Building worlds through interdisciplinary stories

Patrick Rizotti wants to create a space where content and tone meet. | Photo courtesy of Patrick Rizotti

The upcoming Narrative Architecture: How Storytelling Builds Worlds event hosted by the University of British Columbia’s (UBC) Green College on Oct. 22 aims to facilitate an interdisciplinary conversation on how narratives create our world in different contexts.

Julen Etxabe, Canada Research Chair in Jurisprudence and Human Rights and an assistant professor at the Peter A. Allard School of Law at UBC, and Patrick Rizzotti, an assistant professor of Design and Production in Theatre and Film at UBC, are two of four panelists speaking on this topic.

The event aims to create dialogue through highlighting the perspectives of the different panelists on the importance of world building in diverse realms.

“We share that passion for those possibilities that building worlds bring. Hopefully to construct better worlds – something in which we can believe, a fiction that is more real than the world that we live in,” Etxabe explains.

Space, an integral part of world building

For Rizzotti, narrative architecture means creating a space where both the content and tone of a story can be expressed. Rizzotti highlights that rather than describing his work as set design, he uses the language of ‘building worlds.’

“I’m trying to actually build out the whole world for this to take place,” he emphasizes.

Moreover, the space itself becomes part of the story.

“It’s not just a capsule for a play or film to take place in, but one that adds to the story in a tangible way,” says Rizzotti.

He also intentionally designs worlds that leave room for the audience to create their own connections.

“They then become part of that world. They’re adding their own history into that world in an intimate way that I could never have planned for,” he explains.

Rizzotti is also thoughtful about which stories he engages with. He prefers to focus on new plays written by playwrights with underrepresented voices. For example, Skeleton Crew is a play that highlights the impact of the failing auto industry on people in an auto plant in Detroit.

“It was a powerful play for me to learn about these people and this situation with the playwright, Dominique Morisseau, the actors and the director. And it was a story that I felt had a message,” he says. “It wasn’t escapist. It was definitely a ‘leave you thinking’ kind of story.”

Rizzotti has also become more mindful of the waste of materials that often occurs in the theatre industry and is working towards more sustainability when building the physical worlds in his work.

Judges as ethical storytellers

In his role as a law and humanities scholar, Etxabe focuses on the ethical and political components of storytelling. He conceives of judges as storytellers.

“I try to understand what they do in terms of the stories they are telling us about ourselves, about the parties, about the democratic societies in which we belong, about the democratic society itself,” he explains.

Etxabe believes that to effectively uphold the values of a free and democratic society, judges require not only technical and legal expertise but also creative imagination. He rejects the metaphor used by John Roberts, Chief Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court, during his confirmation hearing, which likened judges to umpires in a baseball game.

“Judges need to have imagination to see how their judgement fits within a broader societal context. And they need to think of themselves as part of that society,” Etxabe emphasizes. “They need to think about where we’re coming from, where we are and where we’re headed.”

Etxabe shares a new model of dialogical judgement he has observed and aspires to further develop. This reflects a more inclusive process of decision making that allows for the contribution of non-governmental actors and includes judges citing each others’ work.

“I noticed how this process of incorporating different voices and increasing voices of comparative law made the process of reading a bit more complicated for my jurisprudence students. And the temptation for some scholars is to say that this is irrelevant, that we only care about the final outcome of the case. I was resisting that type of reductionism,” Etxabe says. “I think that this ability for judges to open themselves up to engage in that type of dialogue serves a value, not only in terms of making the law better, but it also serves a political value. It has a tendency to democratize the judgement.”

Narrative, a connector across disciplines

For both Rizzotti and Etxabe, the dialogue between the panelists leading up to the event has fostered a deeper appreciation of diverse perspectives around the theme of narrative.

“It’s fantastic to be paired with a lawyer, someone trained in interpreting things and reimagining it for a jury, which is an audience in a way,” Rizzotti says. “It was wild to have discussions about what do we tell, how do we tell it, how do we frame things, and find some common ground that I just didn’t think of until we were put together on this panel.”

Etxabe reiterates the value of this process.

“It forces you to reassess your assumptions, sometimes even to change your vocabulary and to ask yourself why you are using this term or another,” he shares.

Similarly, the upcoming event is intended to foster new ways of thinking about the disciplines represented while providing an opportunity for connection during the pandemic.

“We all have stories to tell. We all engage with the world in a narrative way whether we realize it or not,” Rizzotti highlights. “And there are many ways to appreciate having a well-crafted world built as part of understanding our existence in the bigger world.”

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