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Stories without beginnings, middles and ends

“A story should have a beginning, a middle and an end, but not necessarily in that order” (Jean-Luc Godard, film director) … yet I wonder whether a beginning, middle and end – in any sequence – is a true reflection of how we experience our own stories, our own lives; or whether, as Pat Barker put it in ‘The Ghost Road’, “another person’s life, observed from outside, always has a shape and a definition that one’s own life lacks”.

When we started work on our new production, ‘Small Histories’, part of what we were trying to capture was this sense that when we reflect on personal experiences we perceive them as snapshots, half articulated thoughts and memories, disjointed events that may or may not have a logical sequence; after all, when a particular episode of our life begins, we may not actually recognise that it’s a beginning; and similarly when the episode ends; things don’t fit together so neatly and it’s often only with hindsight that we are able to see the shapes and patterns of these episodes. In fact, apart from births and deaths, there are no actual beginnings or endings. There are significant moments of course – falling in love, going to university, starting a new job, having children, bereavement – but they are part of the broader, constantly changing pattern of our lives in which other things are happening at the same time and all of these things are woven into our experience as a continual process of flux and change.

In a similar way, the notion that we live our life from birth through to death as a single person ‘on a journey’ is misleading. The person we are now is different to the one we were five or ten years ago and we will probably be subtly different again fifteen years into the future. If our current adult self, at whatever age we are, bumped into our 15-year-old selves it is likely that we would have less in common than we expect because of the things that have happened to us subsequently and of which we had absolutely no notion at the time. Even our memories of particular events or places will change with time and our experience, and these constant small and subtle shifts in who we are will, inevitably, make us different.

Our day to day experience too exists on different levels. While our view of ourselves is that we are one person experiencing different circumstances and scenarios; in reality, and whether consciously or unconsciously, we are different versions of ourselves according to these circumstances: we are one person with colleagues and acquaintances say in a workplace, another person with family and friends, another with our lover or partner; the person we present to ourselves alone may be different again and there may even be a hidden ‘other’ within us who we barely know, let alone acknowledge.

Perhaps all of this is stating the obvious: stories aren’t real life and real life doesn’t consist of a series of self-contained stories, it is multi-layered and complex. Stories, in whatever form and however many twists and turns and layers they may contain, are structured so that they satisfy our need to step back from experience and view it as a clearly defined set of events – outside of time in a strange way, because a story can be experienced again and again – which in turn helps us to make sense of ourselves, of our emotions, of other people and the world around us.

It was in attempting to articulate an idea that didn’t fit into the category of ‘a story with a beginning, middle and end’ that was the starting point for ‘Small Histories’. The script took shape with this in mind and the form and style of the play itself evolved in the same way during the research and development process. The only concession to any sense of a formal, linear narrative was the knowledge that the characters are connected, by birth, over a number of generations.

Inevitably, the result is a work that has an impressionistic and abstract feel so the piece would be better described as ‘a performance’ than a conventional play or drama. But that’s fine … we are ‘out of kilter’ after all! In approaching the work this way our aim is to give expression to the idea that, at the core of each individual life is a huge array of experiences, memories, emotions and thoughts that merge and shift and re-align constantly. In themselves they may have no clear meaning or significance, they’re not part of a story and they certainly don’t appear to be relevant to the greater scheme of things. And yet, by focusing on these snapshots of things that have happened in each character’s lives – akin to Virginia Woolf’s ‘moments of being’ –  we grant them an importance and validity no less significant than those bigger events that we call history and in so doing, create a resonance in the audience that will reflect on their own ‘small histories’.

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