DUDLEY SAUNDERS is no stranger to storytelling. A writer, musician, and multimedia artist, Dudley tells a story with everything that he does, and fervently believes that everyone has at least one story to tell. With that in mind, Dudley has a long history of developing solo storytellers, and promoting storytelling as an art form, as well as producing those stories for radio; most notably, for Ira Glass and “This American Life.”
Produced and hosted by DUDLEY SAUNDERS, TELLING L.A. explores the art of storytelling while honoring and celebrating the diversity and commonality of the human experience, bridging the socio-economic and geographic borders that exist with the City of Los Angeles. In the debut episode, the theme of arriving in Los Angeles serves as the backdrop for four storytellers – Antonio Sacre, Trini Rodriguez, Maire Clerkin, and Barbara Clark – to tell their stories, their narrative, with each of the four viewpoints as unique and as engaging as the next.
I spoke exclusively with DUDLEY SAUNDERS about TELLING L.A., delving into the show’s conception and production process, the goal of the show, Dudley’s philosophies, the art and importance of storytelling, and more. . .
This is a really interesting series that you conceived here, Dudley. I’m curious as to what prompted it.
Well, two different things prompted. I’m trying to think which was the best one to talk about. This is probably the most interesting thing. One thing prompted it is that when I came across this piece of neurological research. Isn’t that interesting? In this research it said that the brain is constructed in such a way that if someone stands in front of you and tells you a story of something that happened to them, it is neurologically impossible for you not to imagine yourself in their shoes going through what they’ve gone through. What that means is that suddenly at the end of the story you no longer feel separate from them. It’s basically that storytelling is this empathy creating engine. I looked at Los Angeles which, since I’ve come here, is one of the most interesting and diverse places on the planet but because of its size, often the people are very spread out from each other. It occurred to me if we could just simply have people tell their stories to each other you could suddenly pull the entire city together because no one would be a stranger to anybody else. That inspired the show that I have. If I could get people telling stories on the same theme, in this case how I ended up in L.A., you could see not just how they were different from you, but also what you have in common with them. That just seems like a really exciting way to pull the city together and so I did.
How many of these shows have you already put together and how do you pick out the themes for each of the shows?
We’ve only done one. We’ve done this pilot special. If people respond to it and the city starts to support it, then of course we’ll be able to make as many as they want. So, I’m hopeful that we can really get people interested. So far people seem really exciting by the idea.
How will you go about developing themes or will it remain a constant as the debut episode, “How I Ended Up In LA”?
Every episode will have a different theme, just like radio’s “This American Life”. They all have a different theme to explore. Part of the excitement is that there are so many different human experiences that people go through and how did different Angelenos grapple with each of those themes themselves. So it just seems like a really great way to pull them together.
How did you go about selecting your storytellers for this episode? Antonio Sacre is a natural born storyteller. Trini Rodriguez is a little more laid back but it’s a very cultural experience that she relates. Barbara Clark’s story is fascinating because of the generational difference and experience. Maire Clerkin crossing an ocean “for love” only to rediscover what she loves is inspiring.
People come intentionally to Los Angeles with an idea and some people come back into the city. Oddly enough, the impediments to Maire coming here actually then forced her to actually recover her life. What should have been a disastrous move ended up turning her entire life around and bringing back some important things to her that she thought she was going to have to leave behind. That’s what’s so amazing about Los Angeles. I mean the unexpected is what you can expect here. That’s one thing that you will definitely discover in every story. As we go down the road there are two ways we come across ideas. Sometimes a theme is really interesting to me already, or I come across a little miniature story about that and then you just start talking to people as I did here. “How did you come to L.A.?” That was the first theme – “How I Ended Up In LA.” You start asking people and people will tell you, “Well, you know, that this guy has a really interesting story.” You just start talking to people. One of the great pleasures for me in this is I get the opportunity when I’m working on the show go to neighborhoods I never would have gone to, to sit down with people I probably never would have met, and have them share their lives with me. Every time I do that I walk away feeling so grateful to be in this city and to have the opportunity to meet people. Then I wanted to bring that same experience to the viewers. That’s why we’re shooting this live is really important not just to have a camp story but see people telling their stories to other people. Probably a really human exchange, it’s much more personal and much more interesting.
How did you select your storytellers for this pilot episode?
