Engineers and Storytellers

Morris Ertman
January 13, 2014

I’ve been in London for a week with Byron Linsey, our Head Set Carpenter, wandering about, seeing 5000-year-old mummies at the Royal British Museum, watching a play a night, talking about the theatre, our faith alive in the theatre, our kids and how fast they're growing up, becoming a grandparent, eating good food ... Byron has left to go back to not only work on sets for Jack’s Giant Adventure and The Diary of Anne Frank, but to learn lines, as he’ll be playing the Giant in Jack’s Giant Adventure, our Theatre For Young Audiences offering in March.

One of the late night conversations we had upon coming back to our flat was this notion of a renaissance person and the fact that our modern world seems to have gradually squeezed out the possibility of living such a life with a need to define people by what their professions are. Further, the reason we have professions is so that the greater good can be served and we can make a living by serving them. Bridges get built because engineers are engineers in the employ of companies that build and design bridges. Families are provided for because Mom or Dad (or sometimes both) is an engineer that works for a bridge-building company. So life goes on and our time on earth is all of a sudden swallowed up serving a corporate good that many times leaves us hollow inside. I’ve had many a conversation with artist and patron alike about just such hollows and the heartache they hold.

What if we were meant to live in community in a way in which all of the gifts we were given could be expressed in one way or another. Yes, those gifts which are most readily needed by the community would likely be the gifts whereby we made our daily bread - the gifts we have a particular aptitude for. But what if the community celebrated those particular gifts with appreciation and awe because we actually had eyes to see the miracle of them?

Because Jo and I have older cars, we spend a bit of time at an auto mechanic. I’m fascinated when I watch him diagnose the workings of a car engine. I recognize the importance of this particular mechanic in the lives of our particular cars. I have expressed my awe at the work that he does (even though at times the wonder and awe are muted a bit by the size of the bill.) But I recognize the brilliance of the man. And then we have a conversation about a book he’s just read. It’s called The Shack, and he is filled with questions about his own evolving faith. And I feel like Philip in the Acts of the Apostles as he shares the wonder of God’s love to the Ethiopian Eunuch. And suddenly we are no longer mechanic and client. We are two dads talking about faith and family raising and more because he is so much more than a mechanic and I am so much more than a guy who can’t get his car started. Suddenly my mechanic is a scholar looking to discover the mysteries locked in a book - a renaissance person seeking out a spiritual elixir for life. It strikes me that in that moment, two or more have gathered in the name of the Creator of the Universe - the Mind that somehow engineered the whole of the story, the Maker of the laws of physics that rule the engine that needs tuning by the hands of a gifted human being created in His image.

I’d like to believe that there is a way to participate in life that keeps the whole of us energized and awake to the possibility of contribution that each of us hold. It starts with a commitment to any person who happens to be a part of our community because of needs met, proximity, and some sort of shared understanding. Here I am, into a second week of much needed rest in London - Joanne and son Jesse having just joined me - and I am as inspired by the work of engineers as I am by moments in the theatre. There are at least as many museums celebrating the work of farmers and engineers through hundreds and thousands of years as there are museums celebrating poets and writers and painters.

Byron has gone back to the shop and to learning lines. You see, what many may not know is that I knew him first as an actor and a man of ideas. He just happens to also have the skill to beautifully execute designs, putting his creative mind to work in the puzzle of scenic creation - the same mind that will figure out the most effective and entertaining way to create a Giant that will keep a theatre full of children laughing and learning.

Some of you may have followed our Christmas in Alberta adventure on Facebook. The company was stuck on an impassable road for the better part of a night and a day. We had heat, so we could enjoy our little adventure without too much strain. Sometime the following afternoon after the night on the bus, a snow plough pushed past us, just inches from the bus. I watched a man operating a huge piece of machinery clear a path foot by foot through the quarter mile drift in front of us. I watched with awe the skill with which he maneuvered around the bus. I was so grateful for a larger community that included people with skills I do not possess in measures near great enough to do any good in a snow storm - not because I needed to get home for any particular reason, but because the storyteller was inspired at the wonder of it all. People are a wonder. They are so much more than meets the eye.

Maybe that’s why I’m a storyteller. When you think of all the plays and poems and novels written, they are all in some way odes to human beings in many walks of life. The human experience is complex, but filled with common touchstones. Someone needs to tell the stories of the people who engineer and build bridges. And when we step past defining people by what they do, we find out that we all do many of the same things. Bridge-builders gathered in the pub after a day at work can be great storytellers, and storytellers bending their observational and physical skills to engineer and build can indeed be builders. ... Although, I’m not sure I’d trust a storyteller like myself to operate that snow plough without dinging the bus. Some things may well be best left to the professionals for the sake of common safety.

Engineers and Storytellers

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Morris Ertman