Something to keep in mind this political season comes from the theater world. “Stories are dangerous,” even “fascistic,” says Anne Bogart, artistic director of the SITI Company and author of the new book What’s the Story: Essays about Art, Theater and Storytelling.
Humans have always told stories, myths and fables to impose order and meaning on life, of course. But, speaking on public radio’s The Really Big Questions with host Dean Olsher this weekend, Bogart said there are two ways to tell stories: There’s the “fascistic” way, which she defines as telling “a story that has everybody feeling the same thing.” (She says that’s why she doesn’t like Spielberg.) “The other way to tell a story,” she says,
is to create moments in which every audience feels something different or has different associations. Much, much trickier. It requires more responsibility…. And I say fascistic and I mean it literally. The role of fascist art was to make one feel small and the same. And the role of humanist art—I would just make up a name—is for everyone to feel that they take up a lot of space and that they have an imaginative and associative part to play.
Olsher: Stories can mesmerize us. In fact, research is showing us that stories break down our critical function and we are suckers for stories. That doesn’t mean I don’t enjoy them as art, but when they start to get into our politics, which they do in a big way, and even in our science, that’s when I get scared for us.
Bogart: Stories are super-dangerous, and I think it’s why most of my life I resisted them. And yet… a story is a tool. So the question is, how can you be responsible with stories, and can you find room for discourse inside of stories? It’s just too easy for stories, as I said, to be fascistic. But I do not believe that we’re ever going to get away from stories, and so therefore we have to learn how live with them or live in relationship with them.
Olsher: They are propaganda, aren’t they?
Bogart: Oh, absolutely. I use stories all the time to get my point across, and that’s a kind of propaganda, too—to talk people into my point of view. And they’re powerful and they’re seductive.
Listen to Bogart here, and listen here to Olsher analyze the power of stories with other guests, including psychologist Melanie Green, who says that stories influence our behavior and beliefs even when we know they’re false.