A lot of it is just serendipity. Actually a friend told me about Maire’s story and her I had to track down and force her to sit down and have lunch with me and drill it out of her. It was a little bit of a raw emotional story but, of course, by getting over that process she ended up having to make sense of what had happened to her. So, it was transformative. Antonio was directly recommended to me. Barbara Clark was recommended. Oddly enough Trini came in and her story was incredible. Actually, I saw it first on a DVD that someone had made. He just shot it on a little home camera and put it on a DVD for me. So, stories can come from anywhere. Pretty much everybody in the city has a story to tell. All they need is a desire to tell it. One of the things I look at as my reason for being here is that I can provide the support they need to tell their story. It can be a little slippery, that process. I get hired a lot to help professional writers and professional artists with their work. Why can’t I do that same thing for the people who have lived their stories? I think we need more of that. We need more real people support to have their own voice.
What was the production process like? Was there rehearsal time for this? How did you develop the idea of them standing as opposed to possibly sitting? All the logistics of making a show.
If you’re on your feet it’s a much more active thing. So, I really wanted it to be relating to people in a very active way. So, that’s how I had them up standing. Honestly, the way I work with people is I sit down and I just talk to them. I should point out that there’s a huge existing storytelling community in Los Angeles. It’s one of the biggest and most diverse in the entire country. There’s a huge well of storytellers who are very good at it, all ready to draw on. It was also important to me to draw in people who are only thinking about telling their stories and needed more and more help. So, in the case with Trini when I went out to Fillmore and I sat down with her, I just asked her to tell me her story. Then I asked questions. At the end I said, “Okay, I’m going to tell you back what the story I heard and you tell me if that’s right.” So, I did that. From there we worked on figuring out what was the most authentic story to her to tell. That’s giving them the support. It’s hard to get a lot of clarity about your own experience. I mean that’s why people go into therapy for years and years. So, this is maybe a shortcut. We’re one of the only productions that actually pays the storytellers. I was surprised. It’s not a lot of money but I just felt like it was really important to honor people’s work and what they’re doing.
Did the storytellers actually get to have a rehearsal time before the live taping?
Yes. Different amounts of time for different people. I think I met about three or four times with everybody and just kept working with the material. I wanted to make sure that all their stories were in their voice. I didn’t want there to be a house style of storytelling that they had to conform to. People come from different cultures and different cultures have different ways of telling stories. Irish is a very performative style. If you sit down at lunch with Moira she’ll start doing the voices of everyone she’s talking about like she’s on stage. It’s an Irish thing to do. I didn’t want to change that. Let’s hear how people tell stories, much of the stories themselves.
Antonio, did the same thing. His style is extremely demonstrative. His puppeteering skills come into play and he’s doing voices. Then Barbara, the matriarch of the family, has a matter-of-factness laced with some defiance in there every time she would talk about her husband Ray. It was so charming because you can just picture your grandmother or somebody doing the same thing.
Exactly. That’s what I wanted to come across. Each of them did such a brilliant job of that.
During the rehearsal, did they have a live audience or did they go out cold in front of people?
We shot in a small venue Venice [California] and one of the reasons we did that was because I wanted an intimate space. I didn’t want a big gathering of auditorium because I wanted them to be able to see the faces and the eyes of people they were looking into and just tell the story. I didn’t want them to be performing. We all perform for our friends at lunch when we tell them a story, so why should it be that same feeling? I think that intimacy is also what you now see on the screen. I didn’t want people to feel so mediated. Why are our biggest YouTube stars people who sit down and just talk straight into their webcam? I mean, it’s quite shocking. I think there’s a hunger out there for unmediated experience. That’s really the real aim here. Just sit down with these people and let them tell their stories to you, just like you would another human being because they are other human beings, so what a great way. At the end of this show I want everyone to just feel a little bit more human to each other than they were at the beginning.
What reaction did you get from the audience at the end of the show?
One of the most amazing reactions was an audience member who came up to me and said, “I’ve been preparing to move out of Los Angeles because I just thought it wasn’t the city for me. I have to say that after the show I’ve decided I’m going to stay.” That was amazing to me. I think anyone can get isolated in the part of Los Angeles they’re living in. Unexpectedly, you can drive three miles away and be in an entirely neighborhood, with entirely different people, having entirely different experiences, and suddenly you discover that this is an incredibly rich city. It’s an embarrassment of cultural riches both personal and ethnic, art, cultural, and geographic. I don’t even know how to encapsulate it all. Just like I need to hear the stories from all these different parts so that I know what they are.
There’s not enough time in a lifetime for you to hear all the stories of everybody though!
We’re going to try. We’re going to try real hard. In my brain I keep getting fascinated by the whole community that was started from the Cambodian people who came over. They’re very distinct. Like what are their children like? What are their new experiences? I’ve never been to that neighborhood. So, through their stories I’m going to go there.
