Spoon River, Story, and the Existential Project

Katie Blog, Wide-Awakeness Project Leave a Comment

The earth keeps some vibration going

There in your heart, and that is you.

Fiddler Jones, Spoon River Anthology by Edgar Lee Masters

As a high school drama teacher many years ago, I staged a production of Edgar Lee Masters’ Spoon River Anthology. I had wanted to be a drama teacher for as long as I could remember. I was now directing my very own students, on my very own stage, using text that I had performed as high school freshman in my first acting class. Spoon River (Published by Macmillan in 1916) is a collection of post-mortem autobiographical poems of people from the fictional town of Spoon River, Illinois. I cast students to perform selected poems as monologues. I choreographed movement and staging to depict life in the Midwestern town. Each monologue was the story of a life. I chose to direct Spoon River because I believe in the power of story. I chose to direct Spoon River because I wanted my students to rehearse reflection and story telling. I choose to direct Spoon River because I wanted my students to get a step closer to articulating their own desires and hopes by performing the monologues of the characters of Spoon River, monologues in which characters told the stories of their desires and hopes. The town of Spoon River was not like where we lived. The people of Spoon River were not like my students. I hoped they would be able to find beauty in the stories. I hoped they would find a beauty that did not demand similarity. Theater possesses the power for actor and audience to create space for story. I wanted my students to learn their story. Knowing and telling our stories is critical to understanding our world.

At the audition, I asked students to tell a story about someone or something that had great impact on their lives. I wanted to see their story telling abilities. Their stories were filled with the sacrifice of families, the love of friends, the pain of loss, the anger of disappointment, and the hopefulness of dreams. Community was built as we listened to the stories. We would be creating the fictional community of Spoon River together as we rehearsed and performed. Creating community involved learning our stories.

What is the relationship between Spoon River and Wide-Awakeness?

Knowing our story is central to wide-awakeness

I believe there are wide-awakeness muscles. Muscles in the mind and body that, through practice, allow us to experience wide-awakeness. These muscles allow for creativity and reflection. These muscles allow us to explore our physical edge. These muscles allow us to gather facts and find memories as we compose our stories. Story is the window into experience that allows wide-awakeness to emerge from the numbness of anonymity, isolation, and fear. Maybe collecting stories, both our own and others, allows us to pay attention? Maybe story, imagination, and big ideas like peace and compassion meet at the point of wide-awakeness?

The existential project

The existential project is central to wide-awakeness. The logic follows that we all have a project. The project expands individual experience to a communal level. The project connects us with ourselves and our world. Existentialists discuss our project in terms of transcendence, in which an individual is a change agent completing a task at hand. An individual transcends the self in the work to be done. In transcending the self in pursuit of our project, we become wide-awake. I tend to think of the project as the path we must take. Our project is what we can’t not do. Our project must be tended, because it is delicate. Our project must not be silenced, because it must sing. It is vital like breath.

Stories connect us with our project

We need to know our stories before we know our project. Knowing our stories demands reflection, honesty, and courage. Learning our stories is central to defining a project. I am reminded of making a quilt with the women in my family before my first niece was born. In making that quilt, I learned parts of my story. My story was woven square by square. My project became clearer with each stitch. Through learning about the people, places, and things that make us who we are, we begin to understand what is our work to do in the world.

Our project connect us with our world

Once we know our project, it is possible to connect with the world. Often, telling our stories happens as we live our project. We are wide-awake in the telling. This is where the idea of the unique nature of our project becomes important. Our stories are our own, and connect us with our project. No one else has our story. No one has our project. Our projects are individual and sacred, and are our work in the world. Our project is our service. Our project is our desire. Our project is our calling. We simply must do our project.

As I think back on directing Spoon River Anthology, several thoughts come to mind.

We must learn and share our stories.

Having shared my Turner syndrome story, The Unspeakable Gift, in the Washingtonian, I am more convinced than ever in the power of sharing our stories. My own journey to learn and share my story started as a high school drama student. I wanted to start that same journey for my students. Spoon River was that opportunity. The road to sharing my story included quieting doubt, fear, and anger. The more connected I am to stories, the more wide-awake I feel.

Encouraging storytelling is my project.

As I drama teacher, I used the medium of theater to tell stories. In studying theater and English, I crafted my story telling ability. In teaching theater, my students learned how to tell stories through creatively using their bodies and minds. As I writer, I aspire to tell stories that move and provoke and (perhaps) inspire others to know and share their stories.

Our world demands we live our project.

There is no other time than now to live our projects. The world needs people to live in love and compassion. Whether it by being a parent caring for children, or being a business person that provides a valuable service to a community, or being an artist who demonstrates what it means to communicate at the level of the soul, or being teacher who holds the future in her hands, for example. We all must live our project. Our projects are the vibration of the earth of which Fiddler Jones speaks.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *