Performing Public Narrative: Oral history, play-making and dialog

freddy wavesA bit of history and explanation:

Over the past few years I have done a number of oral history interviews with folks who work for Cornell Cooperative Extension. At the same time I’ve also been involved in work around digital storytelling and social media. Within the past year I’ve been using the public narrative framework as a tool to frame these efforts and create something cohesive out of these work. And during the past few months I was involved with the production of a play that made use of some of the oral histories I have gathered.

I mention all of this in order to give a bit of context to what follows. Some toplay1pics I am reasonably acquainted with, some I am relatively new to and am working to understand more deeply. So, anything I happen to say that is not new, novel or unique likely rises from my current status as active learner among these topic.

Performing Public Narrative: Oral history, play-making and dialog

As part of a larger project I recently worked with some theater folk (Civic Ensemble) in the creation and performance of a new play about the work of extension called Circle Forward. Circle Forward was written by Godfrey Simmons, artistic director of Civic Ensemble, and made use of dialog extracted from a number of oral history interviews I have conducted,. The play also integrated pieces of dialog from some deliberative forums we had conducted as part of the Extension Reconsidered project here, as well as text taken from historical documents.

As this process of creation and performance unfolded I began to think of it as a public narrative – weaving together different components representing stories of self, us and now and staging them in a very deliberate and structured way in order to point towards a future (or futures) for our work.


Performing public narrative

Given that there was only one performance of Circle Forward, I feel as though this is a fairly apt encapsulation of the process. Given time and funding, however, it is easy to imagine this process being fleshed out more deeply (as I am sure it has been in other contexts and topics – just not sure if it has been viewed/understood as public narrative?). With multiple performances that integrated dialog or deliberation after the performance you can develop a spiral, an evolution of the stories of us and now that begins to clearly articulate the critically hopeful story of the future.

Circle Forward – the performance

Some of the stories included in Circle Forward can be found in interviews on our Extension Reconsidered blog .

I am hoping that we can continue to pursue this process and path. There is tremendous potential here to create public narratives that bridge difference, and seek common pathways forward. We need to learn to talk to each other again and there is something deeply magical about theater, performance.

And as a small side note-  though I haven’t yet talked to them some of the interviewees were in attendance at the performance and I wonder how it felt to see and here their words re-staged and performed. I know personally, looking out and seeing them in the audience, knowing that I had sat with them in the interview, had helped facilitate the words to a degree, the experience was …interesting and powerful.

What I’m reading now related to the above:


Building narratives with social media, workshop agenda

Agenda/timeline for the upcoming Short stories: Building narratives with social media workshop series. The first session is front loaded with a lot of content and less ‘creation’ in order to (hopefully) establish a common baseline to work from. Participants are bringing a varied, though generally not high, level of familiarity with Twitter and Instagram. It is a challenge to teach the tool and technique in such a compressed amount of time, so I suppose I should find or develop a few quick start guides for the tools for folks to walk away with as an ongoing support mechanism.

Download the PDF file .

Considering public narratives

I recently gave a short workshop on digital and social media and public narratives. In preparing I accumulated some resources but also began to think deeply again (or reconsider) the issue of hope in the stories we tell. I have often fallen into the easy trap of telling naively hopeful stories. These kinds of stories come naturally, I think, and do not necessitate a deep reflection into harder truths or events. But in framing these stories as part of a public narrative, a narrative that demands honest reflection in the creation of a story of self, the resulting arc of hope that flows from the story assumes a more critical stance.

As I was waiting in the airport last week, I wrote this:

“We forget, too often, that we speak the world – that language (in a broad sense) can birth the new. 

Too often the stories we tell are too small, too modest, too safe. The heart has to break and in that breaking open learn new words, tell new stories.”

The honest stories of self that we all have can, in the telling and hearing, insure that our arc of hope is critical but not despairing.









A few resources:

What is public narrative (pdf) Marshall Ganz

Crafting your public narrative – from a climate change perspective (pdf) is a very good document with reflections, tips and templates for creating stories of self,us and now.

Public narrative, collective action and power (pdf) Marshall Ganz

Why stories matter Marshall Ganz

Marshall Ganz wikipedia entry