All Things Good and Strange

I love TV, and I don’t think I watch enough of it.

I’d watch more but it’s so slow*.  You can spend weeks of your life trying to hammer through season after season of just one show.  In Douglas Coupland’s 1993 novel Microserfs, characters “blitz” movies by watching videos on fast-forward with subtitles switched on.** My friend Katie, equally impatient, listens to audiobooks on chipmunk speed, but I don’t think I could sustain either approach for a full season of TV.

I watch television to get ideas for work. TV shows and community experiences like the ones I design have a lot in common. You need a central conceit which draws people in, and on which you can hang a series of recurring episodes. Action-adventure, problem solving, and play are closely entwined. This year’s non-speaking, musical keynote was inspired by dialogue-free sequences in the TV show Legion.

The teams I work with are pretty explicit about this link between TV and the events we run. The working title for Ann Arbor’s Wondrous Strange event was ‘Weirder Things’.

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Stranger Things is a difficult one for me because I’m not super into it, and that makes me feel bad. It’s so popular, I feel like I’m missing something. Like I’m out of touch. It’s doubly bad because I grew up immersed in – and totally in love with – the late 80s/early 90s world of Stephen King novels and pirate horror movies on VHS.

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It’s the Tyrell Corporation Comedy Hour!

On Friday, 20th October, I was the guest storyteller at Brisbane improv troupe Big Fork Theatre’s “Cool Story Bro“.

At “Cool Story Bro,” the guest storyteller shares tales from their past, based on audience prompts, which then become fuel for improv sketches by the troupe. It’s an interesting format with roots in the work of the Upright Citizens Brigade, which has been home to the likes of Amy Poehler, Donald Glover, and Aziz Ansari.

You can watch Tina Fey doing this kind of storytelling here:

I’m no Tina Fey, but I did my best. My stories came from the audience call-outs “cats”, “whales” (or “Wales”), and “first kiss”. As always with these things, it was entirely terrifying & nerve-wracking right up until the moment you stepped on stage and just had to do it.

I’ve been getting all excited about memories lately – how they blur the bounds between fact and fiction, how they might be shared or transplanted between us. And I like challenging myself to get out of my comfort zone.

I found stories from my life and told them messily and honestly, with plenty of detail for the improv troupe to riff off. In turn, they made skits about talking meteorites, a school for nervous possums, and TV cookery shows. It was fun to see your experiences reworked into something that preserved only the vibe; details warped and reworked into new contexts, themes you hadn’t spotted in your own tale coming to the fore.

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Postcards from the Future: Behind the Scenes at Wondrous Strange #notenoughscifi

Imagine letting your community dream wildly of the world to come.

Imagine collaborating on a future history spanning millennia.

Imagine turning public space into something that was wondrous and strange.

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As part of our time-travel themed festival of weirdness, storytelling, art and science at Ann Arbor District Library, we asked visitors to write postcards from the future.

We collected over 80 tales stretching from 2018 to the year 5000.

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Cool Story Bro at Big Fork Theatre

I tell stories and I always want to push myself to develop my storytelling skills. New challenges, new audiences, new ways of getting a tale onto the page or stage or screen.

I’m interested in memory, too: how we make it, preserve it, remake and share it.

Tonight I’m embracing both of those things with a session as guest storyteller for Brisbane improv troupe Big Fork Theatre.

Big Fork run a series called “Cool Story Bro”, where a storyteller recounts tales from their life in response to shouted audience prompts. Those stories then become the basis for skits improvised by the performers.

You can join me and the Big Fork gang at Cool Story Bro this Friday, 20th October at Hands On Art, 150 Enoggera Terrace, Paddington.

Marvellous, Electrical: Lusophone

We’re revisiting two previous instalments of Marvellous, Electrical in a new form this month.

My partner Marta Cabral reads “The Dough“, about Brisbane’s baker of Portuguese pastries, in a bilingual version here:

Portuguese speakers can also enjoy Marta reading “Foolaru”, my Australia Day piece from 2017, here:

Marvellous, Electrical is a two-year project in the form of an email newsletter from across Queensland, Australia and beyond.

You can subscribe to the newsletter here and enjoy the full archive at this link.

A museum is a story is a house and a home – @paulrbowers

Paul Bowers is Head of Exhibitions at Australia’s Museum Victoria.

During this week’s Museums Galleries Australia conference, Paul took time out to write a few words about the term “narrative”, currently in vogue among cultural institutions.

Paul argues that narrative can be a dangerous label for cultural institutions to bandy about.

“Narrative is singular, but the museum experience (stories, facts, things, people, audiences) is diverse”, he writes. He points out that few people experience a museum or exhibition as a defined story with a beginning, middle, and end. He reminds us that the museum is “conceptualised in law, policy, and culture as a never-ending entity”, unlike stories which come to a conclusion.

