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Coming to Peace with Storytelling

Robbie GringrasFilmed at Limmud Conference 2012

My talk begins with a question from my daughter, who asked why on earth the traditional Blessing for Peace does not call for the end of war? In offering my answer, I first of all demonstrate what the art of storytelling entails (watch out for a slap in an old man's face). Then I suggest how storytelling can be a metaphor for real life interactions. And then I indicate how conflict might benefit from storytelling perspectives and storytelling techniques. I conclude with some thoughts about Peace. I also flap my arms a lot, and pretend to be an angel…

I am a British-born Israeli living in the Galilee. I am a writer, performer, and educator. For the past 25 years I have been working professionally in theatre and in Jewish education. I have been known to blend the two, to theorise about the two, and to advocate for more of both.

So it was a few days ago my daughter came home from school, she goes to a school up in the North of Israel and she was very upset, they had been studying the Amidah and she focused on one of the Brachot, the final blessing for peace, the blessing focuses on peace and goodness and chen ve chesed ve rahamim, grace, kindness, compassion. My daughter is an Israeli, and she found this really annoying and she said if you’re going to do a blessing for peace why all this faffing around with love and compassion and all that, why aren’t you talking about the end of war, no more missiles and no more people having to go into armies, that would be a blessing for peace and I said to her that’s an interesting point it would be a good topic for my JDOV talk so I’d like to share with you my answer for my daughter Hila. I spoke to her about peace and about story telling. So the way I’m going to structure this is I’m going to talk to you about what’s involved in storytelling, then I’m going to look at real life and see how story telling may act as metaphor for real life. And then where our interactions get conflictual there may be some story telling techniques that might be useful. So to tell you a little about what is involved in storytelling, it turns out I’ve been involved in storytelling for coming on 25 years, I’ve done Jewish traditional tales, orthodox, ultra-orthodox, non-orthodox, conflicts, Palestinians, Israelis and throughout this I realised there are really only two roles for a story teller, you’re the narrator, the person who weaves meaning out of action and you’re the characters, you play the different characters, because normally there are different characters – you’ll be the old man then you’ll be the narrator again and then you have to be a tree that gives some wisdom or something and then you’re the narrator again, and then you’re the little kid then the narrator again. This jumping in between characters, this jumping around I tend to call it going to visit and coming home, there’s a physical technique to that for example if I’m going to visit an old man (demonstrates physically animating old man) he’s an old guy, he’s probably the shoulders are arched over because time has done its job and this guy was a farm worker so he’s got gnarled hands and he’s got something of a physique left over and because he shouts over he has a croaky voice and possibility his shape may change over time through the story. It may be that that he is regretting the fact he jilted his lover when he was younger and that slap she gave him leaves the shape in his face from then on. So what I do is lock in the shape from there, kind of building a suit of armour so I can leave him and come home and be the narrator then jump back in, and then leave it and jump back in and go visit and then come home. What I have found is that this technique is not easy for proper actors, because proper, brilliant, talented actors don’t do things half-way, they don’t go visiting. Proper real actors do it all the way, they give their heart, their soul, their memory, their thoughts, their emotions to the character. John Louis Buroux, a famous French actor, once talked about how acting is the ultimate expression of love, because you just give your entire self to the other person, he was French, that’s the way they do things. With this kind of acting these actors find it difficult to leave their character and jump back in and be the narrator because they have put everything inside. And they find it particularly difficult to jump from this character and pull out all work they have invested and invest a whole load into another character. They are much better at sticking to one particular role and doing it full on. In my work on stage and with my education work with Makon, talking about Israel education I’ve realised what we do in Middle East, most of us in our normal lives, is that we go about life with actors head, we tend to be fully commitment to role we are playing to such an extent that we find it very difficult to leave our role and think what it might be like in the role of our antagonist. Or two very good reasons, if I’m a proper actor if I need to empathise with you I need to totally be you, which means I lose me, I need to completely surrender to you because that’s what actors do. And Surrender in the Middle East is not a meditative word, it reeks of defeat. And there is another reason why, if I’m stuck in my role, I’m not going to go out to you, because really I need to come back home and lose my role for a second and gain a bit of perspective, and work out who I’m talking to. But I don’t want to because I’m angry with you and I’m shouting at you and you’ve got me annoyed so I’m not going to go home and find some perspective and if I do go home the door is locked with my anger, frustration and fear. Some time back I found for myself a key, a key to unlock the door to coming home to some perspective, and I found it in theatre. I was working on a very modest little project, we were going to adapt the entire book of Genesis for the stage. So I’m working with these actors, and they are cool with the going to visit bit, and we’ve worked out who is playing the character of Rebecca and who is playing the character to Isaac but we haven’t worked out who is the narrator, because this is the Bible. So coming home to just be Robbie, doesn’t work, Robbie didn’t tell the Bible and Moses too clichéd and The Redactor sounded too Dr Who so, in the end, we decided the narrator of the Bible was an Angel. Then the question is how the hell do you play an angel? How do you act like an Angel? According to Jewish tradition what’s an angel? What are the characteristics of an angel? First off, an Angel is created with a very particular, specific purpose in mind and an Angel is capable of anything but will only do what is required to fulfil that purpose. Which means that an Angel has no needs, an Angel doesn’t need to eat, doesn’t need to sleep or do any bodily functions whatsoever because the angel is just there for its particular function. We know we have heard that saying from the Talmud, ‘every single blade of grass on Earth has an angel by it saying “grow, grow”‘. The other key thing about an angel is that an angel doesn’t believe in God because an angel knows God, and Angel doesn’t need faith that it’s going to be alright because an angel knows it’s going to be alright because an Angel has been around the guy with the plan. But how do you perform and Angel? So now I’m going to show you a little of the process we go through with Actors in order to find the Angel or act like an Angel. We start with the clichés, with wings and lyre but mainly the wings. We flap around and imagine what it’s like to fly, and imagine what it’s like to have the strength and the power to do anything. It’s this wonderful flying feeling, and next trick, the next thing we ask of people, is to see if they can hold onto that flying without flapping their arms, moving their legs, see whether you can lock in that feeling of angel without holding up chest slightly. And can you lock in that Angel. And when I find that angel, sometimes when I’m in an argument or conflict and can’t get out of my role or find way home, I remember that angel. The angel isn’t home, the Angel is there opening the door and when I go home in a state of conflict, whether personal or political, once I know I can go home then it is far easier for me to know I can visit someone else’s point of view and then my visiting is conducted with far more humility and my listening is of a greater standard. When I leave them and come back home I haven’t entirely left them, I’ve somehow managed to contain what they are saying to me. And because I am confident about being at home I can visit other perspectives and other people all of whom I end up containing rather than conflicting with and then I begin to understand a different understanding of what peace means at least in Jewish tradition. That Peace, Shalom, the shlimut of things is also about containing opposites. The wolf and the lamb when they lie down together, we don’t pull the wolf’s teeth out nor do we construct a wall between them but we find way to contain these opposites. And these ideas of these opposites and being able to hold these ideas reach an idea of peace which I’ve learnt from various people. This vision of peace is something that enables me to touch a little bit of something my daughter was complaining about because in this visiting and coming home I touch this compassion, in this visiting and coming home I touch the chein, hesed and rahamim and reach through this angelic storytelling a different possibility for reaching peace.

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