Disney’s Three Golden Questions by Einat Masha’al Nitzan
On a December night in 1937 Walt Disney’s “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs” premiered at the Carthay Circle Cinema in Los Angeles.
Four years earlier Disney took his crew on a new adventure. He wanted to find out whether cartoons could be more than just funny stuff. Disney had a bold vision; he believed that cartoons could deal with the heavier struggles of life. The film’s creation was extensively innovative. It included, for example, bringing dancers, actors and animals to the set so that the animators could catch every little detail of each character’s movement.
Disney was restless during the entire Snow White premiere. He was waiting for the scene that would test his vision. And then it came…the scene with Snow White eating the apple, the “so-called death of Snow White”.
There was silence in the hall, and then the crowd began to cry. “They had crossed a passage between the world we live in and the emotional world that lives in us all. Walt built the bridge, and it “ain’t kids stuff.” The audience’s tears were the triumph of the film. As the curtains fell, the crowd rose to its feet and burst into a standing ovation. Disney’s Snow White was a leap of artistic faith, a new form of art, and a global success.
Disney’s next step was the production of Pinocchio. It was said that during the struggle to make the character of Pinocchio more likable, Disney burst out and exclaimed,” We do not make cartoons here, we make art!” He meant that the new standard now was the emotional response they could evoke from the audience. Can the movie make the audience feel deeply? Can it make them laugh and cry?
At this point, we can relate to Disney’s perception, as we too in Playback Theatre want to deeply touch the heart of our audience with the joy and the pain of human existence.
During the intensive process of shaping Pinocchio’s story to appeal to the audience, Disney focused on three critical questions. What is the story about, what is the essence of this story, and why would a person care enough about the story to make them want to watch the movie?
These 3 questions can be our compass and can guide our path when we listen to a story in Playback Theatre and we want to bring it back to the teller and the audience in a lively, rich and deep way. Let’s review these questions and their meanings in our work as Playback Theatre teams. Then we will go through specific exercises and techniques to train ourselves and our teams about how to find these answers.
What is this story about?
This is the basic question that we expect to understand through the direct interview with the teller. We can think about the basic five “W” questions to lead our way.
When did the story take place? Was it in the morning, noon or night? Was it in the winter, spring, summer or fall? Did it happen today, last week, a few months ago or a few years ago? Of course, we do not always need all of the details. However, if we have relevant details, like the story took place in summer, we can embody this summer sensation through our enactment via sounds, body movements, cloth, etc., and it can make our enactment more rich and alive. From the standpoint of feelings, if the story is about an emotional wound, the distance of time dictates what the teller might need at this moment, and how we can better serve them from the stage.
Where did this story take place?At home? At a train station? At the beach? On a trip? In all kinds of places? By hearing about the place from the teller, we can better succeed in imagining the story in a deeper way. This will give us more keys to build a lively scene and also to illuminate various elements that may have been present in the story and could bring other viewpoints on the events. For example, a story that takes place during a train ride can provide us with the materials to introduce and enrich the scene. In sounds: the station announcer, the rattle of the wheels, and the horn, etc. In figures: the train conductor or other passengers who witness the event and give their monologue. In objects: the train itself or the bench at the train station, which can also be embodied and humanized to give more refreshing angles to this story.
Who is part of the story? The teller? Other figures? What were the meanings of these figures to the teller? The characters can be realistic or abstract. We can also think of objects that were mentioned in the story and we can hear some kind of “personality” in them. Who is not mentioned?
We would like to understand the character of the teller — our main protagonist — what were they feeling, thinking, and doing, how do they understand the situation, what was their role in the scene, and of course their relationship to other characters. We can divide the characters into ‘close characters’- spouse, siblings, parents, etc, about whom we need to deal with respect and usually to act out with a realistic and delicate approach. Then there are the ‘distant characters’- cashier, policeman, head of some committee, etc., with whom we can be looser and free in the way we act them out on stage.
Another important and relevant point here is that we prefer not to insert realistic figures that were not in the teller’s original story. This is because we usually hear only about a tiny piece of the teller’s life. We might think, for example, that we are doing such a good thing for the teller by bringing in their beloved mother, and then to realize that the teller’s mother abandoned them and her appearance might cause the teller to disconnect from the scene.
What happened in the story? In the beginning, middle and end? Sometimes a story might start in the middle or not have an ending, so we should ask what happened after? What happened before? Getting this further information can bring new meanings to the story.
