That’s the word I’ve been searching for.
While here in the twin cities, my wife and I just returned from a night out at the beautiful Guthrie Theater, experiencing an adaptation of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s “South Pacific,” one of the most celebrated musicals in American theater. It tells the story of two couples whose love is tested by the dangers of war and the prejudices of their time.
Written during a era in which conversations surrounding prejudices needed to be had, it’s a story that is relevant today. On second thought, maybe it’s always been relevant since those prejudices have always existed. Or maybe it just seems that far more people are ready to have those conversations, and hopefully, are far more ready to be a part of the change they wish to see. Regardless, it’s a great piece of theater, and the Guthrie is doing great work. If you live close by, go see it.
There’s a scene in which one of the lead characters in the story hesitates in her reply to a question about another character, before finally muttering the word, “colored.” You could hear a gasp from the audience. It reminded me that great art, whether on a screen, a canvas, or a stage, has substance.
Why was I looking for that word in the first place?
This time last week I was sitting in the Geffen Playhouse, in their 100-seat blackbox theater in Los Angeles taking in a one-man show titled “In & Of Itself”. Every writer I respect in L.A. has been raving about it online, from J.J. Abrams to Steve Martin. They weren’t kidding…if you’re on the west coast, you should see it, too. It might be the best and most innovative piece of theater you see this year.
While in conversation with someone before the show, we were talking about STORY. They specifically asked me, “What makes STORY different from all the other creative conferences?”. It took me a few sentences to answer that question, because there’s so much that I believe sets it apart. But after the show, I had a one word answer: substance.
I’ve developed a passion for STORY because the creators and storytellers who make up this community believe that their work matters. They believe that the art they create and the stories that they tell have the opportunity to contribute to the world in meaningful ways. That gives their work substance. And let’s be honest…it also makes for good business. Whether you care or not, (and I hope you do), substance is what our hearts are longing for, and when you tap into it, our chance of commercial success as artists increases, along with our potential to make a difference in the hearts of others.
It is artists and storytellers who have always asked important questions through their art, and injected those questions into the public sphere through powerful stories. Whether you work at an agency or a non-profit, the stories you tell are shaping cultures, whether you are are aware of it or not. And whether you’re telling those stories for profit or not.
When art has substance it creates a shared experience with the viewer. It’s deeper than transactional entertainment purely for entertainment’s sake, and there is definitely something special about a communal experience in the theater. The telling and acting out of stories is a cultural phenomenon that exists in every society in the world, and has existed since the beginning of time. In a digital age, and in a hostile election season, it’s amazing how stories can bring people together. And when those stories have substance, they start and contribute to meaningful conversations that shift the perspective of others in important ways.
Tonight’s experience of “South Pacific” was no different. I don’t know the varying world views of those I shared a theater with tonight. But for a little over two hours, we laughed together, we cried together, and we were united. And we collectively left feeling discontent with going back to business as usual.
Will you leave STORY 2016 a better storyteller? Yes.
Will you leave with an overwhelming amount of creative inspiration and ready to do your best work? Absolutely.
But I have a feeling—a really strong feeling—that you’ll also leave feeling discontent with art and stories that lack substance. And if you’re already there, well, then you’ll feel right at home with kindred spirits and leave with life-long friends. I can’t wait for us to have this shared experience together.
In the meantime, if you’re looking for some inspiration from how other creatives are doing meaningful work that has substance, here are a few links we thought were worth your attention as you start your week…
- Amit Shimoni is a talented designer and illustrator who, in addition to serving his clients well with various projects, hoped to creates a series of drawings that made people think, called “Hipstory.” In his words, he wanted this series to “encourage us to reflect: upon our leaders, our society, and ourselves.”
- Sometimes, we complicate the idea of adding substance. This modern surrealist painter picks up where Dali left off, and while his work doesn’t have an over simplified, “this is what this art means” messaging, that doesn’t mean it doesn’t make viewers feel something. For example, the awe and wonder that stirs within me when I stare at his work, ignites my own imagination and gives birth to meaningful ideas.
- Jared Leto directed a series of beautiful short films about America’s National Parks. But they aren’t just beautiful…they’re meaningful. We loved this episode, but they all have substance.
- If you find yourself ever feeling cynical about the idea of doing “meaningful” work, you can always trust our friends at Charity:Water to showcase meaningful storytelling at it’s best. This one had our whole team in tears this week.
Finally, with substance in mind, Maya Angelou offered us all really great advice. We have consistently kept these words at the forefront as we plan STORY 2016:
“People will forget what they hear you say and what they see you do, but they will never forget how you made them feel.”
Make them feel something.