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20 February 2021: The Transformative Power of Storytelling – Reflections on TOFTA's Artelier

Updated: Mar 17, 2021

Written By Dr. Youssef Mahmoud, former United Nations Under-Secretary General, Co-Chair of the Unity Circle of Home for Humanity.

Tell me the facts and I’ll learn. Tell me the truth and I’ll believe. But tell me a story and it will live in my heart forever” – Native American Proverb

Storytelling is the oldest art form of communication. Stories make us think, make us feel. A story can take us to a place where facts and figures are denied access: our hearts. Data and analytics can persuade people but they rarely inspire them to act.

Rama Mani has mastered the art and craft of storytelling and we got a glimpse of her talent when she “gifted” some of us from the Home for Humanity community a virtual mini-workshop from her Theatre of Transformation repertoire. It was a welcome respite from the doldrums of a pandemic that has largely been an exercise of subtraction where basic human interactions have been reduced to a virtual minimum.

This was the second time I had the privilege of witnessing Rama’s story telling performance. It was over two years ago at the United Palace Theatre, a cultural and performing arts center on Broadway in New York city. I was amazed at the strong sense of mutuality her stories created.

This time around and in preparation of an abridged “ART-elier”, Rama had asked us to assemble in advance certain items representing the elements of nature and have them handy. They included, a candle, for fire, some incense for air, a plant for earth, and a glass of water. We were also asked to sit next to a window, so we can bathe in natural light. I did not know I had incense in the house. Now I know. It is no longer languishing in a drawer.

In the opening introduction circle, she also asked us to hold a lit candle in front of our faces and share one single word that captured our state of being at that particular moment. So we introduced ourselves to each other based not on our job titles or what we ‘do’ but on who we really are: our ‘true humanity’. I loved what people came up with: I am a seeker, I am a learner, I am connected, I am resilient. When my turn came I added “touch”, in defiance of the connection deficits permeating our lives.

The highlight of the experience was Rama’s consummate enactment of the stories of people who harnessed what they had inside them and what they were good at to positively and directly impact the lives of others for whom the present had become untenable. They were uplifting stories of ordinary people doing extraordinary things. I felt privileged that I had been introduced to some of these change makers.

As the artelier was coming to an end, I could not help thinking about the amount of preparation storytelling required, the methodology underpinning it and the creative passion Rama had to marshal to transform the theatre of transformation into an Academy.

– Youssef Mahmoud

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