Vance L. Mellen, Theater and Film
I am glad to report on my use of the Research and Creative Works Scholarship. I’ve had a fantastic last year at BYU, and thanks to the grant I received, I feel extremely well prepared to enter graduate schooL Due in part to the work funded by this grant, I have been accepted at the School of the Arts Institute of Chicago where I will continue my studies and experiments in performance art and film. I’m very excited about the future. More than anything, I feel this grant has helped me gain enormous confidence in my ability to conduct self-motivated research. This is particularly important to me as I prepare for a future as both artist and university instructor.
Let me summarize my discoveries. As noted in my proposal, I have been a professional storyteller for the past eight years. I proposed to study the interrelationship between storytelling as an oral tradition and its translation into film. I was particularly interested in how the process of storytelling aids in the process of creating a screenplay.
Much of my work centered on one particular story, The Hitchhiker. Through the course of my study, I had the opportunity to perform The Hitchhiker before a live audience at least twelve times. I kept a record of many of these performances on audiotape, and I recorded one performance on videotape. I then began a careful assessment of the techniques I used in these performances to improve my storytelling abilities with the eventual goal of taking “the best of’ these performances and turning it into a powerful screenplay. The transition was a complex one.
I also found that this research dovetailed deeply into my Honors Thesis research, Hypnosis and Storytelling. More than any other discovery, I have found enormous value in my explorations of improvisation. I learned that by carefully setting up a storytelling situation and by using certain techniques, I could create an atmosphere that was conducive to creating an altered state for myself and my audience members. I realized that these patterns could be repeated for any story, enabling any performance to draw the listener deeply into the story. Improvisation helps me enter the altered state which allows a sort of “stream of consciousness” to take over, and by association, I can suddenly create new almost dreamlike images and more poetic flowing descriptions which, if recorded and polished can then be incorporated into a screenplay, enriching that screenplay.
The next stage of my research came as I took “the best of’ The Hitchhiker storytelling anecdotes and techniques and began building them into a script. This was an exciting stage of my exploration. I found that many of the words I used in the story I’d told so many countless times, were inappropriate for a written script. I also saw that many of the images which I’d described in the improvised story could not be easily translated into a written script.
These problems became more evident as I workshopped a version of The Hitchhiker with several friends and a favorite professor. Their criticisms revolved around these two problems: words and images. They suggested that the script was too obscure, experimental, confusing and too difficult to understand. I took this criticism hard, because I could clearly understand and see everything that I was relaying in the script. There was a gap in what I intended and what readers were receiving.
I also noticed that by moving away from improvisation to craft a specific and tight script, the script was very different from the tale I usually told. The script became much more intense. I chopped out all of the usual slow transitions inherent in an oral tale, and condensed the tale considerably, quickening it’s pace. The Hitchhiker then became less of a fun, quaint, scary tale and gradually became far more scary. This would usually be good for a horror story, but was met with some resis-tance by several faculty members and friends. I began to wonder if indeed a script was the best way to create films and videos. I wanted to narrow the gap between what I intended and what was experienced by audience.
My research took me deeper into improvisation and away from the careful planning which is usual in the production of Hollywood narrative-type films. I focused on developing ways of incorporating improvisation in my films, without increasing costs substantially (a common concern for documentarists and directors who habitually incorporate improvisation in production).
I pushed this exploration by treating visuals and narrative as two virtually separate entities. My tendency was to move more into experimental film, with dense visuals and intense narrative, thrown together by chance after my studies of modern art. The result was a short film/video entitled The Basement. I shot and projected a simple image of a basement window and told a live, improvisational story to accompany that image at the BYU Final Cut Film Festival sponsored by the film department. I had fused the best of improvisation with simple and pure imagery. My work had made its final move into the arena of Post-Modern Art.
In Chicago I am planning to continue to develop my improvisational techniques in a number of continuing projects. I am currently working on a documentary about education in Nazi Germany with Dr. Legrand Richards. We plan to improvise the script, creating a sort of personal essay of his thoughts concerning the subject. There will be a freshness and more emotional quality to the piece. We plan to project slides and then, using the techniques I’ve gleaned from improvisational storytelling combined with my research in hypnosis, I will ask him probing questions that will kindle associations and comments which, once edited, become the building blocks of a final improvised script. On top of that narrating I will place the slides and images which inspired his commentaries.
I am absolutely thrilled about the future of this work. I feel I’m well prepared to enter the Chicago art community. I am eager to continue my experiments in improvisational storytelling and its assimilation into film.
Thanks again for the Creative Research Scholarship. I found it invaluable in making me a more legitimate artist and a more dedicated scholar.