Oral Fixation: The Stanford Storytelling Project

Nov. 27, 2012, 3:00 a.m.

On the evening of Veterans’ Day, a room full of people sat facing an empty stage. There was no video footage or theatrical production for them to watch, yet each person stared transfixed, visualizing the nerve-wracking conflict, crippling heat and insidious boredom of deployment in Iraq and Afghanistan as they listened to the recorded voices of Stanford’s veterans.

This was “Voices From the Front,” an event hosted by the Stanford Storytelling Project, a group of students and alumni that believe in the power and importance of oral storytelling.

The project began five years ago when director Jonah Willihnganz decided to stray from the usual medium of the written essay and assign his students radio pieces instead. For three years, KZSU featured the stories from his classes. Then, almost two years ago, an injection of new funding allowed Willihnganz to expand the program to include a weekly radio show, “State of the Human,” student grants and events such as “Voices from the Front.”

The project’s most recent undertaking is outreach. This includes a Show and Tell series in the dorms, where students do a workshop on how to brainstorm, write and perform their own stories, as well as an appeal to students to contact the Stanford Storytelling Project with their own stories and story ideas. Willihnganz also hopes to broadcast “State of the Human” on NPR in the Bay Area within the next year.

“One of the reasons that the Storytelling Project exists is that there is a very old-fashioned idea about what narrative does that has managed to disappear since the end of the 19th century – particularly in American schools and colleges – which is that they are here to be guides for your life, for how to live,” Willihnganz said.

“State of the Human” examines the human consciousness by focusing each week on a different theme. The show uses a combination of a style similar to “This American Life” and an inquiry-based approach reminiscent of “Radiolab.”

“[Each show is] always about one common human experience, and every story teaches us something about that common experience,” Willihnganz explained.

Although the producers are generally older and more experienced than student contributors, the hierarchy is loose within the Storytelling Project; everyone spends time searching for stories in the news, in research and amongst the student body. New students learn the tricks of the trade from seasoned producers and editors.

Cathy Yuan ’16 joined the project this year completely by accident, showing up to what she thought was the Stanford Graphic Novel Project only to find it was a meeting for the Stanford Storytelling Project. Since then, she has been very involved with the production of “State of the Human” and is shadowing producers to learn how to interview, transcribe and edit material.

“It was kind of intimidating but everyone was so welcoming,” Yuan said. “The fact that they thought [my] ideas were valuable as well took [me by surprise].”

The members of the Storytelling Project do not follow a linear trajectory during the creative process of putting together a show; they can approach a theme from a variety of angles and can start in a variety of places. Sometimes, they will brainstorm a theme (such as lying or love) and search for stories that align with the theme; other times, multiple stories share a common thread and can fit together into a single show.

“My creative process varies from piece to piece and also from person to person,” said Natacha Ruck, graduate student and producer of “State of the Human.”

Ruck had previous experience with television documentaries, but working on oral storytelling has pushed her to let go of the importance of visual effects and focus on the voice.

“There’s a format to radio that I think is very interesting, and what you can get from the human voice is very different from what you get from documentaries,” Ruck said.

According to Willihnganz, this is scientifically valid: the part of the brain that experiences music is also activated when listening to the spoken word.

“Literally at a neurological level, when we hear a story spoken aloud and in someone’s voice, we have a much more dimensional experience,” he said.

War veteran Dustin Barfield ’12 experienced an emotional response to hearing his own story played back on the radio.

“Actually hearing myself on tape with my stories, I actually got kind of choked up,” Barfield said.

The emotion that stories can elicit when spoken aloud does not only originate in neurons firing in the brain; there is also the recognition of shared human traits such as awkwardness, insecurity and love.

“The whole point of this is empathy, and you don’t empathize with people unless you hear them being human,” managing editor Rachel Hamburg ’11 said. “Hearing those moments that are unscripted is key.”

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