Storyjamming: Warming up and Working with Energy

I’ve noticed when jamming story with new folks, that we often have a lot of hesitancy, self-censorship, and creative blocks to work through – and conversely, lots of trust to build between us. Often because of how I explain storyjamming to others (resuscitating oral tradition, telling meaningful story worth caring about, weaving dreams back into story to create truly magical experiences), I think they come with even more nervousness than they might otherwise, thinking they really need to do it “right” and create something “good”. Well, oops on me. Someday I’ll come up with a better way to inspire folks about it without also removing their sense of play and experimentation.

In any case, even without any nervousness, hesitancy, or self-censorship, I think a certain bag of tools can create play and story above and beyond the norm, on a consistent basis. As introduced to me by my friend Lisa Wells, I call this bag of tools “theater improv games”, or better yet “intuition games”. These games do many things; but first and foremost they blunt our ability to self-censor and overthink our behavior, which only leads to good stuff. In our culture we so overcondition and overvalue our own ability to think, rather than actually ever using it all the way to the hilt at any one time, it reminds me of the problem some of my favorite physical fitness methodologies endeavor to address.

Lots of high-repetition, low intensity strength training, results in chronic fatigue, lowered immune response, and injury. Whereas savvily applied sessions of extremely high intensity, low repetition, and varied exercises create a very happy and fit body. I see this as present in our thinking too; I see us working over the endless minutiae of our day, grocery lists, to do lists, over and over in our head, rather than amping up our curiousity and problem solving skills so high that they burnt out and we get thrown into the only thing that can catch us – our right brains. Body, emotion, pattern and picture; awareness, acceptance, and action. They don’t often direct us modern folks anymore, but in certain situations we can create a space to let them out.

Different artists have different methods, and what I will say in a moment does not apply to everyone. But I believe in it strongly. In my world, you don’t plan Story; you discover Story. You don’t decide Story; you dream Story. In a way, Story chooses you. And the more you can get out of your own way, the stronger the signal coming through from the Story place. And to discover worthwhile Story, you need to warm-up those story muscles first.

Also, once a person masters the basics of storyjamming, I think we still need intuition games to maintain our skills. Like how a good martial-artist constantly drills the basics, or a good animal tracker always keeps a beginner mind, and keeps returning to tracking as if they’ve never done it before.

I have a strong footing in the “show, don’t tell” tradition, in all its permutations. As an educator, artist, family member and friend, I practice showing rather than telling. Everybody has advice on how you should live; few people show you what happens when you follow it (for better or worse, in my case). I believe people learn more wholly and concretely from someone showing them, rather than telling them.

For example, if I write a story game text which encourages players to play in the spirit of “yes, and…!”, I have very low expectations of my players to follow this advice (if they even fully understand it). But if I warm up a story jam by playing the game “yes, and…!”, where one by one we tell a possibly nonsensical story by contributing bits and pieces, one after another, starting with the words “yes, and…!”, then if the group performs well, I know they can and will bring this spirit into our story jam, even if I don’t tell them to. Think about that. I have changed the culture of our play, by playing a game that changes them.

So, to me, a way to design a game that has the “yes, and…!” spirit in it, involves making the “yes, and…!” warm up part of the game.

I’ve always experienced that systems (whether an institution, a game, a factory, or a society) produce what they do because of their design, not in spite of it. If you want them to produce something else, you don’t train the factory workers more, or publish more articles on virtuous behavior, you change the design of the system.

This has run long, and I haven’t even scratched the surface of this issue, much less addressed something else I really value: an organic model of influencing the flow of energy with these diverse and specialized intuition games to create a culture of relationship within a group.

We’ll get there.

Written by Willem