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Aistė Ptakauskė on what she Does: 'I Design Experiences'

2015-06-15

A talk delivered at the Vision 2020 conference in Tallinn, Estonia, on June 4, 2015

“People say that what we’re all seeking is a meaning for life. I don’t think that’s what we’re really seeking. I think that what we’re seeking is an experience of being alive”.

This is a quote by a world-wide known American mythologist, Joseph Campbell, said to acclaimed American journalist Bill Moyers in a very famous series of interviews titled The Power of Myth. Joseph Campbell devoted all his life to studying myths of different nations and tribes of the world. His work has had a huge influence on the American tradition of storytelling in general and on the Hollywood tradition of screenwriting in particular. I myself studied from textbooks that were based on Joseph Campbell’s mythological theories.

When Bill Moyers asked Mr. Campbell why he considered myths so important, Joseph Campbell explained: “Myths are clues to the spiritual potentialities of the human life. […] What’s the meaning of a flea? It’s just there. That’s it. And your own meaning is that you’re there. We’re so engaged in doing things to achieve purposes of outer value that we forget that the inner value, the rapture that is associated with being alive, is what it’s all about”.

Experiencing the joyful ecstasy of being alive is all what we’re striving to, claims Joseph Campbell.

“How do we get that experience?”, asks Bill Moyers, naturally.

“Read myths”, is Joseph Campbell’s advice.

And this is where I’m losing you…

Read myths? What? Old fairy tales with unpronouncable character names and totally unbelievable plots? Why?

Well, let’s try to stay philosophical for another moment here. Let’s dig deeper. What are myths? What purpose do they serve? What do they even talk about? Let’s see: birth, death, marriage, falling in love, leaving the safe harbor of your parents’ home and taking responsibility for your own life, getting old and surrendering to the order of the world… Essentially, these are the moments in our lives when we have that feeling, the feeling that just being there and being alive is enough. How often do we experience such moments? It depends, I guess… But probably no matter how often these moments occur, they’re never as frequent as we’d like them to be. Myths are human attempts to capture these special moments so that they can be relived over and over again. Myths contain the refined essence of these ecstatic moments of the human life.

Now, isn’t it what art is supposed to do too? Because myths are art before ownership. Come to think of it, ownership of a story, a performance, or a piece of art is only important to authors who want to get paid for what they write, perform or make. But to us as an audience, ownership of a work of art is secondary. What’s primary is the experience that we get.

So when people ask me: “Aiste, can you tell us IN TWO WORDS what is it that you do”? I, IN TWO WORDS, reply: “I design experiences”. I know you can see many more than two words next to my name in your programs: screenwriter, novelist, director, playwright, producer… To me, that’s all secondary. When I start working on a new piece, whether it’s a film, a theater performance, a live event or a television show, doesn’t matter. All what matters to me is creating an experience in the mythical sense of the word. I ask myself: “Will this piece take you out of your mundanity and awaken your senses in a way that will make you feel a little more alive than you’re used to?” I feel it’s my job to make sure that it does. Whatever it takes: talking, singing, dancing, filming, playing the harp… The medium to me is secondary.

I feel we often limit ourselves by sticking religiously to a medium. “Is it film?”… “Is it theater?”… “Is is literature?”… “Is it art?” Who cares if it provides us with an experience of being alive?!

Have you ever thought when after a show, a film or a concert you find yourselves dwellling on how it was done rather than on what it did to you? I usually find myself analysing the means of expression of a piece when the piece failed to give me an experience of life, not an illusion of life: “Oh, it looked very believable”, “It was just like in real life”, but an experience of life: “I felt it, I felt it in my gut, it made laught, it made me cry, it made me ashamed or scared or embarrassed, it made me feel human”. A story well told, to me, is like a good party with resonating memories that reinstate me in life.

I’m not saying that we shouldn’t think about the medium at all. Understanding of what every medium has to offer helps us create more powerful experiences and stories. What I’m saying is that we shouldn’t start with thinking about the medium. “I want to make a film! What shall I make it about?” That’s the common track of thought that doesn’t always result in much. I suggest we turn it upside down and ask ourselves: “What is the experience I want to design?” and then look for means that can help us do it in the best way. Means of expression change and develop by hours nowadays, but the human desire to feel alive remains constant.

To give you a clearer idea of what I’m talking about, I’ll briefly take you through my own process. As an experience designer, I’m always looking for a fresh impuls: an image, a sound, an anecdote that would, first of all, awaken my own senses. For instance, a few years ago I chaired a jury at a theater festival. I had to watch and assess several performances a day for a week. Towards the end of the week all performances blended into one numbing haze. I didn’t feel very much alive. I knew I wasn’t dead either. I’d say I was lethargic. The windows in the room were always covered, the lights were dimmed, everybody around me was silent most of the time – a perfect atmosphere for hybernation. And suddently I heard this rhythm, this distinctive sound that made we wide awake. It wasn’t a song or a tune, it was a speech, a monologue, but it was written in a way that made me alert and attentive to every word uttered. I had an immediate desire to stand up from my chair and go back to work, to direct. That was how I discovered one of my constant collaborators, a modern Belarusian playwright, Nikolay Rudkovski.

When I first read The Last Love of Narcissus, Rudkovski’s play that I’m currently working on, I didn’t know what it should be: a film, a theater show, an opera, a comic book… I’m still not sure… But what I am sure of is that I’d like to share the experience that this play has given me. I tried to describe the experience to my team: an editor, a composer, a sound designer, an art director… On listening to me, they all suggested means of expression that could help me design the experience that I wanted to share. I didn’t necessarily know all the tricks that they offered, but hey: if you want to have what you don’t have, you have to do what you haven’t done.

So what I’m sharing with you now is a sketch which, by the way, was heavily influenced by the means available to me at this beautiful IMAX cinema “Kosmos”. This sketch leaves a lot to your imagination: there will be no live music that I think this piece calls for, instead of multiple actors you’ll only hear my voice, instead of motion pictures you’ll only see stills and comic strips. The comic strips, by the way, are very good. So I’m thinking of finding a place for them in the piece. But that’s a side note. At this stage of the process there are tons of technical things that need more than a little tweaking. But nevertheless, I hope that what you’ll see will give you an experience that I want to share with you through this work. So I’m inviting you on a journey of imagination that I take every day when working on a new story.

Imagine: