Storytelling: A Journey

Shana Bestock

© Copyright 2020 by Shana Bestock

Photo of a person on stage.

At the Golden Globes, a year and a half after the world turns upside down and I think I'm out of stories, Oprah goes viral preaching her truth, which is that there is value and power in speaking your truth, telling your story. I had never watched Oprah before, and it only took one speech for me to understand this woman's magnificence. Her stature, her cultivated authenticity, her self-awareness and intentional use of charisma, her passion for storytelling.

I am a storyteller. More precisely, a theater maker. I have sought knowledge of self and others through the collaborative telling of stories onstage—as a Director, as an Arts Educator and Administrator, and as an Artistic and Education Director.

The resume says, “Over twenty years of professional experience directing and administrating arts programs, primarily for grades 5–12.” The resume doesn't say, “Twenty years of learning the difference between fifth and sixth grade, and why the summer someone is fifteen is one of the best for making truly great theater. What it means to grow into oneself. How a safe space for passion and creativity is one of the most powerful forces possible to experience.”

A theater artist is her community. I came of age furious at a nation committed to war and blind to history, and I helped build communities committed to telling stories of empathy and memory. I shared eight years of hope for change with communities galvanized by stories of equity and inclusion. And then, two days after a nation plunged off a cliff of insanity, I lost my position as Artistic and Education Director.

The tale of how I lost my position is a long story for another time. It may be less of a story and more of a mess of emotions and counternarratives. After it happened, my community was in shock six ways to Sunday and unable to tell me any story about myself that made any sense. I had no alternate story for myself. Years of stories onstage—stories of family, stories of illness, stories of art and creation, stories of stories, and then, a storyless void. I experienced an inability to find my narrative as an artist, as an educator, as any of the titles on my resume or in my Facebook feed. In the age of fake-real and real-fake news, how could I report on the events of my own life? How would I define myself? Did I need to define myself?

Life isn't a large enough story for me sometimes. Or the story isn't a large enough life. I get confused. All I could do in that moment was figure out the next chapter of my story. But the blank page staring back at me screamed of loss, not of possibility.

I will never do theater again,” I said. And I experienced immediately a great absence of self. “I must be something without theater,” I demanded. I traveled, I hiked up mountains, I read, I wrote. But my true self kept eluding me.

Why do we place so much value in “growing up”? For that matter, on “hope and change”? There is so much loss involved, so much compromise and heartache. Depressed, exhausted, and deeply fragile, I decided that I would start counting backwards and get younger. Like Merlin. And although the decision was born in a bad place, it is not a lousy idea. Why wait until old age to experience a second childhood? If youth is wasted on the young, old age is wasted on the old. Like a teenager, I get mad at all the people—all those adults—who tell me to live a certain way. I respect that my petulance is entirely self-created, that these well-meaning folks aren't actually destroying my life, that my choices are my own. What I am really angry at is my own weakness for believing for even a moment their voices to be stronger than my own.

When I tried to listen to my own voice in the midst of my loss and confusion, I found myself speechless. Resisting fake news, I resisted stories in any form. I resisted marketing and lobby talk and dressing up and putting myself on any sort of stage. I resisted telling my own story.

I was slow to understand that the death of my former life was not the end of my story. My truth does not belong solely to me. Like Merlin, I have had the privilege of meeting so many Warts, who have turned into Kings and Queens and Gender-Fluid leaders and fought battles on so many fronts. These amazing people who grew up and out and in seventeen different directions before my eyes. My students, my co-conspirators, my fellow artists, my tribe of misfits—third graders and fifth graders and eighth graders and that motley crew known as high schoolers, all speaking Shakespeare. Adaptations of classic literature that shape so beautifully the epic journeys of growing up and finding the courage to be yourself.

Looking at the patterns and shapes of their lives, I can better understand the melody of my own. How did they come to know their truths? How was I a part of that discovery and expression? People ask for these stories continually, usually for feel-good moments tailored for donor events. Well-meaning, helpful parents are eager to tell me that my “next life” can be lived as a writer, that I can tell all the world of the power of theater to help kids grow up. When I try to write these narratives, I find myself uncomfortable in the telling. I do not want to expose anyone, nor do I want to appropriate their story for aggrandizement. But more deeply, there is a fear of not being able to find the right words to explain knowing a person, a person in formation, a person in the raw business of growing up, a person I know deeply and yet glancingly, from all angles of observation and yet from only one angle of life, a person in an unnatural habitat that allows them to be their most natural—and yet, who are we really? Are we truly the people let loose in the theater, or are we truly the personae who live our daily lives?

