How Do We Tell Our Stories?
From Spectatorship to Identification to
Spect-Actor-Ship

By Shuki Taylor

1. From Spectatorship to Identification

How do stories impact who we are and can become?

The Midrash suggests that in each generation individuals should see themselves as if they literally left the land of Egypt. And given that we’re currently reading and learning the stories of enslavement and redemption in the book of Shemot (Exodus), now might be a good time to explore what the Midrash’s suggestion means, and how it might inform us as educators.

The process of storytelling in which the reader sees herself within the story – as if it is happening to them – is what Jonathan Cohen calls identification. Identification is an imaginative experience in which a person surrenders consciousness of his or her own identity and experiences the world through someone else’s point of view. Identification can lead to the temporary adoption of an external point of view. When we temporarily adopt this external point of view, we get to experience the world through an alternative reality. The intensity of identification reflects the extent to which we are able to exchange our own perspective for that of another and temporarily forget ourselves.

Identification is not about identifying with the feelings of a character. Rather, it is about sharing the perspective of the character: feeling with the character rather than about the character. Similarly, the Midrash calls on us to not relate to our texts as spectators, who read about what happens to others, but to relate to these others by attempting to embody the perspectives they offer.

Accordingly, I would like to suggest that education shift learners from a perspective of spectatorship to identification. Education has the potential to allow learners to temporarily suspend their perspectives and imagine the possibility of new and alternative ones. Immersive educational experiences are ideally suited to this approach.

Immersive experiences (such as travel programs, retreats and shabbatonim) provide a powerful opportunity for identification through “dislocation” and temporary “relocation”: They require learners to suspend many aspects of their daily realities and adopt new aspects that are distinct to the new experience. They create shared emotional experiences, expose new social contexts and offer particular value propositions. Rather than making a learner just a spectator, immersive experiences invite identification: the willingness to temporarily suspend current perspectives and live inside new ones.

When participants of immersive experiences (and particularly travel programs) are in spectatorship mode, their most common feedback is “why did you show me that perspective and not another?” Spectatorship implies bystanding and onlooking. Rather than facilitating learning, it results in the spectators assessing and evaluating what is being presented to them.

An immersive experience that strives for identification will not focus solely on which perspectives are being presented. It will also focus on how participants can temporarily experience those perspectives. It can engage participants in multiple points of view precisely because the purpose of the experience is its embodiment rather than its evaluation from outside.

2. From Identification to Co-creation

While identification proposes a shift from spectatorship, educationally it is still flawed, because however close our learners get to “trying on” the perspective of the other or of an imagined reality, they are still, ultimately, standing on the outside and looking in.

In his seminal work Theater of the Oppressed (influenced by Paulo Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed), Brazilian theater artist Augusto Boal coined the term “spect-actor.” Stressing the need to prevent the isolation of the audience, Boal claimed that it is necessary to humanize its members, to restore their agency and capacity for action in all its fullness. The audience, according to Boal, must also be a subject, an actor on equal plane with those accepted as actors, who in turn must also be spectators.

Educational experiences broadly, and immersive experiences in particular, should strive to shift learners beyond identification to spect-actor-ship. As spect-actors, learners will both observe and identify, but ultimately, they will claim their agency and join the educational process as collaborators.

If spectatorship focuses on which perspectives are being presented, and identification facilitates how learners can temporarily experience those perspectives, spect-actor-ship invites the learners to become a protagonist in their own story, to become full partners in the educational journey and the creation of meaning that emerges from it.

How do we make this happen?

3. Narrative and Self-Authorship: Building Blocks for the Design of Immersive Experiences

Following eight months of research conducted at M²: The Institute for Experiential Jewish Education, the results of which are now featured in our new Design of Immersive Experiences training program, we have recognized two core aspects that enable the process of spect-actor-ship: narrative design and self-authorship.

Narrative Design

An educational experience – particularly one that is immersive – can and should shift learners beyond “hearing a story” to “being in a story,” one in which the learners are protagonists and the story behind the experience is happening to them. Learners become the protagonists of their own story when there is a well-constructed narrative at the heart of an educational experience. Ultimately, narrative has a significant impact on the formation of participants’ identities, helping them explore various aspects of themselves in relation to their characters, their surroundings and their values.

Designing narratives for immersive educational experiences is an art that requires focusing on three distinct, yet interconnected, aspects:

  • Narrative type – the style or category of the narrative
  • Narrative arc – the chronological construction of plot in a narrative
  • Narrative shape – the emotional trajectory of the story

SelfAuthorship

The ultimate impact of temporary identification through narrative design is insufficient. What must always follow is a process of self-authorship: inviting learners to articulate personal narratives by helping them make sense of their experiences by narrating it in a personalized and contextualized way. It is only once learners recount their own narrative of the educational experience, on their own terms and in their own words, that they become spect-actors. When self-authorship is well facilitated, identity is formed as learners integrate meaningful experiences into an internalized, evolving story of the self.

By mastering the many facets of narrative theory and self-authorship, educators designing and executing immersive experiences can provide learners with profound opportunities to explore the richness of the Jewish story through diverse narratives while helping them shape and narrate their own personal Jewish story. And this then might be the key for how we might actualize the suggestion made by the Midrash with which we we opened.

M²’s newest initiative, Design of Immersive Experiences Circle, will take participants through an exploration of these ideas and provide the knowledge, language, skills and tools to master the elements of design of immersive experiences.

Comprised of three independent stand-alone seminars, M² Circles: Design of Immersive Experiences arms practitioners with the clarity, precision and skill necessary for the successful creation and implementation of Jewish immersive experiences. Ideal for educators and program designers (of students of all ages) seeking to enhance their ability to create, facilitate and lead educational immersive experiences that are at least 2 days or longer. Learn more and register at www.ieje.org.

Shuki Taylor is the CEO and Founder of M²: The Institute for Experiential Jewish Education. M2 helps educators and organizations design meaningful educational experiences by offering them training and research grounded in academic theories, Jewish thought, customized educational approaches and cutting-edge methodologies.