I was sad to hear about the impending closure of the Praxis Centre for Screenwriters. The 26-year-old institution is shutting down due to lack of funding and support. While it’s a small program at Simon Fraser University, it has had a huge impact on Canadian filmmaking and storytelling. Over thirty films have been produced from screenplays developed at Praxis, and certainly well over a hundred other successful writers have had career boosts from going through development and mentorship at Praxis.
Praxis changed my life in profound ways. I went through development on two screenplays there, working with amazing story editors like Michael Miner (the screenwriter of Robocop), Peter Behrens (the Governor General Award winning author of Law of Dreams) and Guy Bennett (director of the film Punch), and through the development process, I forged a successful writing partnership with bestselling novelist Todd Babiak. I also went through Praxis’ story editor internship program, a wonderful experience in itself, but made better by being placed to intern at Screen Siren Pictures. That placement lead to story consulting work on several amazing projects and the co-creation of a television series, as well as many long-lasting friendships.
Most importantly, Praxis was where I met my wife. When I said “profound ways,” I wasn’t kidding.
Seeing Praxis flounder, amidst the current climate of shuttered cinemas, theatres and gathering places, gives me concern about how little we currently value storytelling in our society. We are destroying the institutions that help us tell stories. This is on top of the way we have corroded stories. It seems that the Internet has wreaked havoc on our attention spans, seeking out shorter form entertainment, or entertainment that lacks story entirely. Storytelling is getting the short shrift; it’s just not as valued as construction or Bitcoins or new televisions.
Storytelling is the thing that truly differentiates humans. We now know that plenty of our fellow animals make tools, create music, develop culture and communicate to each other in their own language – all traits we once believed were exclusively human – but as far as we know, we’re the only creature that tells each other stories.
We ask each other “So what’s your story?” Stories define us as individuals and as nations. They unite us through use in religious ceremonies, television shows, books and movies. We share the legendary stories of our great political leaders and our sports heroes. Branding is actually a form of storytelling, turning corporations into friendly neighborhood community members. Even our food and drink often offers a story about how it was made.
Stories tell us where we came from, who we are now, and where we may be going.
I admit my doom and gloom is exaggerated. I know plenty of people adore storytelling, but we simply don’t acknowledge its importance in our society. After water, food, and air, it is the thing that sustains us.
There is hope. My wife and I attended the Moth Story Slam in Brooklyn on our first wedding anniversary. For those who aren’t familiar with the Moth, it’s a live storytelling event in which participants have a limited time to tell a story from their own lives. The event is a tribute to people’s ability to turn personal anecdotes into entertaining and enlightening stories. The line up to get into the slam was down the street and around the corner, and it was standing room only once we got in. We celebrated our anniversary by hearing ten wonderful stories, including one shared by my best friend. The communal feeling of enjoying storytelling with hundreds of other people was unifying and we enjoyed our kinship and conversations with our fellow audience members. It was the perfect expression of our love and our love of stories.