How many neighborhoods have you explored yourself?
I’ve been spending a lot of time in Boyle Heights, after going down to Leimert Park, View Park. Hmmm. Where else do I get around to? I mean, some of them are centralized, things like Culver City. I finally made it up to Woodland Hills. You have to hit one each time. Honestly I’m hoping that the storytellers themselves will draw me to them. Anytime I hear from someone who may have a story and they’re in a neighborhood I don’t know, I make a beeline. I know that by the time I’ve heard their story I would have done more than just visit there, I’ll have a sense of the real flavor and the people there.
When you drive around going into different neighborhoods there is a very different flavor. For example, some areas like North Hollywood, from one block to the next there’s a different flavor.
That’s right and yet they’re all Los Angeles. It’s just we don’t know. We have to get in there and find out. I think it’s very exciting. I understand we all have very full lives. It’s hard to spend your life driving around to multiple neighborhoods all the time, but through their stories it could be the way to get in.
How did you become a storyteller yourself, Dudley?
I grew up in Kentucky so it’s a storytelling tradition there. It’s just part of life. You don’t really think it’s anything too much. Then I moved to New York. Every art form is a kind of storytelling. Oddly enough, I was working on a big performance art when George Dawes Green, the man who founded “The Moth”, wrote an article about a piece that I was working on, which is great, and then afterwards he asked the woman performer if she would come to this new thing called “The Moth” and maybe tell a story. We didn’t understand what it was. She’s like, “That’s not what we do.” Over time we began getting drawn into it. Sometimes we have to trick ourselves into becoming a part of a scene. Honestly I can’t say I became directly a part of the storytelling scene until I came to Los Angeles. And that’s been a slow process. You just have to go out and do the stories. We’ve got well over a dozen ongoing storytelling series right now in Los Angeles and more are coming up all the time. There are workshops going on constantly. I was amazed by that. Honestly, you just have to go out and start hearing them or tune in to KCET!
How much freedom is KCET giving you in terms of the show? Are there any restrictions imposed upon how much you can do?
No restrictions. Actually what they’ve done is give me encouragement to do what I wanted to do. We have a deep commitment to really reflecting the full spectrum of the audiences of Los Angeles. So, I have to say there was really no better home for this show than on KCET. Really our missions are fully aligned with each other. You go to a standard TBS station and 70% or 80% of their programming is set from out of the city. This is one of the only places in the country where we can actually put new shows like this in prime time and make it available to a local audience. Local audiences have to have their local shows shoved off to some other time, not on KCET. So perfect. The perfect home for us.
What is the best story that you’ve heard yet or is that still somewhere out there to be found?
Well, I would say the best story for who? They’re all important stories for somebody. I would say that I talked to someone last week who’d seen the pilot in advance. She said that Trini’s story just left her sobbing because it touched so many of her own experiences in her life. That for her is the best story because that’s the one who touched her. That’s why we keep going out and finding more stories because each of them is going to have a powerful meaning for people we don’t even know. My main thing is to make them all fully authentic. Work with people who are really willing to really tell the truth, who really want to share it. That they feel compelled to share it. That’s the recipe for knowing that it’s going to have an impact. A strong impact on other people, specific people and that we’re all going to get something out of it. So, the best story for me in my life is the one I haven’t discovered yet. I’m hungry for a new story, all audiences are. Some stories reflect what we’ve gone through but other stories tell us the possibilities of what we might do. They pioneer a way of living that we haven’t even thought of. We want to know what’s possible in this world and these stories can do that for us. Joan Didion said, “We tell ourselves stories in order to live.” That’s how we feel fully alive.
Dudley, I can’t thank you enough. I really hope that KCET picks this up as a regular series because I think it is so interesting. I’d love to see how it plays out and where it goes and for you to find the best story ever somewhere down the road.
Well, all we need for that to happen is for everybody who cares about this, tell us here at KCET. Go on to our website and leave us a message or send us an email. Or better even, go onto your social media and share the TELLING L.A. trailer with your friends and say, “This is what I want more of.” If Los Angeles support it, it will definitely happen.
TELLING L.A. started airing on KCET on December 5th at 10pm and is currently on regular rebroadcast. Starting December 12th, TELLING L.A. is available nationwide on Link TV, as well as DirecTV and DISH Network, and will soon be available on Roku, AppleTV, and YouTube. The series is also available online in four chapters at kcet.org/tellingLA and linktv.org/tellingLA.
by debbie elias, interview 12/01/2017