The Power of Puppetry

Raven Kaliana — Photographer: Alfredo Robles

Raven Kaliana has her own story to tell. As a child, she was trafficked into child sexual exploitation by her parents. Now, she believes it’s important for all sorts of stories of survival and oppression to be heard. Then we can all, as a community, examine the causes and impact of social injustices, and work together to make a difference. She has told her story through puppets — creating Hooray for Hollywood, a play based on her life and experiences, as well as a range of other work aimed at helping us deal with the effects of trauma in constructive and progressive ways.

I wanted to speak to her for my Clwstwr research into News Storytelling for two main reasons — firstly, I’m interested in how different tools/media can help our stories better connect at both emotional and intellectual levels, and secondly, I wanted to get Raven’s insight on how we might better report shocking or traumatic stories in a world where many people are withdrawing from news — largely because it makes them feel scared, anxious or hopeless. If journalism is to be effective in the future, it needs to find a way to communicate difficult and upsetting stories in a way that doesn’t cause viewers to shut down. That certainly doesn’t mean minimising the scale of the problems we face, but perhaps finding ways in which we can all contribute to building solutions. You can listen to our full conversation here.

Photographer: Alfredo Robles

We started by talking about the unique characteristics of puppets, and how they can help tell stories in different ways. Raven is clear that puppets occupy a really important, liminal space where they help us “try on a reality”, in the same way that children use toys to practice difficult scenarios in their lives. At an anthropological and evolutionary level, this is really what stories are for.

Raven feels that when people see a puppet, they tap into their childlike wonder and curiosity about a character. Immediately they start paying attention more than they might do with an actor. Puppets make stories more personal and “human sized” than films or tv, for example, and because we largely know what we’re going to get with those media it’s very easy to move into an intellectual or critical state. Puppets are more “unexpected”, and they also enable us to stay at one emotional remove from what’s happening — so as not to be overwhelmed by our feelings.

Raven thinks that puppets are also really useful as metaphorical tools. They can fly, turn into different shapes — you can even set them on fire if you want to. That all enables them to speak to a person’s sense of imagination, through their inner child. In Raven’s view, that also means they can be an amazing tool for social change. If, for example, we’re having a difficult time figuring out a way forward, puppetry can help us model, play and experiment with different solutions.

Photographer: Alfredo Robles

Whilst we clearly can’t use puppets in day-to-day news, it’s useful to understand the processes of connection and understanding that they enable — to see if there are lessons that we can learn for journalism. Raven’s critique of how news operates is one that has become familiar from many of the conversations I’ve had during my research — that news stories are presented only as a point of crisis, “We rarely see organisations working on solutions, or how we as viewers can join in with problem solving. We don’t see an arc of change and we’re not engaging all of the humanity of every single person.” In essence, Raven says, we’re only providing news as “shock value” rather than a call to engaging some creativity to solve problems.

We talked a lot about news stories being much more holistic — and asking the “why?” question as much as the “what?”. Raven described how, in her play “Love vs Trauma” she shows an oppressive situation, but then then the young person at the heart of the story finds support and goes on to live a good life. She then has discussions where people can talk about their responses to the trauma, in both the play and their own lives, to create a healing space. It may seem that this is impossible in news environments, but organisations (including my other employer, the Bureau Local) are experimenting with live journalism events which enable community sharing and processing of difficult or troubling stories. Perhaps larger media organisations also need to start providing spaces where readers and viewers can process their emotions in a positive way. Raven joked about how the MailOnline’s comments section provides this for some readers, but that must be true at some level.

In terms of individual stories, Raven made an important point, which resonated with me powerfully, when she said that we only ever see people at their lowest, when they’re the “victim” and that makes it harder for us to connect and engage and easier for us to treat them as the “other”. She put it very clearly when she said, “Their crisis isn’t the story — who someone is in the face of the crisis is the story. Who they were before, who they might be after.” People in our stories have a wider life, and understanding who they are helps us understand that they’re just like us. We all want the same things for ourselves, our families and our loved ones, but too often perhaps we treat this things as a zero sum game where we’re all in competition for a scarce resource. That’s perhaps one of the things which has led to the corrosive tribalism which has infected civil society in recent years.

Photographer: Alfredo Robles

One of the reasons that increasing numbers of people are disengaging from news is that they often find it fuels anxiety and hopelessness, and that’s clearly an issue we need to address. Raven feels this is because the link between people, crises and policy is never fully explained or explored. If there’s no connection made between a moment of crisis and the policy or decision that underlies it, then it become almost impossible to understand. If the story is isolated, it naturally becomes isolating and the viewer feels detached and disempowered. She suggests that may be why they go instead to social media to try and understand or “fill in the gaps” in their understanding. Unfortunately, that puts them straight in the path of the social media misinformation crisis we’re also wrestling with.

At a deeper level, when we hear or see impactful stories we often experience the pain or distress we see in them as if we’re experiencing them ourselves — we’ll recognise this from sad films. However, news isn’t “entertaining” in the same way as films, and its grounding in reality means it’s often significantly more upsetting. It’s unsurprising then that some of us withdraw from the news to protect our mental health. Raven feels that we can address some of those issues by also making sure that viewers see the role-modelling of change and solutions, giving us all a sense of hope and agency. It’s not always possible of course, but if we make it part of newsroom mentality to think more deeply about this, then it may help us produce stories that give viewers more possibilities to engage.

Photographer: Alfredo Robles

Part of that may be going back to stories more — perhaps months or years after key events — to show how communities have processed and grown from their experiences. Raven’s suggestion reminded me that this was an issue I was concerned about even at journalism school 25 years ago. Then, the “News Days” I edited were almost entirely “returns” to stories we’d covered before — and it was notable how often these turned up new, but more positive, stories of recovery. Again, a process we could easily build into newsroom culture.

At this stage in my research process, it was fascinating to me how much Raven’s insights, informed by her particular experience and work, aligned so clearly with the conversations I’ve had with people from both inside and outside journalism. Almost everyone has spoken about providing viewers with more context and better ways of understanding stories — the “why?” rather than just the “what?”. If we can also incorporate Raven’s unique understanding of how to connect at those deeper emotional levels which help us make sense of the world then we could potentially make a difference of an even more profound kind.



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Shirish Kulkarni

Investigative Journalist, News Storytelling Researcher, Community Organiser