Parents send their unruly teenager to the theater so they can “try on hats” in a safe, controlled environment. Parents send their withdrawn kid to the theater so they can “gain self-confidence.” Parents send their awkward child to the theater so they can “work with others and make friends.” But the secret to the society of us unruly, withdrawn, awkward souls is that we are both at once. We don't try on hats and lose our unruliness—we give it free rein. We don't make friends and become less awkward—we find fellow misfits who embrace our misfitting edges. We don't work with others and love them unconditionally—we work with others and sometimes find it excruciating, but we do it anyway because we love the work. The opposite of withdrawing is to come in, but entering does not mean the anxiety is banished forever. There is always an exit. Expressing oneself with confidence is not a continual action.

We ask students to bring their true selves to the stage as they create a fictional one. Therefore, the self I meet in the theater is authentic but also one-sided. I don't see the high schooler at the locker or in the school cafeteria. A mother comes home from work, changes out of a suit, puts on sweats. A teenager is continually at work being a student, a child, a friend, an amorphously autonomous being.

I am both fascinated and bored by my students on Instagram and Snapchat. This version of them is not the version I know. But is it any less real? Life itself is a stage; we are always performing a version of ourselves. Trying to figure out what to do with the unruly pieces of self that won't lie down and behave. Withdrawing so we can enter with energy and alacrity.

We deserve to be authentically one side of ourselves at a time. Teenagers get to be teenagers, stupid and inarticulate and image-obsessed—teetering on high heels of insecurity and filled with unquenchable desire for connection and visibility from the safe remove of disembodied screens. Snapchat can give them this. Teenagers get to be their childhood and adult selves, trying on hats that allow them to exhibit their inner self-awareness, speaking gorgeous words of great import and pitch, tossing off their attempts at dignity to achieve true dignity of character, poise, and grace, bodies comfortable with the space they inhabit and filled with desire to be near other bodies.

I can give them space for that. A lobby in which to dump their backpacks and shed their school skins. A seat to snuggle into. A backstage full of whispered secrets found and shared. A dressing room where no adult dares tread, full of flesh and makeup and hot lights and mirrored reflections of newly discovered perspectives. A stage to take, to disappear into, to be seen from, to own, to embrace, to contain a story.

A section of seats houses scripts and costumes and props and all the various building materials of alternate worlds. A row of seats houses friends and whispered commentary on all things great and small. A single seat houses emotion, when you're watching the stage and no one's looking at your face. The term for the theater seats is “the house.”

A home to come to when your own is unbearable.

One of my students played Ophelia the year her father died of brain cancer. She was fifteen. Her Ophelia was raw. Her beautiful face was ravaged with grief and she was ugly in it, this grief no fifteen-year-old should have to bear. She was the most brilliant and honest Ophelia I've ever seen, then or now. I watched the audience watch her and I thought, You do not even understand what truth you are seeing here. Hamlet is a brutally demanding play that asks its artists to dive deep into why they want to be alive. Our production wasn't particularly great in connecting with its audience, because none of us had the time to craft the emotions and growth happening in real time on the stage into something clearly articulated. Instead, it was all action, an enterprise of great pith and moment. I didn't trust myself to direct Ophelia in the expression of her wild and whirling emotions, and, in the paradoxical language of theater, it therefore appeared to an audience a little actor-y. Truth onstage is a slippery thing. It must be shaped in order to appear real. But the story we were telling with absolute clarity wasn't Hamlet; it was a story about our experience of being thin trees in a brutal storm—careening from side to side, bending and almost breaking as our roots spread underground, finding purchase in the soil and gripping onto each other as the storm battered against our trunks.

My Hamlet that time around went a little mad in the second show—it was rather Slings and Arrows with me backstage coaching her back to stability enough for her to finish the ride, both of us wondering if this slipping into the deep end was helping or hindering her performance. I realized that it was a selfish thing she was doing, jeopardizing the work of the ensemble and the story's ability to hold, and in that realization, I saw that it was a selfish thing we all were doing, even in the name of community-building and all that. We weren't saving the world through theater; we weren't empowering humanity. We were just trying to save ourselves, and that had to be good enough. We threw ourselves into that story because all of us were twisted up with huge, chaotic emotions, and only this magnificent text had the capacity to contain us. We worked together to work through; we fought together anything that would render us vacant, adrift, numb. We emerged stripped of leaf and limb, and our community threw their arms around us. It wasn't truly great theater, but it was theater of great truth.

