Spring 2017

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Five Questions: Rives Collins

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Interview by Jack Corrigan.

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Theater professor Rives Collins shares the secret to telling a good story and explains why storytelling is more important than ever.

Rives CollinsWhy are stories important?

I think they’re reflective of how the human mind works. We make sense of the world by taking data and gathering it in narrative form to remember it and seek meaning in it. There’s a quote I love from Rebecca Solnit: “The stars we are given. The constellations we make.” Like the constellations, stories are made by people who see patterns and find meaning in the world around us. Storytelling is also important because it invites us to walk in one ­another’s shoes. I’m going to reference sacred text: Star Wars. In Return of the Jedi, the Ewoks … tie up Luke Skywalker and Han Solo, and they’re going to eat them. The only one to rescue them is C-3PO. He gathers the Ewoks around the fire and … tells the epic journey of Han and Luke and their battle against Darth Vader. By the end of the story, the Ewoks’ leader pounds the drum and proclaims them part of the tribe. I think stories can be the bridge that can make us part of one another’s tribe.

So what makes a good story?

The first piece is that it has to be a story that the teller loves to tell. It’s one you’re passionate about. I love stories that involve a struggle. I’m less interested in hearing about heroes whose lives are all put together than I am in hearing about people who are broken just like the rest of us and who struggle to make their way in the world. That struggle, I often find, makes for a really compelling story.

What’s the biggest obstacle people face in telling stories?

I think the biggest one is the sense that … “I know people who are real storytellers, but I’ve never been much of a storyteller myself.” Storytelling is a folk art form, and we’re the folk. It’s an art form that belongs to the people, and it’s something that everyone does already. Teaching people about storytelling is a bit like teaching fish what water is called. You find out it’s ubiquitous — storytelling is all around us.

If you had to give one piece of advice to help people tell a better story, what would it be?

Know why you’re telling the story, and that will guide you as to what to leave out. My father-in-law, whom I love a lot … tells brilliant five-minute stories. The problem is it takes him about 30 minutes to do it. In the same way that a sculptor would chip away the things that aren’t necessary, the good storyteller knows what he can chip away until the parts that are left are valuable.

How does storytelling fit into modern society, given our technological advances and shorter attention spans?

Part of the stock and trade of storytelling is nurturing the imagination both of the teller and the listener. In a high-tech world, storytelling is a high-touch art form. John Nesbitt predicted that as we get more high-tech, we’re going to be more hungry for first-person experiences. Virtual reality is awesome, but it’s still great to see real stars under a night sky. The ability to be in a room with other humans and hear the telling of a story, that’s high-touch stuff.