Why did this happen? What led to it? What is important at this point is the perception of the story from the viewpoint of the teller, the way they choose to see things. Another interesting question that can be relevant here is why the teller chose to tell this story now? Why do they think this story came up now? A lot of times the answer to this question can be enlightening to the team, the audience and even the teller themselves.
Here is an exercise to help train us to hear more according to the 5 “W” questions. It is relevant for rehearsals and workshops.
Exercise #1. Split the group into subgroups of 6 people. Someone should volunteer to be the teller in each group. Before the teller begins their story, give everyone in the group a note with one of the “W” questions, and include its description. This is what this actor will pay attention to while hearing the teller’s story. The teller will tell their story in a natural way, spontaneously. At the end, the five actors will enact the teller’s story. Each of them will be full of the inspiration they got from their focus. Share afterwards. It can be very beneficial to repeat this exercise several times and change the “W” question focus.
This exercise might be a bit strange; it is like a lab in which we intentionally divide our hearing. However, it will allow us to improve our listening to these five “W” focus questions. Of course, in our daily Playback work, we will hear the story details in a blended way.
What is the essence of this story?
The answer to this question is not as direct as the previous questions. Many times we hear it between the lines, in the repetition of words, in the missing words, in intonation, in silences, and in body language. It is a question we always try to answer. Sometimes we aim for this answer like we aim for the top of a mountain we are trying to climb. The truth is there are many mountaintops. When we search for the heart of a story, we better remember that there are many hearts to every story.
Here is an exercise that can help with training ourselves to discover the hearts of the story. This exercise is relevant for rehearsals or workshops.
Exercise #2. Once the teller has finished telling their story, each player will complete the sentence: “It’s a story about …..” For instance: “It’s a story about missing a friend” or “It’s a story of a woman going on an adventure” or “It’s a story about playing with distance” or “It’s a story about things remembered and things forgotten”. This interesting exercise is great in training and showing how there are different answers to this question. Sometimes we might invite the teller to choose the direction that most speaks to them and from there we will continue to work.
In performance, though, each player can ask themselves this question quietly in their heart, and look for the broader answer to the story as an inspiration and connecting tool. The point is that when you give such an answer, you can always find the personal connection and the universal connections about the story — which can make it more relevant to you the actor and to the audience.
Why would I want to watch it?
Many times we will focus on the teller, but forget the audience. The audience is a witness and an active participant. The audience is alive! They are breathing, they are listening, they are chatting, they are leaving, they are texting, they are completely engaged, they are split, they are resistant, they are crying, and they are laughing.
The question “Why would I want to watch it?” is important for us to understand. How is this story relevant to my life? How is this story relevant to the audience members? Why in the hell would they want to watch it? We must search for the answer to this question. One of the ways to think about the audience is to zoom out. To expand our view:
Playback Technique #1- Zoom Out
Four players stand in freeze on stage: The first begins and gives a solo that aims at the first circle – the personal level of the story- and stops in freeze. The second player – gives a monologue that aims at the second circle – the group level. This concerns the question – what is the meaning of this story here and now to the group of people who are currently listening to this story? Why did it come up now? The third monologue touches the third circle- the social level. How does this story relate to social events that are happening in the same culture or country? The fourth circle -the universal level- a monologue that aims to touch the universal level of human experience. It can reach the heights of myths, “God” perspective, forces of nature, etc. Beside its effect as a Playback technique, it also can be a mental frame just for listening in a fuller way.
Back to Disney…
Walt Disney believed that a cartoon could carry all the peaks and valleys of the human emotional experience. Playback Theatre can do this as well.
The answer Disney found to Pinocchio’s story is that it talks about what it means to be human and that you need to earn your humanity, to achieve it. Humanity is not something given, but rather something determined by your actions. The tool of Playback Theatre, and our active search for answers to Disney’s three questions, allows us and the audience to connect to more stories and to more tellers. It is in this way that we can connect step by step more closely to our humanity.
About the author:
Einat Masha’al Nitzan, M.A, D.M.T
Practicing playback theatre since 1998. One of the founders of the Playback Theatre Association in Israel.
Founder and director of the professional Playback Theatre Group “The Ichilov Ensemble” since 2003 www.play-back.co.il
Lecturer at the Beit Berl College.
Founder and conductor of 6 long-term Playback Theatre groups.
Supervising Playback Theatre conductors.
Einat performs,conducts and teaches Playback Theatre in private and public organizations all around Israel.
 All the quotes are taken from “Walt Disney” PBS documentary film (2015)