Growth in living things is not a linear, neat upward climb. Growth can sprout branches that tip you over, disfiguring knots, twisted roots. The story of growth onstage is one of exploration, of how we both find our own roots and intertwine with others. Here's the thing—the story I'm trying to tell is not in a false narrative of Susie came to do a play, was shy and insecure, learned skills and made friends and blossomed, the end. The story starts long before Susie walks through those theater doors, and it resonates far beyond its walls. But stories need structure, which is why we choose them again and again—to try and make sense of tangled and scary emotions; to satisfy our deep urge to connect; and to combat our deep fear of being misunderstood.

The story is that Sarah came to do a play and was so painfully shy that she chose to be a dead body, and whereas normally I would push a student beyond their comfort zone, I sensed that for Sarah simply lying on stage was beyond her comfort zone, and her terror confused and scared me. But underneath both of our fears, we knew ourselves—Sarah knew this was what she had to do; I knew that directing a good show was what I had to do, and we worked around each other, talking only in the language of what had to happen for the show, and thus we built a language of trust and had a great story for the next time, when Sarah auditioned for a speaking role and I realized she was no longer scared of the stage itself, and I was no longer scared of her fear of being seen, and together we would work together over the next four years to confront our fears together and find joy in performances that were far from perfect and terribly close to sublime.

When I tell my students’ stories, it's all commas, everything connective tissue, a great fear of stopping as that might break the connection we have. Student stories are one big run-on sentence, everything the middle part of the seven-sentence structure—and because of this, and because of this, and because of this. “Once upon a time” and “Ever since that day” are challenging in the face of lived experience.  

Once upon a time, there was a boy who could not sit still with his raging internal anxiety, who slammed his script to the floor and raged out of a first-day read-through with no apparent cause. His inner demons were more theatrical than anything we could approximate on stage. He gave gorgeous performances and caused no end of heartbreak and frustration offstage. He got on good meds and grew outwardly handsome and went off to college with a glowing recommendation from me. He crashed at college, and I was embarrassed at my misjudgment and sorrowful at his downward spiral. He gained a stolid sort of weight and took his brilliant, troubled mind and worked at a shop that sold D&D sorts of stuff, and he met a nerdy girl and built a life that seemed to make him happy. But I still cannot let go of that kinetic young man with that intense, artistic, shiny future ahead of him. Did we fail him, the adults in his life, by pushing him toward something we thought was prettier? Did we fail him by nurturing his discontent and not pushing him harder toward a more boring existence earlier?

I worry that others will look at me the way I sometimes look at him. Is it my fault I lost so much? Should I have done more to fight against the forces that capsized our politics and social fabric? Did I fail myself,push too hard toward a false narrative of self? I am keenly aware of outside eyes looking in, judging my path and sorrowful for my loss, my failure. The way I look at past greats whose greatness is behind them. “Oh, she was terrific. It's too bad what happened to her. Look at her, doing these dinky projects. She had such potential. She coulda been. But at least she's happy, right? Look at her, she looks so well-rested and healthy. I'm happy for her.”

No, we're not. Not happy, not really. We'll take greatness every time over contentment. Makes for a better story. But we can't always choose greatness for ourselves. It's too hard to live with. Humans are great in flashes, but our bodies can't sustain that kind of awesomeness. We eventually have to go offstage, sit in the dark, change our clothes in the dressing room, slip out the back door into the fresh air.

Perhaps the better story is that this particular young man in fact triumphed majestically by the simple action of continuing to exist despite the screaming voices in his head and neurons in his synapses that wanted to short-circuit it all. I treasure the memory of his Caliban, his Amadeus, and his last show with me in a joyful Noel Coward comedy. In the cast picture, he looks radiant. This is our shared truth—we were once radiant together. This is my truth—that I will carry that radiance within me to fuel whatever future is in store, and whenever I can I will share it with others that it may illuminate their journeys as well.

I met a young girl for whom even mountains would never be enough. For her, the big voices and bright lights of Broadway held the only promise of majesty. She wanted so desperately to be a Broadway star that she hurled herself at life, raging with passion and fury that she was not already on that stage, the girl who lived and breathed Wicked and Legally Blonde, who signed up for show after show after show after show until...she had enough shows and enough leads and enough heartbreaks and enough really weird roles and enough really unexpectedly delightful roles and enough perspective to look around and start writing. And she wrote, and she wrote some more, and she gave a little surprised laugh when she turned down opportunities to act so she could keep writing. Until here we are, the last summer of high school, and she could be doing anything in the world, and she's going to an Ivy League college for credit in screenwriting and reading fiction.

You see, when we talk about expanding possibilities and potential – this is what we're talking about. Achieving enough dreams early on so that you aren't stuck chasing them later only to find they aren't really how you want to design your life. Trying on enough hats so that you understand you have a choice in headwear. Succeeding – taking the bow to a standing ovation – so that you learn that standing ovations don't equal continual lifetime happiness, and you can set about finding out what does.

