The Stakes of the Story: Learning from Tommy Orange

When I was a drama student in high school, a theater teacher offered this important reminder as we choreographed stage blocking for a scene: “Every story has stakes.”  These words were intended as a helpful cue to all the actors on the stage – to focus on conveying the risks involved as a character made a choice that inched them closer to their definition of personal success or failure.  Thinking about how we conveyed this tension through a sequence of planned physical gestures is a skill I try to transfer to writing instruction: How do we write those subtle signals that telegraph tension or conflict early in a narrative, and which pave the way for understanding a character’s risk-taking and commitments later on?

As my students worked on creating mini-films for the Redford Center Youth Environmental Justice Filmmaking Challenge, my teacher’s words about the stakes of a story echoed in my head.  Since my students were creating 90-second films about the places they inhabit and care about deeply, the storytelling stakes were personal.  Making a film about one’s own relationship to a place invites decision-making about camera shots, voice over narration, and editing about a topic only they can tell: no one else is a better documentarian of the place they call home.  Creating these films challenged them to capture images of subjects commensurate with their emotional significance and to use techniques such as varied camera shots, voice over narration, and leading lines to stitch them together into a story.

As students spitballed topics using Jamboard post-its, a wide range of topics representing the places where they live appeared on our screens.  Some of these places represent sources of joy, while other places represent sources of concern – specifically, a concern about others’ lack of concern.  Observing the very different places they wished to highlight reminded us that there is no single, monolithic way to tell the story of their community.  Though some of these places are mere miles apart from each other, my students’ individual storytelling intentions rendered them starkly unique.

 Two questions that sprang up during our initial brainstorming session were: 

What do I think is important to know about the place where I live?  How does my story square with or run counter to what someone might already know about it?

Reading Tommy Orange’s There There as they worked on these films helped my students think through these questions.  Weaving together the stories of twelve characters from Native communities traveling to attend the Big Oakland Powwow, the novel upends stereotypical images of Native Americans by depicting them in a less familiar context.  One of these characters, Dene Oxendene, receives a cultural arts grant to make a film that investigates what it means to be Native in urban cities, and to explore Native representation apart from the reservation setting many have come to expect to see in film, story, and history textbook depictions of Native Americans.  As my students planned their films, we zoomed in on Dene’s journey, reflecting on what it meant for him to create a storytelling opportunity for voices traditionally unheard.  Thinking about how Tommy Orange’s characters confront assumptions about the meaning of home and their own relationships with indigeneity helped my students interrogate the stereotypes associated with the places they describe in their own films. Through reading There There, they thought more critically about what it means to reshape the terrain of what people imagine their home to be.

The Stories We Inherit

 Image via JC Gellidon on

My students’ annotations about the novel created the springboard for discussion about film planning.  While waiting for the train at the Fruitvale Station to take him to his grant application interview, Dene sees the word Lens tagged on the wall.  He recognizes his own tagging; he’s tagged the word all over the city.  The sight of the word reminds him of the first time he wrote it: the day his Uncle Lucas came to visit.  One of my students explored the meaning of the tagging in her writer’s notebook:

From E’s writer’s notebook

Dene’s recollection of the first time he tagged during a train ride taking him to a grant interview raises the stakes of the journey. As he tells the interviewing committee, he is building on his deceased uncle’s dream of collecting stories:

“What he did, what I want to do, is to document Indian stories in Oakland.  I want to put a camera in front of them, video, audio, I’ll transcribe it while they talk if they want, let them write, every kind of story I can collect, let them tell their stories with no one else there, with no direction or manipulation or agenda.”

My student’s description of the tagged word as a “portal” illuminates the idea of storytelling as a type of doorway, allowing us to access each other’s perspective.  We extended the comparison further to think about certain filming techniques as a door hinge, permitting only a limited angle of rotation between two people who briefly have the opportunity to connect.

Orange’s description of Dene sitting on the moving train, looking at everyone looking at their phones, suggests a discontent within his character.  It’s one of those early signals that paves the way for understanding what type of fulfillment conducting the film interviews could provide him.

Converging Stories

As a teacher, there are times when I just want to get out of my student’s way and let them create.  While I do not want to overly prescribe the terms of a project, I also do not want to set them adrift, at a loss on how to proceed.  We continued to discuss Dene’s speech in front of the committee and thought about his commitment to “[letting] the content direct the vision.”  In this spirit, my students took photographs of the physical markers denoting their own environment and communities.  When comparing their gathered images, we noticed how the objects listed below appeared repeatedly in their photographs:

It was at this juncture that the class began experimenting with photograph sequence. They quickly realized that planning voice over narration went much more smoothly if they purposefully varied the use of camera shots.  Relying just on close-up shots, for example, didn’t do much in conveying the stakes of their story.  Instead, it created a static effect, despite whatever dynamic turns their narration might suggest.  Using the planning table below helped them premeditate the most effective sequence of images.

As seen here, my student G. introduces the topic of the methane gas power plant leak in his community by directing viewers to look at an establishing shot of the sky, appearing beautifully lit and clear.  His voice over narration has the effect of a record scratch: there’s nothing about the placid appearance of the Sun Valley skyline that suggests everyone living in this community is breathing the same toxic air.   The next image displays power lines in the sky, directing the viewer’s eye to the power plant located in the background.  As he describes how the health hazard has been covered up for at least three years, he stresses the impossibility of protecting your loved ones from health dangers if you don’t know that they exist.  This power plant leak is not well known, making his film all the more powerful for creating awareness about this environmental injustice.

If I had not watched my student’s film, I would not know about the unexplained health issues experienced by his neighbors or his commitment to taking action against the Sun Valley Generating Station.  The first few seconds of his film barely hint at the very serious stakes of the story.  Watching my students’ films helped me better understand what home meant to them and how important it is that they be the generator of stories, not merely recipients of the ones I have chosen.  For me, thinking about the camera lens as a portal has come to mean having access to the best storytellers.


How have you taught Tommy Orange’s There There in your classroom?  What opportunities do your students have to be filmmakers?  Share your reflections in the comments below or find me on Twitter @dispatches_b222.

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