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Mind the Story


June 15, 2021 Marty Chan, Special to the ATA News


This school year, the most overused phrase is a toss-up between “we need to pivot” and “please mute your mics.” I’m no stranger to the pivot, having done it for most of my writing career.

The first time I had to pivot was when I wrote interactive murder mystery plays. Performed in restaurants and hotels, the plays invited audiences to become detectives and solve a crime. A company commissioned me to pen a weekend-long mystery at an Edmonton hotel. I thought I could outwit the players with my brilliant plot twists. I was wrong.

The armchair detectives figured out most of my mystery by the end of the first night; then they pursued a plot twist I hadn’t even conceived. They had figured out that their room keys could open more than one door, and they used them to break into our actors’ rooms. I had to lure the players into the hallways and conference rooms where the mystery was supposed to unfold. I asked an actor, Michelle, to die sooner than planned.

Michelle agreed and we staged her body in a stairwell. Unfortunately, in my rush to set up the plot twist, I forgot to inform the staff. Later that night, two housekeepers stumbled across Michelle’s body and ran screaming down the hallway. They also became the main suspects for the rest of the weekend.

I often recounted this origin of my humble beginnings as a writer, but I also used it to illustrate how we must adapt to life’s challenges. This past year, the world has faced an unprecedented challenge: deciding what to do with all that toilet paper we hoarded in 2020. 

We are seeing the ripple effects of the pandemic in schools. Anxiety issues are rising and reading levels are falling. How does a teacher pivot to address the new realities? 

The solution may be elementary, my dear Watson. A Princeton researcher used the BBC series, Sherlock, to study the impact of storytelling on our brains. She examined the brainwave activity of test subjects watching an episode, then asked the subjects to recount the story. As the subjects recapped key scenes from Sherlock, their brain activity lit up in regions that involved memory, moral reasoning and self-reflection. The people were trying to piece together their understanding of the plot elements to put them into context.

Today, an entire world has experienced something we need to put into context before we can return to a time when the most pressing concern is “how can I watch the Friends reunion show without paying for HBO Max.” Our road to recovery lies in our ability to share our stories, whether they be about waiting for a COVID test result or discovering that wearing masks all day can give us acne. Stories can bring us together.

In my school visits, I talked about how my childhood experiences as the only Chinese kid at a small-town school shaped my Marty Chan Mystery series. I’d often tell kids how I taped my eyes up because a girl pulled her eyes down and made fun of my “Chinese” eyes. When my blunt mom caught me, she told me to stop wasting all the Scotch tape in the house. I told the stories with self-deprecating humour to reveal how I felt as an outsider.

A few years ago, I shared my stories at a rural school. The librarian contacted me after and said I had had quite the impact on one student, a Korean boy whose family had just moved to town. He didn’t realize that other people felt like he did: out of place. I resisted the urge to ask her if the boy’s mother was missing any Scotch tape.

More importantly, the other students likened this kid to the funny protagonist from my books and befriended him. The librarian said the boy had blossomed from feeling alone to becoming one of the gang. Through my stories, the other kids at the school could see past the colour of the boy’s skin and treat him as an equal.

As I reflect on this year’s events, I think about the stories we need to share to put this pandemic into context. I think about how the students in our lives need to share their experiences and see that they aren’t alone. 

Let’s tell our stories and just this once let’s unmute all the mics. ❚

Marty Chan is an Edmonton-based playwright and children’s author.

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