The kids who pursue acting in college and beyond – these are rarely the kids you meet in middle school and think, “Ah, this is an actor.” These are the kids for whom acting doesn't come easily, and who therefore value their own success in the craft beyond measure. These are the slow-burn artists, who start from disappointment and build a solid foundation of craft fueled by deep pain, heartache, untapped expression. These are the kids for whom the process of learning about acting is success in and of itself, for whom being taken seriously as an actor is a source of continual joy and power.

The kids who come in the door at age nine, ten, eleven and blow you away, the kids you can't stop giving leads to at age twelve, thirteen, fourteen, the kids who are full-blown artists at age fifteen, sixteen, seventeen—these are the kids most likely to say, Thank you, theater, it's been swell, but I've got other important things to do. Maybe I'll direct or produce or write, but probably I'll look for ways I can make an artistic impact in the world that isn't so fraught with all Being me growing up has been exhausting. I think I'd like to settle down a little, live more comfortably in my self-confidence, explore the wide world outside the dressing room doors.

This is what we mean when we say that our students teach us. I was the kid who walked in at age seven and blew them all away. I was the kid who wrote my job description at age nine and my organizational mission at age nineteen. I get to be the kid who walks away after a lifetime of successes and says, “Thanks, theater, but I've got some other things to do now. I got me some unexplored potential to activate.”

Again and again, I chose to make theater with youth. Again and again, my life streamed across the stage as I directed them—explaining to a young actor why I’d like them to cross downstage left by sharing a feeling I’ve had, a word I find funny, a story about my life. My story was wrapped around theirs like a vast network of roots, nourishing us all. Underground, it’s hard to tell which root belongs to which tree. Like Baucis and Philemon (and here I remember a gorgeous photo of two students playing these very characters in, what I may say, was a splendid production—and here I remember that the rehearsal for this ultimately moving moment was a great, big, hilarious mess with the three of us contorting ourselves in decidedly nonsplendid tree shapes), like those two of myth changed by a grateful god into trees upon death so that they might twine together for years to come, my story is intertwined with those of my students.

I am a tree deeply rooted, deeply entwined with a forest I cannot unroot from. But I can sprout new branches. I can grow new leaves and see where they will blow. I can see where the breeze will take them. I can see where this new wind will take me. I can step offstage for a moment, retire to my dressing room, lace up my boots, and climb up mountains.

I will continually be growing up toward being young. Merlin, you know, wasn't always a particularly great wizard. He had his own issues. And the Round Table didn't last. But what a terrific story—the experiential learning of changing into fishes and hawks and geese, of a small boy pulling a great sword out of a stone, of a flawed and loving man trying to change a culture of violence. But I don't want to go hide in a cave for the rest of my story. I'm going to find out who I am in different homes around the world. I'm going to see how much I can carry on my back and how far I can walk and how high I can climb. I’m going to carry my students’ stories with me. I'm going to write things and read things and when I'm bursting to share things, I'll figure out how to do that. It might not be a great performance at first. But it'll be real, and it'll be mine, and eventually I'll figure out how to craft it into a strong narrative.

If I were me, I would be so delighted to see this stage of growth in myself. If I were me, I couldn't wait to see what I'd do next. If I were me, I'd be so proud of all I had given me to get me to this place.

If I were me, I'd say, “What an honor, what a privilege. To dive into uncharted waters and flail in the company of others. To make hilarious messy things with other people and share myself one side at a time. To know myself. To discover myself. To feel such greatness inside me that I can be my own standing ovation. To wake up in the morning alive when I remember thinking how much easier it would be not to be. To witness the greatest beauty from the ugliest moments. To know that no one can define bravery or risk for me, and no one can chart my growth.

What an honor. What a privilege. To pack what I need for the journey and leave the rest at home. To meet myself coming down, walking up the path.

Shana is a writer, educator, theater artist, and non-profit leader based in Seattle,WA. She has directed over 200 productions with student ensembles and overseen over 120 professional productions. From 2001-2016 Shana served as Seattle PublicTheater's Artistic and Education Director, a position she founded and an organizationwhich she helped lead from community theater to national professional artistic recognition. Through her creative and community work, she strives to increase our capacity to connect, reflect, and create in order to make a more curious, compassionate and creative world.

Contact Shana
(Unless you type the author's name
in the subject line of the message
we won't know where to send it.)

Another story by Shana

Book Case

Home Page

The Preservation Foundation, Inc., A Nonprofit Book Publisher