Tony Ayres: Using drama as an intermediary between warring factions

Tony Ayres.

I was recently asked to speak at “8×8” at the Australian Film Television and Radio School where eight filmmakers from eight Australian states and territories were asked to address the question – is Australian storytelling important?

It’s a timely debate, given the precipitous state of the Australian TV industry with threats of ending or reducing domestic drama quotas for the commercial networks and ongoing punitive budget cuts to the ABC. And it’s a question that I’ve grappled with for most of my career. How do we as storytellers, as artists, meaningfully engage with the society we live in? How do we speak and what do we have to say?

Instead of focusing on the “Australian” part of the question, which I was sure my fellow speakers would cover, I addressed the idea of “storytelling” and its social significance.

Recently I heard an episode of my favourite podcast, Invisibilia, which gave me an entirely new frame of reference for what we do in dramatic storytelling. It was called “The Other Real World” and it’s the true story of a United Nations-backed reality TV show (think American Idol), which was produced in Mogadishu, Somalia in 2014. Yes,  Somalia where you can be executed by Al-Shabaab for singing in public. The podcast asked: Can a TV show telling a certain type of story call a different kind of reality into being?

One section of this podcast addressed how screen narratives shape and influence their audience. Psychological studies have been conducted since the Second World War, initially focusing upon “rhetoric” i.e. argument. Screen stories changed people’s thoughts by changing the arguments they heard.

But in the ’90s a stream of psychology started looking at “the poetic” because psychologists realised that people consume stories in qualitative different ways to the way they consume other forms of information, like print journalism or fact-based current affairs shows.

When it comes to engaging with stories, people’s intellectual defensiveness is disabled or at least suspended because they are engaged emotionally. The audience doesn’t ask questions like “Do I agree with that?” or “Do I identify with that idea or person?”  Instead, they experience stories “poetically.” I thought this was a beautiful way of encapsulating the work of the dramatist.  By using our skill as storytellers, we are trying to transcend people’s fixed ideologies. We try to make people feel the emotional lives of the characters in our stories.

It’s here that the idea of skill becomes everything. Because people are most engaged, most willing to suspend their disbelief, when the work is good. So the way you tell a story, the way you structure the reveal of information, make it credible, suspenseful, surprising, provocative, and moving determines how effective your impact is upon your audience.

If you can make people laugh, or cry, you are in some small way affecting a change upon them. This change may not be permanent or even conscious, but it is real.

The greatest tool at the storyteller’s disposal in affecting our audience is “point of view,”  that is, whose eyes we are telling the story through. By suturing an audience to a character’s point of view we temporarily live in the skin of another human being, experience the world as they experience it, and consequently that person becomes more human to us.

So if we tell stories of marginal people who are not usually seen (which is the basis of most of my work), and if we tell those stories well enough, we have a chance to subvert people’s prejudices and expectations of these people.

In my work I’m part of a team trying to create a world where being a young Muslim man in love is possible (Ali’s Wedding), or being a member of a dysfunctional but hilarious Chinese family dealing with divorce is possible (The Family Law), or being an Indigenous dimension-hopping wizard escaping from demons is entirely possible (Nowhere Boys).

According to Invisibilia, storytelling is a form of “norm engineering.” The idea is that you can change people’s behaviour by changing what people accept as normal. People then act differently not because their individual beliefs are suddenly and radically transformed, but because they believe that a bigger, more diverse world is the norm.  And because we are all social creatures, our behaviour adjusts according to this wider realm of possibility.

For me, the best example of “norm engineering” we’ve seen in recent times is the changing attitude to gay marriage in Australian society. At a certain moment in recent history our television screens first trickled with and then became flooded by lesbian, gay and transgender characters who were living perfectly ordinary or perfectly extra ordinary lives (depending on whether you’re watching Modern Family or Torchwood).

Simultaneously attitudes towards homosexuality and sexual diversity in Australian society became increasingly tolerant.  This observation is only anecdotal, but it seems to me that the normalisation of homosexuality on our TV screens more than coincidentally correlates to the acceptance of homosexuality in our society as reflected in the marriage equality plebiscite.

There has never been a more important time to tell stories about a broader, inclusive version of the world. Society is more polarised, more conflicted, and volatile than any time I can remember. We don’t even speak a common language anymore- for example words like “racism” and “sexism” mean completely different things to different political factions. And more often than not, we’re yelling at, rather than speaking to each other.

This is a time to communicate not with ‘rhetoric’, but with the ‘poetic’. We do this through stories which engage people in the lives of others and dramatise those lives so powerfully, so truthfully that an audience can’t help but be affected.

As well as ‘point of view’, the other great weapon in the storyteller’s arsenal is truth. Truth is a hotly contested idea at the moment, under attack both rightly and wrongly. Rightly, because truth is subjective, we all have different experiences of the world which inform our sense of what’s true. There is no single truth.

But wrongly, because in spite of this, there are common experiences, common truths that connect us all. We live, we die, we hope, we fear, we dream, we love. In fact, the attempt to negotiate a common truth is the basis of all human communication.

Looking for the truth is what we do as storytellers.  In television, we sit in writers rooms for weeks on end, eating cashews and shaking our heads saying “Nah, I don’t believe that.  That isn’t true.” We then construct sequences of events which assume a meaning for an audience only if they believe it. If it feels true.

I think the dramatist exercises a different kind of “truth to power” to the activist.  My role as a dramatist is to try to excavate the real human response to any situation. And my assumption in doing this is that human beings are complicated, contradictory, inconsistent, surprising, flawed and wonderful. Most people are both good and bad, few people are entirely one or the other.

Essentially, storytelling is a compassionate act.  In order for me to write a character whose opinion I disagree with, I have to understand them, and the more I understand then, the less I hate them.

So, in my thinking, there is a role at the moment for drama to act as an intermediary space between warring factions. To tell the story of both sides, and in doing so, perhaps find a way for us to connect with each other. Some people I will probably never agree with “rhetorically.”

However, there is a possibility that we may connect “poetically”, we may both lean in to the same story, both be moved and affected by a human drama, and consequently both have our world view widened by that experience.  And right now, this feels like an important thing to do.

Producer-writer-director Tony Ayres is a founder of Matchbox Pictures