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Its All Story

by Mark Woods

October 8,2009

The perpetually underwhelming and underfunded Charlotte arts scene is a long-running mystery. Over the course of twenty-five years, I’ve spent half of it slaving to make the Charlotte arts scene work and the other half observing from a safe haven devoted to research and development. I had always figured that the sorry condition of local arts was someone else’s fault. What I failed to understand was that the vast majority of what was being offered was not inclusive or emotionally moving.

Two new endeavors, New River and Story Slam!, working separately and in tandem, are trying to change that. We believe that when all seems futile, story saves us. From the beginning of time, humans have told stories on cave walls and around firelight. Stories edify, inspire, address conflict, and galvanize the community. In the 2008 Presidential campaign, we rediscovered our own collective story. It illuminated the behavior we might aspire to, raised courage, and offered hope. It took us past example and lesson. It emotionally moved and included us.

New River and Story Slam! are dedicated to involving both artists and audience in the discovery, process, and development of stories. We don’t just present stories, we reveal them. We aim to forge a deeper connection between artists and audience by making the creative process more present. We let the audience witness some of the mystery, risk and discovery that leads to new works of music, dance, visual art, and spoken word. It’s all about the journey.

Conventional producers, presenters, and funding agencies devote a great deal of money and time to hyping the “wow” factor of their art. They employ the same marketing techniques over and over, until their message becomes white noise. As a result, many ticket buyers have developed a generic degree of expectation that’s randomly applied to all cultural experience. Instead of the artistic experience being aesthetically moving, it’s blended into an evaluation process that is a mere afterthought and lost in the cost of dinner, parking and that chalky Chilean Malbec wine. Many funding agencies, in an effort to maximize efficiency, unintentionally drive a wedge between donors and recipients. They don’t really know each other. Accountability is limited to the bottom line. Mutual respect is nearly impossible to earn.

I wonder if we might have a more vibrant – and better supported – arts scene in Charlotte if the producers lifted a more transparent curtain and considered different ways to engage our imagination. What if the ticket buyers took more chances and the funding agencies took a more thoughtful look at promoting stronger ties between donors and recipients? I’m not advocating doing away with anything. To me, it’s not a choice between castles and cottages or intimacy and grandiosity. Somehow, it’s simpler than that: It’s about how we see and perceive.

A few weeks ago at Story Slam!, Gina Stewart shared a new piece of music with us on a Friday night. John Hartness was in the audience. On Saturday night, John delivered a new poem inspired by Gina’s music from the previous evening. This sort of priceless interchange moved a lot of people. This kind of reciprocal experience is always within our grasp. We are born in process. We witness process, as when a toddler comprehends the puzzle pieces of his own journey and takes those first unassisted steps. Why stop that wondrous ride?

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