Of Monsters & Cushions: Some Thoughts on Narrative Performance & Social Movements

They stood on the gleaming cream steps, old school orators declaiming in thickened Boston accents. They told us of problem after problem that would come from raising MBTA fares and decreasing services, underscoring with heavy emphasis the worst of these, the most surprising of the consequences, for all the world as if we were children and they were reading us The MBTA Monster: A bedtime story. The audience clapped and rubbed its fingers in approval, nodded and shouted in choral response.

It irritated me.

I have long been a strong advocate for public transportation. I agree with the underlying message of the event, though not having seen the specifics that led to the proposal and eventual decision, I can’t unequivocally support demands to reverse the decision. I can and do unequivocally support the idea that public transportation should be a governmental priority. I wasn’t in a particularly irritable mood—if anything, I was excited by the sudden fieldtrip.

So why was I irritated? The event disappointed me. Not from an intellectual perspective; it was interesting to consider it from the perspective of our various readings and discussions. But the rhetoric seemed pointless: This was an inside event, with no hope of drawing in random passersby. All—or if not all, almost all—of the people present were already aware of the problems connected to raising MBTA fares and decreasing services. We were all already in agreement that this was not desirable. Additional information wasn’t provided. Arguments for persuading others not of the same mind were not offered. It frustrated me. Why were so many in the audience so enthusiastic? Surely they too could see these problems?

It wasn’t until after the conga line wound its way upstairs to target specific offices that the first of two events that would challenge my thinking occurred. With just a few stragglers leaning against columns and clustering in small groups remaining, a young man with dark hair, dressed with meticulous style, took to the steps where he invited each of us to come up and experience speaking. I was struck by the similarity in the words he used and the words that are said at the end of Mortified performances, in which everyone is invited to submit and perform.

Mortified is a narrative performance event in which people read/present excerpts of real—embarrassing—material they created as a child or adolescent; it shares some similarities with The Moth, which is a storytelling event that similarly draws on real experiences and is presented in a theatrical venue but without the traditional trappings of theater. It differs from traditional performance in that it erodes some of the barriers between performer and audience. One of the points is the realism and universalism of the material people read. The result, as one Mortified reader recently described it to me, is that you have a cushy audience. They want to like you. They want to support you. They are already on your side. They identify with you.

The second event that caused me to rethink what I’d experienced occurred after we had regrouped and exited the building. One of the people who was canvasing outside approached us. After he learned that we’d been inside, he asked us if any of us had spoken. When learning that no, none of us had spoken, he said, “So the spirit didn’t move you?”

As a child, I attended Quaker school. Quaker meeting, for those who aren’t familiar with it, involves sitting in silence for an hour or so. The meetinghouse is traditionally bare, with no ornamentation. Benches are all at the same level, typically arranged so people face each other. If the spirit moves you to speak, you can either sit or stand and share whatever is in your heart. The silence continues after you have stopped speaking. No one responds to what you say. Indeed, response would be inappropriate. This, too, then could be described as a cushy audience.

Which brings me—finally—to my point. I approached the event as one in which information and argumentation was to be shared and was confused by what I perceived as the emptiness of the rhetoric. But I wonder now if it wouldn’t make more sense to consider its value as resting primarily in its form of narrative performance. It, too, seemed to enjoy a cushy audience. It too emphasized elements of universality and openness to participation. It too included narratives, albeit composed of more political and less “real” rhetoric.

We have discussed the importance of narrative multiple times, both in class with regard to framing, as well as in the context of the Visualizing Data Hackathon and #21M. But perhaps we should also consider the importance of narrative performance. What is the impact of such a performance on the narrator? On the audience? On the boundaries between them? How might you signal which kind of narrative performance is intended so that people don’t expect a different kind and end up disappointed? And finally, most importantly, what are the most effective forms of narrative performance for different social movement goals?

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