A lone van sits idling outside terminal four at JFK. As the last of the passengers settle into their seats, a voice cracks through the early morning silence: “Does anyone know where we’re going?” Nervous laughter fills the air. “Welcome to Forward Slash Story,” says the man behind the wheel as he pulls away from the curb. Twenty storytellers working across a diversity of disciplines (film, TV, theater, gaming, publishing and product design) have traveled from around the world to gather for a residential lab to explore, challenge and experiment with the creative process. Their destination is a secret remote location 90 miles outside of New York City.
Finding distance from one’s work can be difficult. The storytelling process can lock creatives into a vacuum, forcing them to disappear for periods of time in order to shape and present the visions that have been kicking around their heads. But self-induced pressures to finish creating and push work out into the world can also result in underdeveloped stories. I’ve been there many times myself, feeling anxious and that the window of opportunity to create is a fleeting one.
Producing a film requires momentum, which can be a hard thing to initiate, let alone maintain. So it is not uncommon for filmmakers to slip into a tunnel vision mentality. Fortunately, many wonderful labs exist to help storytellers develop, produce and release their projects. These programs are designed to challenge and inspire, while also providing space for filmmakers to take a pause to think deeply about their work.
As the van travels, a conversation about the value of being creatively kidnapped emerges. Imaginations run wild as the group crafts scenarios that reveal desires to escape daily routines, gain distance from one’s work and establish a creative space for reflection. But the ability to “be kidnapped” — to be removed from the day-to-day responsibilities of work and family — is a luxury most filmmakers don’t have. This is especially true for DIY-oriented filmmakers who are juggling more responsibility than ever before. Managing creative issues alongside crowd-funding, production, distribution and business often means that one or more of these things are suffering. And in most cases, that winds up being the quality of the storytelling.
For years, Christy Dena and I have been traveling to labs around the world to mentor storytellers developing work across various media. At these labs, mentors usually have small amounts of time to connect with each other, often stealing moments during coffee breaks, over a meal or late-night drinks. Dena and I have wished that these fleeting moments could somehow be extended, so in 2014, we created a residential lab focused not on projects but on people. Dena explains, “Forward Slash Story (F/S) is designed to complement existing professional residencies. We envisioned it to be a dedicated time when creatives who work at the frontiers of storytelling come together. The lab isn’t a project-oriented experience, though, and it doesn’t have mentor presentation duties. Instead, the lab is focused on developing the individual and community. Peers share reflections on their own practice; brainstorm story, design, process and structural obstacles together; discover different ways of seeing and creating; and celebrate and plan new paths. With the ‘by-application’ selection, our goal is to bring together fascinating veterans from different art forms and countries, along with promising emerging creatives. Through events, workshops and showcase sessions, we work to facilitate an environment of peer-to-peer learning and growth. Ultimately, we seek to reinvigorate vanguards of the unbeaten path, to therefore shine light on exciting new futures.”
The mission of F/S is to gather 20 storytellers for four days so they can tackle five impossible problems. The output of the event is then compiled as a report (http://report.forwardslashstory.com) and released under a Creative Commons license. In 2014, the impossible problems that emerged from the event centered on issues of creative sustainability, scaling systems to bridge fragmented experiences, lack of a common storytelling grammar and the need for more showcases and critical review of work.
F/S 2014 closed with a shovel breaking ground. Each participant took a turn digging, and once there was a deep enough hole, a silver tube was lowered into the earth. Within the makeshift time capsule were thoughts, reflections, hopes and desires for the present and possible futures of storytelling. The contents compiled by a group of strangers all connected by the desire to explore, share and improve their creative process.
This spring, the journey continues as F/S travels to Costa Rica. At a secret coastal location where the ocean meets the jungle, a group of storytellers working in various disciplines will explore the challenges, pain points and opportunities of an ever-shifting digital landscape. In the process, a unique environment will be created, enabling participants to press pause on their daily lives as they reconnect with the reason they became storytellers in the first place.
Originally published in Filmmaker Magazine