Paul starts to imagine “post-narrative exhibitions”, more open-ended experiences that break the constraints of linear narrative and which also step out of the “genres” within which culture professionals often see themselves:

We are often in a heroic genre – questing against ignorance. We have a lot of scientist-as-hero, in which they use effort, brains and a ‘magical agent’ (such as a DNA machine) to defeat ignorance. […] We should think about our character – are we Aragorn, Frodo, or Gandalf? The kingly hero, the ‘nobody’ with a heart of pure courage, or the wise one who initiates others into their knowledge? A museum could be all or any of these, but we usually default to being Gandalf without it being thought through.

Paul also talks about “shared universes” and trans media properties like the world that has sprouted from Marvel comics:

In a storyworld, the makers, the characters, the audience, are all together in enacting a story. They all believe. So I see that we need to place ourselves within a storyworld as well, not as simply the abstract producers of the product people come to see. If I use Dr Who as an example, when i read the comics, watch the TV show, buy the products or indeed do all three, I am having a consistency of engagement with the storyworld. Dr Who is always clever and kind. But I am not shut out of the TV show if I don’t read the comics. How do we achieve that – how can all our audiences feel part of one consistent ‘Museum world’ whether they attend everything we do or just visit the website now and again? And how does the storyworld idea promote continued and deepening engagement? I might watch a show on Netflix just because it’s part of the Marvel Cinematic Universe and I liked the Iron Man films. That’s very different from promoting a show to me, and I think it’s deeper than ‘brand loyalty’ – I’m not being loyal to the brand, I’m being loyal to a storyworld.

Paul suggest we look beyond the world of essays and prose fiction to poetry, for a less structured experience, one which grants more power to the reader:

Literature is an interesting metaphor. We try to think like novelists, or the great essay writers. But I think exhibitions are closer to poetry. Individual moments, brief and rich in meaning, clustered together in suite and bound together as one entity: exhibits as poems, an exhibition as a volume of poetry, and the museum as a body of work of a range of poets.

But I’d point to another form, too: the short story. Deceptively similar to longer prose forms, the short story at its best manages to fold great swathes of experience and vision into a tiny textual construct. It is not a path from beginning to end, but a space which you can explore in different directions.

The great Alice Munro – my beloved Alice Munro – put it best, in the introduction to one of her story collections:

A story is not like a road to follow … it’s more like a house. You go inside and stay there for a while, wandering back and forth and settling where you like and discovering how the room and corridors relate to each other, how the world outside is altered by being viewed from these windows. And you, the visitor, the reader, are altered as well by being in this enclosed space, whether it is ample and easy or full of crooked turns, or sparsely or opulently furnished. You can go back again and again, and the house, the story, always contains more than you saw the last time. It also has a sturdy sense of itself of being built out of its own necessity, not just to shelter or beguile you.

Alice Munro imagines a story as a building to be explored, containing multitudes. And maybe museums, galleries, and libraries – all those cultural institutions which exist for their users to explore – could be like her stories too: not fixed paths leading us helplessly from beginning to end, but spaces at once familiar and surprising, ever enticing, comfortable enough to welcome us but challenging enough to merit repeat visits.

Read Paul Bowers’ “On Misusing ‘Narrative’ In Exhibitions” here.

Library Island: The Professional Benefit of Play

What is the professional benefit of play? When is it better to impose an objective, and when should we learn through experimentation and happy accident? How can we “fail better” without wasting valuable resources?

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In this month’s Library Life magazine, I explore these questions through an account of the Library Island project I’ve been developing during my time at the State Library of Queensland.

Could it be that our next innovation challenge is to break down the walls between fact and fiction? Could story-based, open-ended play be as valuable for professionals as for children? Could it be physical, low-tech, and improvisational as well as digital?

You can read Library Life April 2017 here as a PDF download – my piece starts on page 12.

Perpetual Stage: The Value of Pretend Play

I just binge-watched a TV show; rare for me, these days. I love TV but it’s so time-consuming. Your evenings and weekends just seep away in front of the screen.

But I felt I had to watch FX’s Legion, the show about a troubled young man who may be mentally ill and may have psychic powers. It’s a gorgeously shot and well acted eight-part show from Noah Hawley, who was also responsible for Fargo.

I saw people online complain about the show being too whimsical and indulgent; I’ve seen it called pretentious and precious.

I’m not convinced. Yes, a lot of goofy stuff happens in the series – but I found it easy to forgive, because it felt like the adult version of kids playing with action figures.

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Did you do that as a kid? I couldn’t get enough of it. Transformers. Action Force. Manta Force, even. I played Star Wars, too – I didn’t even like Star Wars films much, but I loved the toys. When I went to hospital when I was about 10 years old, I found He-Man figures in the children’s ward. I’d never played He-Man before, but it didn’t stop me.

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Visions from Bundaberg

Last weekend I was the guest artist at “Dispatches from Bundy”, a writing workshop in the Queensland town of Bundaberg.

Working with staff from Creative Regions and Queensland University of Technology, our team took a group of local writers and storytellers through a two-day session aimed at engaging with stories from the past, exploring visions of the future, and nurturing regional literature.

One of our activities saw participants creating science fiction stories and postcards from future worlds. We stitched these stories into a timeline of future history stretching a thousand years hence.

Check out the result via YouTube, incorporating images by Peter Miller aka Scribbletronics and music from Disasteradio.