Theatre Around The Bay: Our Story Was Epic

Our guest blogger series continues with a piece by Sunil Patel, a Bay Area writer and actor, who recounts a recent night of inspiration.

Veronica Mars changed my life. I don’t mean that as hyperbole: I can trace my recent commitment to becoming a published writer to Veronica Mars. While that decision was directly inspired by attending the World Science Fiction Convention, I only became aware of that convention because of a friend I met through Veronica Mars fandom. Everything awesome that has ever happened to me at Comic-Con can also be attributed to Veronica Mars, including the opportunity to tell Joss Whedon that Buffy the Vampire Slayer changed my life—which was partly because it was a precursor to Veronica Mars.

I love the show. I have written thousands of words about why I love the show. It’s a fantastic neo-noir teen drama with a compelling protagonist and supporting characters, a strong father-daughter relationship, and, yes, a smoldering romance. I love the story, but it wasn’t the story alone that changed my life. It was the community that formed around that story.

Television fandom is a curious but beautiful thing: thousands of people absorbed in a story, collectively experiencing joy and heartbreak from week to week. And this story leads them to generate their own stories, claiming characters and imagining new narratives for them. I helped orchestrate HelpMeVeronica.com, a mini-ARG, which taught me a lot about storytelling and managing audience expectations. As a writer, I had to balance what I wanted to create with what our audience needed. A subcommunity had formed around our story-within-a-story. But the larger community plays a role in the metanarrative of the show.

The tale of Veronica Mars is this: on May 22, 2007, the story ended. The community, however, remained. And on March 13, 2013, by the power of Kickstarter, that community enabled the creation of more story. We hungered for more, and we made it happen. Stories matter because they connect people and through the power of fictional narrative influence the real-world narrative. Stories have power, and we bestow it upon them.

At a recent Borderlands event, fantasy author Brandon Sanderson said that writing the book was only 80% of the job of creating the story. The reader supplied the final 20% by imagining it in their heads. He used this analogy as a way to distinguish books from television and movies, which show you the images and sounds, but the concept extends to all forms of storytelling. The audience is an essential part of the story, and 20% of the experience is how they respond to it. A hundred people can see a production of play and come away with a hundred different interpretations, a hundred different emotional responses. The story fractures into a hundred versions of itself and finds new life in the lives it touches. The audience carries their own personal version of it with them always.

Stories have always needed an audience to come alive, but now an audience’s need for stories matters a significant amount. We live in a world where a passionate audience can show their appreciation for the types of stories they want to see by willing them into existence. San Francisco Theater Pub’s The Odes of March ended with “Ode to the Audience,” acknowledging their importance, but I see untapped potential.

Everything I’ve described above regarding the passion for stories and sense of community that I experienced in television fandom applies to my experience in theater as well, but as a creator. The Bay Area theater community is incredibly supportive of new work, and many times I have seen people put up a play on sheer pluck and gumption alone. Several times, I’ve seen them turn to crowdfunding as well. Maybe it’s because I mainly associate with people in theater, but I have not personally encountered theater fandom to the same degree. Theater is as collaborative a medium as television or film, and I think it has the ability to foster a similar, vibrant community centered on stories. The audience is physically present, already together, when they see a play. The San Francisco Olympians Festival does a wonderful job bridging the gap between creators and audience members, encouraging the intermingling of the two and discussion of the works. Talking about stories is an essential part of the storytelling process. It’s that 20% that truly cements their place in the collective consciousness.

I look at the success of the Veronica Mars movie and realize that a story is far more than what’s contained within it. It’s a message, a force of nature, a reality-warping behemoth of narrative power. As a writer, you cannot forget that. You must understand that it’s bigger than you.

Because you never know when what you write will change someone’s life.

Sunil Patel is a Bay Area writer and actor. See his work at http://ghostwritingcow.com or follow him on Twitter @ghostwritingcow.

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