Storytelling, Performing and Social Growth

As I think of compelling stories to tell, I realize that I am not only writing stories to be enjoyed by others, but that I’m writing my own story as well—a story containing many pages of triumph and lessons learned through my own experiences, and through the stories of others. Each time I am blessed with the illusive epiphany of concept, I begin a new chapter in my life. My hope is that my experience will inspire others to write stories that entertain, teach, invoke emotion, and promote positive change.

As a kid growing up in Los Angeles, my time after school was spent playing with friends, and in front of television and movie screens for several hours at a time. I have been, and continue to be greatly influenced by the lure of television shows and motion pictures containing powerful stories, which have sparked my interest in creating my own characters and stories. I consider my time spent in front of the boob tube a valuable and inexpensive education in story writing and character building.

Currently, in my spare time I sketch drawings sparked by thoughts of social change- later creating stories that breathe life and purpose into the images, transforming them into deep and meaningful concepts. To me, the drawings without the stories are almost pointless– insignificant. My own stories take shape around a cohesive group, or one central character with an unbelievable goal. I am adept at creating stories depicting compelling characters dreamt from nothing. Some of my stories hint at teaching lessons, but most of the time I try to tell a story that provokes thought, while simply entertaining the reader.

By definition, “teaching” is the act of showing someone else how to do something. Storytelling, on the other hand, is the act of sharing events in the form of entertainment, and may or may not share a lesson by the end of the story. Some stories leave it to the reader to interpret and decide whether or not a potential lesson has unfolded. Other stories unveil a series of attractive events that leave little room for the reader to interpret what the writer is saying; such is the beauty of story and fantasy. For thousands of years, humans have shared stories with younger generations that entertain and teach lessons. Both forms of communication are very effective, but stories need not the explicit lessons to successfully convey a message.

Storytelling is arguably one of the oldest and most effective forms of human communication. History shows that through storytelling we pass down significant events, important life skills, and valuable lessons. I expect my fascination with creating stories will make for an interesting story while pressing through the rigorous curriculum of Design Strategy MBA at CCA.

An example of a great story, which also teaches a sound lesson, is “Peter and the Wolf.” This well-known and popular story teaches a rather important lesson—Don’t lie. There are also many similar and fundamental social parallels between real children (including myself) and Peter, the main character in the story. This classic Russian tale even allows today’s children to visualize and relate to Peter. He is young, naïve, and simply cannot pass up the opportunity to indulge in a little mischief from time to time. I’m not aware of any real-life substantial social growth that has occurred from reading this story, but its basic message is loud and clear. When I think of new story concepts, I’m always reminded of the simple, yet effective structure of this story.

Over time, stories haven’t changed very much in structure. Basic stories still contain a beginning, middle, and an ending—but the mediums through which stories are told have changed, and continue to change drastically through the advent of technology. The invention of the television has sprung an industry that sees no end. Entertainment networks race to create shows to captivate kids and offer merchandise, but offer little, or no opportunities for social growth. On the other hand are the noble public networks that distribute shows whose concepts are not created to sell toys, but to promote social growth and learning. “Sesame Street” and “Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood” are examples of great children’s shows that aren’t focused on the distribution of merchandise; although “Sesame Street” does benefit from toy sales, their original intentions were to entertain and educate kids, not sell toys. Most “Sesame Street” episodes share short stories contained within longer segments that are not funded by cereal ads and toy commercials. There is plenty of social growth that is experienced while watching “Sesame Street” and “Mr. Rogers,” and their educational messages can be shared without the aid of story, or the selling of stuff.

For quite some time I have wanted to immerse myself in business, storytelling and design to create something special from the ground up. It’s only fitting that I reach for a MBA in Design Strategy at California College of the Arts in San Francisco. My experience this first semester has been both eye opening and challenging. For starters, it’s been an awfully long time since I’ve been in school, let alone applied economic and accounting principles using formulas I haven’t seen in a while. It’s like riding a bike after having your feet and ankles injected with Novocain; you can see where you’re headed, but it’s a mind numbing and tough road getting there.

Next, there is my Live Exchange course on communication. Live E is arguably one of the most difficult courses I’ve ever experienced. Every class meeting presents an opportunity to learn more about myself, which forces me to dig deep to find the truth behind thoughts, intentions and the energy I project into the world – something I am unaccustomed to doing. Several exercises help us to empathize and seek to understand before seeking to be understood. For me this linked personal and social growth.

One particular assignment was “Teach Us Something in Seven Minutes” (TUS7M). The assignment asks us to create and share a learning experience with an audience through performance. My partner and I struggled for weeks trying to produce something that would tell a story, provoke thought and be entertaining as well. For those who have never performed on stage, this could be a paralyzing experience.

On the night of the performance, there were plenty of butterflies and anxiety to go around. My classmate’s performances ranged from comedy and travel experiences, to poetry and How-To’s; my partner’s and my performance was the only one that shared a non-verbal story.

When it was our time to go on stage we were visibly nervous and I almost forgot our routine. As we began our piece, we seemed to captivate the audience: our concept was to share a physical and emotional experience about nature that used no words…only the sounds of nature and of our movement. By the end of the performance the audience reacted in such a positive way that I felt like I wanted to stay for an encore. If there was ever an exercise that helped students to empathize with their audience while building confidence as a business leader through performance– this is definitely it!

Having been influenced by hundreds of movies, higher education and the stories of others, I have plenty of material to add to my own story. Having completed the first semester of my MBA, I parallel the progression of that experience with the first act of a long continuous series of stage plays. My story will be told and will continue to grow.

I have been motivated to create an entertaining and educational story for children that encourages social awareness and growth. I hope to inspire, as I have been inspired.

These articles were created as part of the course work for “Live Exchange” the foundational course on communication for The MBA Design Strategy Program at California College of the Arts. Read more about the project here.

3 responses

  1. great piece, calvin! i think you'd be pleasantly surprised by the new crop of kids media these days. we are particularly big fans of the new tinkerbell–a fiesty and innovative mechanical engineer “tinkerer” who doesn't need a boy to save the day. :)

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