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"New Millennium Telling"
A Report on the 1996 
Storytelling for the New Millennium

by Eric Miller
(Originally published in Storytelling Magazine, July 1996.)

Over 400 people attended the Storytelling for the New MillenniumConference held April 25-27, 1996, in Kauai, Hawaii, for a look at the new media, which include multimedia, virtual reality, digital, interactive, and telecommunicational technologies. 

Organized by the American Film Institute and the fledgling Kauai Institute for Communications Media, the event brought together leaders from the American film and computer industries, as well as representatives from the fields of telecommunications, publishing, comedy, rock music, academic, and education. 

Long a favorite site for the filming of movies (South Pacific, Raiders of the Lost Ark, Jurassic Park, to name but a few), the entire Island is in a sense a movie set.  Almost fully recovered from 1992's hurricane Iniki, now Kauai is also becoming a think-tank and a laboratory for new media.  The great westward flow of United States civilization--across the prairie and over the Rockies--is now extending in full force over the Pacific and through Hawaii, which borders Asia, with her massive markets and relatively low cost of production. 

Throughout the Conference the term, storytelling, was used in its broadest sense, referring to the production of culture in general.  Every graphic designer, producer, and so on was called a storyteller.  Two direct applications of the new technologies for oral storytellers were the use of electronic images and sounds in accompaniment of storytelling performances and storytelling through video conferencing. 

The Conference keynote address was delivered by Peter Bergman, co-founder of the comedy ensemble Firesign Theatre.  Mr. Bergman said the computer was more like an "airplane cockpit than a camp fire" and jokingly cited the first great story of the Digital Age as being "11010100101101101..." (the binary language of the computer).  During his address, Mr. Bergman announced the formation of a comedy web site, Radio Free Oz, through which he will be "streaming" live and prerecorded audio. 

Martin Behrens, president of Artifax Entertainment, led a three-day pre-Conference workshop which surveyed the new media's use of interactive narrative.  Mr. Behrens urged participants to "analyze everything, reject nothing."  He described "The Spot," a web site modeled after a TV situation comedy, which encourages audience members to exchange e-mail with the characters.  Mr. Behrens also told of "games" in which participants can click on visual representations of characters to hear their thoughts and see the game/story environment from their points of view.  "A dialogue between the oral tradition and the new technologies would be mutually beneficial," said Mr. Behrens. 

San Francisco-based multimedia artist Dana Atchley also led a pre-Conference workshop in "digital storytelling" (face-to-face storytelling accompanied by digitally-composed imagery and sound).  Participants in the workshop learned how to use a non-linear editing system--in this case, Premiere (a software program made by Adobe), used on Apple's Macintosh computers.  A non-linear editing system takes video--along with data in the forms of photographs, audio, etc.--into the computer's hard drive.  That data can then be arranged via the cut and paste method.  Premiere enables 99 visual layers to be seen simultaneously. 

As we were waiting to enter the workshop's opening session, a film professor cheerfully informed me that "narrative is dead."  I was not surprised.  She proceeded to tell me about chaos theory.  Later, Harry Marks, Senior Advisor to AFI's Advanced Technology Program and Conference Chair, assured me that in Hollywood films at least, narrative is alive and well.  When asked why storytelling had been chosen as the theme of the Conference, Mr. Marks gave a number of answers.  First, he said that as he had been growing older, storytelling was becoming more important to him, as a way of looking back upon and organizing the experiences and relics of his life.  He had recently made a brief digital documentary of his life--originally for his mother, but it had also been seen and appreciated by many of his colleagues.  Mr. Marks also said that in his field (television and film), "content is king."  This sentiment was echoed by many at the Conference.  There was a general agreement that technology should serve the story: "tools-centricity" was to be avoided.  To the degree a project was "hi-tech," it could also be "hi-touch."  Mr. Marks noted that while the model of feedback presented by storytelling (wherein audience members' responses are received by the storyteller and incorporated into the ongoing work of art) is useful to the new media, and while digital media enables this sort of feedback, not all digitally-produced entertainment would be interactive. 

Dana Atchley demonstrated the genre of digital storytelling by giving a performance of "Next Exit," his life story.  On stage, Mr. Atchley was accompanied by a large screen on which there were folders labeled "the '40s," "the '50s," "the '60s," and so on.  Using a wireless mouse, he opened the folders and dragged out files of movie clips, placing them along a time-line at the bottom of the screen.  While telling the story, Mr. Atchley periodically clicked open the files, each of which showed a brief episode from his life.  This definitely was a storytelling performance--it would have been as stirring without the electronic images and sounds. 

Graham Nash, co-founder of the Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young folk-rock group, discussed and showed video documentation of his new stage show, LifeSighs, in which he accompanies himself with advanced computer graphics on a large screen, including a speaking mask that is generated live by technicians and an actor in Mr. Nash's Los Angeles studio.  Mr. Nash ended his presentation with a video conference between himself and David Crosby, who was at home in California.  In an interview, speaking of the future, Mr. Nash expressed interest in developing input devices (such as video cameras and sensitive chairs for measuring body movements, blood pressure, etc.) that would enable the storyteller to receive unconscious as well as conscious feedback from listeners, be they at the performance or attending via telephone lines. 

Other notable remarks:  Ralph Rogers (Apple Computers) pondered setting up video conferences between master storytellers and the public.  Todd Rundgren pondered ways of enabling audience participation: one difficulty he mentioned was that sometimes when audience members had been invited onstage to jam with his band, the drumsticks had tended to disappear.  Linda Stone (Microsoft), in discussing the danger inherent in permitting corporations to create the infrastructure of culture, pointed out that an unlimited number of platforms can work in conjunction with each other.  Screenwriter Michael Backes advised that villains should be portrayed in part as reacting reasonably to circumstances--in order to humanize them and make the story more interesting.  John Plunkett (Wired Magazine) said that no matter what medium one uses, one must choose one's story wisely and tell it provocatively in order to engage one's audience. Tom Rielly (PlanetOut, a gay internet service) called cyberspace a "sexy and androgynous environment." 

The conference ended Saturday night with an open-air banquet.  Graham Nash sang, accompanying himself on acoustic guitar and piano.  He dedicated a rendition of "Our House" to Judy Drosd, Director of the Kauai Institute for Communications Media.  His final song was "Teach Your Children Well."  As I listened to the lyrics--"You who are on the road, need a code, that you can live by"--I realized that we are updating the code for our new road, the so-called information highway. 


Digital Contacts for Tellers

For more information about the Storytelling for the New Millennium Conference  and upcoming events, write Kauai Institute for Communications Media, 4280-B Rice St., Lihue, Hawaii 96766; phone 808-241-6390; web site address: http://www.filmkauai.com/kicm/. 

For information about classes and a salon, write the American Film Institute, 2021 North Western Ave., Los Angeles, CA 90027; phone 213-856-7600. 

For information about workshops, a salon, and the annual Digital Storytelling Festival held in Crested Butte, Colorado, in early Oct., write San Francisco Digital Media Center/Dana Atchley, 3435 Cesar Chavez Blvd. (Suite 222), San Francisco, CA; phone 415-824-9394. 

For information about Graham Nash's upcoming tour of LifeSighs, phone 818-585-9575. 

For information about Peter Bergman's comedy web site, Radio Free Oz, phone 310-826-6435.