I’ve been thinking about the origins of storytelling these days. It involves piles of rocks and a multi-platinum, New Age musician. Go figure.
My wife and I, married this past May, recently returned from our official honeymoon. We visited my brother and sister-in-law for a week in Qatar (a great story in and of itself), then spent the next week in Greece.
You know the New Age musician Yanni? He wrote a song called “Santorini”, the island where we stayed. Ever seen a postcard of Greece featuring blazing white villas with cobalt blue doors perched on craggy cliffs above a cerulean sea? That’s Santorini. (I’m not usually given to flowery adjectives, but believe me, the place is amazing.) More on Yanni in a bit.
One of the places we went in Santorini found us driving up an insanely narrow, winding road – more like wide sidewalk – to the mountain top ruins of the ancient city of Thira. Since very few visitors come to Santorini in the winter, we had the place almost completely to ourselves. We walked through the agora, public baths, and individual residences occupied by normal, island-dwelling men and women – three thousand years ago.
You’d think that walking ancient streets would prompt visions of centuries of toga-clad characters living, marrying, building, worshiping, fighting, and dying. Some of that happened for me, but frankly… not all that much. (Probably why I’m an editor, not a screenwriter.) The thing that would really blow my mind was still to come.
One thought that did stick in my head as we headed back down the mountain: it’s a good thing they built cisterns up there to collect rainwater, because it would SUCK to carry water up that hill.
While the bulk of our time in Greece was spent in Santorini, we spent the last day and a half in Athens. As you might guess, the number one priority for a quick stop in Athens is the Acropolis, a collection of temple ruins atop a mesa-like hill randomly jutting up in the middle of the urban sprawl that is the capital of Greece.
Even in its crumbling state, the Acropolis is still astounding. For me, it’s less about the structures themselves but more of what they represent. The structures on and around that hill were the equivalent of The Vatican, the Houses of Parliament… and the Vienna Opera House, and the Chinese Theater of Hollywood. And that’s what captured my imagination – while we did indeed walk around the Parthenon, the main temple dedicated to the goddess Athena, I was drawn to the two amphitheaters lower down the hill.
Speaking as a resident of the United States, it’s rare that I ever personally experience anything that is truly old. But walking through the Theater of Dionysus was something else. Because before we had Lady Gaga, Survivor, Citizen Kane, Barnum & Bailey, fat ladies singing Wagner, or even Romeo and Juliet… there were Greek plays. I mean plays whose lines were preserved on papyrus or tablets of stone. Delivered by faceless actors wearing Comedy or Tragedy masks. Lines written by someone like Homer. And not the Homer who works at a nuclear factory while munching on donuts.
Sitting in those ancient marble seats, I knew that as a 21st century storyteller, this place represented something ancient and foundational to the craft I practice today.
Towards the southwest corner of the Acropolis sits the other performing arts venue, the Odeum of Herodes. It’s actually much smaller than the Theater of Dionysus and in much better shape, so much so that open air concerts are still given there.
It actually cracked me up walking backstage, imagining tech scouts taking place before an event. The lighting and sound engineers ask their venue contact, “so what sort of infrastructure do we have at the venue? Any electricity or lighting grid in place?” The local Greek raises his eyebrows. “Uh, it’s an amphitheater built into the side of a really steep hill in the year 161 AD. You want anything, even porta potties, you better bring it in yourselves.”
And people certainly have done that – one of the more notable concerts, “Yanni Live At the Acropolis,” took place at the Odeum on September 23, 1993. Huge light and sound, high-end TV production, and a full symphony orchestra supporting Yanni’s band, and of course Yanni himself, surrounded by a wall of synthesizers. (I’d say it was a bit of overkill on the keyboards, but that’s how the guy rolls.)
Watching video of the concert, there are those who to this day snicker at the long dreamy dissolves of the mustached musician flipping his shoulder length hair dramatically over his shoulders. But make no mistake – the man is every bit a communicator with his asymmetrically metered music as any reporter who sits down to a computer, or filmmaker who calls “action” on a film set. Whether you agree or not, one thing is for sure – people respond to the man’s music:
- The Live At the Acropolis video is the 2nd highest selling music video of all time, second only to Michael Jackson’s “Thriller”.
- The concert’s broadcasts have been seen in 65 different countries by half a billion people.
I could go on, but you probably get the idea. Numbers aside, that concert, at its core, is communication that powerfully affects its audience. To this day, parts of that music still make me want to jump up and dance in joy. And whether it’s a live concert, a random webisode, a blockbuster film, or a monologue on a bare stage, what are we as storytellers all about if not communicating stories and messages that affect those who hear and see?
As we walked back down the Athenian hill to find some lunch, I pondered how truly ancient an art we practice. I wondered about the reactions of the ancient crowds to the stories told on those marble stages, the feelings evoked from performances both ancient and modern. And I considered how no matter the form, it’s all communication, it’s all storytelling. It’s been around even before the Greek ancients, and it’s what we still do today.