Story Structure

Hello, my name is Max Finlayson and I am a member of Playback Theatre Sydney. I joined the company in 1988 which means that I have been in Playback for about 22 years.

 Playback has taught me many important lessons, both in life and in relation to story and performance. One of those lessons was in relation to the importance and relevance of basic story structure. Every story has a beginning; middle; and an end. That’s the basic structure of all stories. I was well aware of this seemingly simple rule for years before I joined Playback, (I have a Degree in Literature) and yet the relevance of this did not hit home until I was in Playback for about 8 years.


My enlightenment came through a story. I can still remember it clearly. I was an Actor in one of our Public Performances (see our performance schedule on our website ) and a teller got up to relate a story about how they had accidentally run over a rabbit while driving to visit their relative in the country.


The story went like this.  The teller was driving down a country highway on a quiet afternoon as dusk. They were enjoying the country views when suddenly they saw a little rabbit on the highway ahead. The teller tried to avoid the creature but the rabbit was caught between the headlights and no matter which way the driver turned the rabbit remained in front of the car. There was an awful little thump as the teller passed over and saw in the rear mirror that the little thing was motionless on the road. The accident left the teller with a sense of terrible guilt and apprehension. Thereafter they could not drive down that highway without feeling deep remorse and anxiety that a similar event might occur again.


It was a short and uncomplicated story. The actors and musician quickly set up and began their re-enactment. We saw the teller (played by one of the actors) driving down a highway and then quite quickly, as it had been related that way; another actor appeared as the rabbit. This generated a little laughter as it often does when an actor portrays an animal onstage. Then the inevitable collision course began, as both the teller’s actor and the rabbit realised that they were on a fatal collision course. The music increased in gravity as they approached each other, growing louder and more oppressive. An exaggerated impact sequence soon followed as the two collided in slow motion. The music became a series of stark noises, BANG    –    CLUNK    –    BOOM   –   HISSS, and then the rabbit was left lying on centre stage. In quiet, we all looked on. The teller’s actor too came to inspect the carnage. There was a short period of shocked silence and then we returned to driving down the highway, but the teller’s actor was now full of grief and apprehension. The music helped to carry this internal landscape. There were a few words from the teller’s actor and the story was over.


After the show we all spent some time talking about what we liked and what we did not. It was unanimously acknowledged that we performed the story adequately yet there was something missed. At first we could not put our finger on it. Then my moment of enlightenment occurred. We were re-enacting the story in a rehearsal (sometimes we do this when we want to see how it could have been better) and I realised that we had only done two thirds of a story, the middle and the end. We had forgotten about the beginning. Here’s what I mean. The teller had begun their story just before impact with the rabbit – “I was driving down the highway when suddenly I saw a rabbit”. We had also re-enacted it this way, moving quickly into the rabbit catastrophe. However the principle of story structure would dictate that this part of the story – the collision- was the middle of the story because it involves the turning point, the action, the part where everything changes. The teller had not actually told us the beginning of the story, but it can be inferred from the end of the story. The teller talked about not being to “drive down that highway without feeling deep remorse and anxiety that a similar event might occur again”. Therefore the teller had previously driven down the highway with something like the opposite of anxiety and regret. In other words they had previously “enjoyed the country views”. As each part of a story need to be evenly weighted we should have begun the story with the driver having a period of joyful country driving. Perhaps a few rabbits and other animals could have been portrayed for the fun and delight of all. This would have made the descent into the collision sequence all the more poignant, and provided a substantial contrast in the internal landscape of the teller’s actor. We could have seen that change that occurred.


So that’s where I began a new way of looking at stories as an actor and as a Conductor in Playback. I try to keep this question in my mind as I listen to our tellers.


I think that this is why I am so often disappointed with the portrayal of people’s lives in television and newspapers. So often we are told only of the middle and end of a person’s life and nothing of their beginning. We hear daily on the News about attacks; deaths; murders; scandals; and nothing else. We are given only the action filled middles of people’s stories. The media tells us that this is all that matters and the beginning of the story, is so often not included. I often find myself thinking about the beginnings of stories I have heard on the news. I hear a story about a child being killed; attacked; and I know that this person had a life involving significant others; they were raised by a loving parent figure most likely, someone at least worked to enable that person to make it that far. And then the aftermath of the event will also affect many in a way that is not often shown in the media.


Playback has taught me to add this for myself. To know that all of us have  stories with beginnings middles and ends, which are full of love and colour, pain and learning, and that there are many connections and insights to be had through sharing our stories fully. Playback too, is a wonderful medium for story sharing. Why not bring a friend or two to the next Playback Performance. 

This entry was posted by playback on Wednesday, November 14th, 2012 at 22:26 and is filed under Team. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.

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