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Healing Through Storytelling
By Nigel Baldwin
I always wondered why I had a pull towards the power of theatre, or drama as a whole. As I progressed through my career I realized that although I was specializing in drama what captured my imagination was the power of storytelling in any medium. In my early days though I think I was impressed by a vehicle where one could express potent and extreme emotions in public. Theatre is, of course, not only that but it is one of its roles. And if you are witnessing a supreme performance that embraces powerful emotions with which you can identify it is probably offering you empathy.
I often see great drama as the public version of private therapy. Naturally the drama has to relate to you and sometimes it doesn't, there is no resonance, and you might even leave the theatre (or indeed cinema) untouched. If there is no resonance then it is not for you but if there is then, like profound art or profound music, profound drama - either as an exponent or as a member of the audience - can begin to help heal.
I realize now that this is what had driven me to write in the first place - catharsis. A healing process. I was working in the professional theatre as a stage manager and occasional actor but realized there was not much I was working on with which I had empathy. Mostly potboilers, entertainment distractions - the type of drama that gets bums on seats in a recession (this being during the oil crisis of the early seventies) but nothing really which looked at our 'stuff', the human condition. 'Stuff', which in the theatre, we can find really uncomfortable.
Sure, if theaters and cinemas are just emporia of entertainment then there's no place for the heavy brigade, although there is a fine tradition of combining 'meaning of life' dramas with rollicking good entertainment stretching back to the Greeks and probably beyond (how would I know?) Nowadays though, and increasingly, plays with inherent meaning are not so popular anymore and if there is no inherent meaning there is unlikely to be catharsis. But any storytelling with inherent meaning has not often been populist which is why Carl Jung will never outsell Agatha Christie (and, yes, Carl Jung's case histories and his archetypes are stories.) I, however, was thirsty for new plays and films (and indeed books) that inspired me. And if they weren't there maybe I would have to write what I would like to see myself. (Caveat: there were good plays and films and stories around, more so then than now, but they weren't exactly standard fare, particularly in the provinces where I was cutting my teeth.)
So I started writing. My plays, although in the main critically well-received, were nihilistic and devoid of optimism. In retrospect, I realized I was expressing my pain and anger, my childhood griefs, and therefore embarking on an unconscious (then) process of healing. In effect healing through storytelling. Some time later when I was chatting with a friend who, training as a psychotherapist, was going through her own psychotherapy and uncovering her anger and pain, I casually remarked that I had so much anger in me as a young man but it seemed to have dissipated and I wasn't sure why. My friend looked at me with surprise. Didn't I realize that by writing about it I had helped to release it? Indeed, looking back at my early work I realized how much anger there is in them. (A first 105 minute play for BBC Radio 3 was so raw about my childhood that my family knew nothing about it, I couldn't tell them for fear of hurting them.) I became conscious that I had initiated my own healing through storytelling.
Then, after a huge emotional crisis which just happened to occur in the year of the Harmonic Convergence, I found myself dragged kicking and screaming into a more conventional healing world, firstly traditional therapies like homeopathy and latterly studying and using psycho-energetic healing in clinics in London and the south of England. It was around this period that the emphasis in my writing changed. I had embraced some spiritual perspectives and disciplines such as meditation and overtone chanting and I was no longer prepared to offer no hope. From that time on whatever crises my protagonists went through in my stories - and you can't have drama without conflict and crisis - there had to be light at the end of the tunnel. I did not want people coming away from my stories feeling negative. And it was as if, once the door to a healing world had been knocked upon through storytelling, a whole new world of healing showed itself.
As I embarked on more conscious healing work and meditation practice my perspectives changed. No longer did I want to project my previous model of reality - of being a meaningless organism on a rock in a sterile solar system. Storytelling had led me into this new world of meaning and now, since I still loved the process of creative expression through stories - and it was my living - I was determined that my stories would also be devoted to growth and healing and, yes, love. (Sometimes much to the ridicule of the national press).
I'm not suggesting storytelling is a substitute for therapy but it's a great aid. I chose the medium of drama since I love the theatre and the collaborative process but the same principles apply to all forms of storytelling. Impossible to divorce yourself from who you are, who you are must come through your means of self-expression - whatever medium you choose, writing, art, music, dance - if you have the opportunity to use it.
What you write will reflect - however consciously you try not to do this - how you see the world. And once your healing is underway it could be that your stories offer other people empathy. And catharsis. And healing.
Expressing what and how we feel is a fundamental need of the human psyche. If we don't pressure builds up until we implode or explode. And if this is axiomatic then expressing it well, communicating it well, is even more cathartic. Storytelling is one means of expressing how we feel for we are nothing without our stories.