I’ve been thinking about story ownership.

Quite a bit actually.

At a recent writer’s forum as a part of Novemberism, the question was asked – “can you be sued for telling someone else’s story?”

Well – yes – if the story is defamatory – if the names are unchanged and harmful to the life and career of that person – if you get the facts wrong and it has an adverse affect on their life. Yes.

(Yes, it’s interesting, isn’t it? The law and the arts – especially when a lot can be dismissed as (and art is quite a slippery thing) what is fact, what is fiction – what is in the eye of the beholder? What is ownership – who owns the rights to what and when – when is it original, and when is it an homage? When is it art? When is it not? Fascinating topic.)

The question then extends into the “right” to tell a story.

Once, when working with an indigenous group in Canada, I was told I wasn’t permitted to be told what a certain song meant because I was not of the indigenous culture. I was allowed to hear the song being sung, but not allowed to know it’s significance. I found that very interesting – that story was both a public yet exclusive act.

On another occasion, a conversation with my brother, who has lived in Korea for over 12 years, had questioned why writers, why artists should be paid for expressing themselves – because surely everyone in the world expresses themselves and is therefore “an artist.” He said, “it’s like paying someone because they can breathe.” “Is it?” I wondered. Again, I find this interesting.

And now recently, I had written an observation whilst observing rehearsals for Michal Imielski’s How To Lose Sight – which you can find here:

Just after the preview, and just before opening night I received this fascinating message/comment from “Jandek.”

“Here is an idea, why not have real blind actors who have lost sight, conveying their real emotions and experiences? Instead we have a bunch of upper middle class wankers who took a drama class or two at their respective private schools pretending to be blind. What a joke, waste of time and government money. Money that would be better spent on guide dogs. Shame on you for losing this wonderful chance to use blind actors instead of white bred mime artists. Such is the price of wankery. I wonder who really is blind here?”

And I’ve been sitting on this message for a while (2 weeks) because I really wanted to think about it. I wanted to consider Jandek’s response on a larger scale – not just in this specific context.
And now, I have come to a response, I wanted Jandek’s comment to get more of a platform than a “comment” on an older post.

I will, firstly as a means of superficially addressing the comment, quickly note this:
This project was conceived by a director/performance maker who has sight. He makes work from the perspective of someone who has sight. All he has known his whole life is living with sight. In his work he asks himself and the sighted audience to consider life without sight.

Additionally SHH had posted invitations to the vision impaired community to be involved in the creation of the work, through Accessible Arts and Vision Australia – he had some responses from people keen but unavailable for performances. (but yes, an effort was made for a collaboration there.)

As far as the “upper middle class wankers” goes… I pretty much understand that most (if not all the artists working on this project) do not come from the upper classes. Nor are they “white bred mime artists” – I think How to Lose Sight contained one of the most multicultural casts I’ve ever seen with actors who’s ethnicity was caribbean, asian, polish, french – a colour blind cast (not colour-conscious cast) if ever I had witnessed it. And also – I’m not sure that any of the actors went to private schools – and for a few of them – that was a long time ago.

Those are just some points I thought I’d make.

Now as a broader comment – I thought it apt to perhaps suggest that I think it would be a very dull and mono-cultural experience for audiences if artists were only allowed or authorized (by government funding – or by social expectation) to make art from their own lives. We would then be subjected to MANY , MANY more stories about poor, (predominantly) white theatre-makers trying to get funding, recognition and maintain relationships and keep up with the everyday demands of life.

An artist trying to come to terms with what vision gives and takes from us is a question which is interesting whether or not the makers are sighted or not.

This is a show by created by those unique artists in that space at that time.

I do agree, with Jandek, I think it would be interesting to see a work of visual/movement based/physical theatre made by people who are vision impaired. But that’s not this show. This show was made by people with sight.

I believe that it is within an artists prerogative to discuss and reveal and question anything they want to – if Alana Valentine wants to write about issues facing 20-year old heterosexual men in regards to feminism, or perhaps the wearing of the hijab by Muslim women – great. That is HER line of enquiry and discussion – and it reaches beyond her own personal self and realm. And if a man wants to write about women – why not?
Is there no scope, no room for imagination – or compassion – or universal human understanding?

Does it mean that we can only have stories of rape told by rape victims? Or perhaps a story such as that of Oedipus can only be performed and directed by those who have married their mothers. Should we only have stories about refugees played by refugees? (I think you get a sense of how quickly this can descend into a coil of unsustainable and weird parallels – eg Hamlet’s ghost would only be able to be played by a dead person…. yep – tricky.)

But it’s an interesting thing to consider – who has the right to tell which stories? And who owns our stories? Can anyone tell any story they want? Should they be allowed to? Who has the right to write?