and coming into contact, and leaving something behind, and taking something home in terms of an experience that will somehow transform you, and therefore transform your environment as well,” he explains.
Unfortunately, the trip scheduled for April doesn’t have enough participants at the moment to be economically feasible. “Now, I could take that as an excuse, or as a reason to postpone it,” he says. Still, he continues, “I’m gonna do it anyway, and if there’s only 4 people there, well, then, we’ll do something beautiful with 4 people.”
“I feel that what I want to share with people is important, and if I’m sharing it with 3 people instead of 20, or 200, or 2000, you know, it’s OK. It’s good. It needs to be done anyway, and of course each step is a step in a process, so it also unfolds the project. I learn things. It’s a learning journey for me, and this difficulty also stimulates my reflection and my searching and my research into finding ways to reach a bigger audience as well, but it will only do that if I actually engage with it.”
The artist’s life
His advice for other career artists is to refrain from considering art as a career. It’s actually more than that, he says. “It’s a calling, it’s your life purpose, and it will ask everything from you, so you need to be aware of that, and you need to be ready to take it on that way.”
For him, it has been a lifelong learning process, which is why, he says, he spends at least half his time reading, listening to podcasts, and watching videos. Although art is his source of income, he says it’s not, and never has been, primarily about making money. It’s about the need he has always felt to do creative work, and to share it with others.
Of course, he acknowledges, “If you dedicate your time to an artistic practise, you’re going to need to find a way to make that cover your material needs as well, otherwise you’re not going to be able to do it.”
“I’ve been very uncompromising in that sense. I very often went through periods of absolute no income, and just depending on other people’s kindness to get by, and living in squatted houses,” he says. Eventually, though, he managed to create what he calls “quite a luxurious lifestyle compared to what some people in the world have to put up with.”
He therefore knows it’s possible to make a living as an artist, “but I do think it takes a level of devotion and stubbornness to do it in the face of a lot of material challenges, and other kinds of challenges, which arrive.”
Still, in spite of all the hustling it requires, Bunzl says he’s profoundly grateful he can make a living doing what he loves. “Creating beauty and meaning is actually the most important thing in life, next to, you know, finding the food to keep us alive and a shelter to keep us safe,” he says.
You don’t have to be an “Artist” in the traditional sense to do it, either, he hastens to add. You can be “a baker, or a car mechanic, or a parent, or whatever.”
“I think we’re all here to be artists… the ‘art’ is the art of living. it’s the heart of our life’s purpose, in a way: to realise that part of ourselves.”
What about you, Reader? Has a story ever changed you? Let us know in the comments.
PS: I’m writing a book about the creative process. Subscribe to my blog for free, and when it’s done, I’ll send send you the first chapter.