When asked to define myself in terms of the work I do, I sometimes answer, “storyteller.”
As a junior in high school I enrolled in cinematography as an alternative English class. My final project in that class, a collaboration with Mike Helgeson and Kiyoko Yasaki, was a film titled Where Do The Children Play — a montage of the urban context that dominated the lives of children growing up in Oakland, backed by Cat Stephens’ song with the same title. Shot on 8MM film, and edited with some bespoke tools, our film was recognized as the best student film of 1974 by the National Education Film Festival. What I learned in that cinematography class is that story is a powerful tool.
While in the MFA program at American Conservatory Theatre in San Francisco, I worked, as many young storytellers do, in restaurants. First as a dishwasher, then a busser, as a waiter, and finally as the manager of a couple of fine dining houses. I ran the front of house at LA Nicola in Los Angeles, and later Sedona Grill in Berkeley. Managing teams in those restaurants meant unifying the collective stories of a cast and crew into a shared story about community, nourishment, and service —and those dining rooms thrived and attracted visitors who appreciated and contributed to the stories as well.
In the early 1980s, during my time in LA, while managing LA Nicola, I convinced a group of actors to join me in starting a theatre company that would be devoted to producing theatre, not just to showcase talent in hopes of being hired for roles on TV and in film, but to use our skill and experience as theatre artists to tell stories that mattered. Our company, Pacific Theatre Ensemble, caught the attention of the LA Times and in our inaugural season we were feted as the new kids in town with a powerful story to tell. We produced Bertolt Brecht and James McClure. The company lives on (now called Pacific Repertory Theatre) and is a significant voice in the LA theatre scene. In the years since I have continued my work in theatre, as an actor playing leading roles in musical theatre, in contemporary drama, and in the works of Shakespeare, and as a director leading casts large and small.
Back in the Bay Area in the mid 80s I landed at KFRC radio where I worked as a producer, as a writer, and as occasional on air reporter. As a reporter I provided color commentary and human interest for major events. I was the on-the-scene storyteller for the station's coverage of the Golden Gate Bridge 50th anniversary celebration. (Part of my job that weekend was to act as personal host to Tony Bennett, who joined us for our big Golden Gate Birthday Party.) Drawn by a desire to work more directly in graphic design and video production I took a role as creative services manager at Alta Bates Medical Center in Berkeley where I oversaw a major rebranding project and supervised a small design and video production team. I got my hands dirty in both disciplines doing much of the design work and art direction for all of the hospital publications, producing a multimedia advertising campaign with our external agency, and shooting and editing in-house educational video programming.
In the summer of 1995 I took leave of Alta Bates to act in productions of Richard III and Much Ado About Nothing at the Marin Shakespeare Festival. Through connections in the cast, I met Chris Jones who had started a business focused on helping big companies take advantage of this new thing, the Internet. Chris needed a storyteller, someone who would help design the tools that he was building to help his clients leverage this new platform. I jumped at the opportunity and began a 10-year stint as a part of Medicineman Product Design. We served clients who needed a small, strategic product design swat team to quickly ramp up their presence and offerings on the web — companies like HP, Adobe, Sun, SAP, and Intel. It was during my time at Medicineman that I drafted the script for Marc Andreesen aligned with the product demo I designed to tell the Netscape story at his worldwide announcement of Netscape Communicator.
In 2002, reeling from the shock following the devastation of September 2001, we decided it was time for a new adventure in our family life. The boys had grown up in the Bay Area and had a world view that was exceptionally rich in many ways, but also limited. We decided to relocate to the Midwest where we could simplify our lives and reexamine our values, landing in Moline, Illinois. I had continued to work with Medicineman, and separately taken on several additional clients in the arts. I designed and built an online ticketing system for performing arts organizations that I sold to the Lincoln Center Chamber Music Society, to Stanford University for their LivelyArts program, and to the Music@Menlo chamber music festival. While in Illinois I met Sean Moeller and collaborated with him on a project called Daytrotter. Sean is an exceptional storyteller and together we crafted a website where he could tell the stories of the indie musicians who cris-crossed the country in search of a stage from which to sing their own stories. Daytrotter's original studio was in an old radio station that sat on Highway 61 (the same Highway 61 that Bob Dylan sang about) in downtown Rock Island Illinois. In 2008 we were named an Official Honoree at the 12th Annual Webby Awards. Esquire Magazine gave is a Mini-Esky. Eventually we sold Daytrotter to the guys in San Francisco who own all the Bill Graham memorabilia. Sean stuck with it and continues to tell those stories.
We lived in Illinois for a little more than seven years and during that time I also worked on various storytelling projects at Augustana College in Rock Island. I directed several plays, designed and built a couple of special purpose web properties to help students and prospective students reflect on their vocational journey. I chaperoned a couple of spring break trips to Ocean Springs Mississippi where students had the opportunity to serve as relief workers after hurricane Katrina. I felt myself being drawn to education, and saw that helping others learn to become storytellers was a way to expand the influence I hoped to have in the world.
Over dinner one night a friend shared a story about Teach For America. I was intrigued. My wife, Anna, was eager to return to the Bay Area, and TFA places teachers in the Oakland Unified School District. Would it be possible, I wondered, for a mid-career storyteller to join the corps and get back to Oakland where I had attended public school and serve a community I loved? “Yes,” the recruiter assured me, “we would love to have you apply.” Several months later, after a rigorous interview process, I received an offer to teach in a special education classroom in Oakland as a member of the 2010 Bay Area corps. My two years in the corps were life changing. And my corps experience confirmed my belief in the power of storytelling. I focused my work in the classroom on helping children learn to tell their own stories and speak truth to power. We learned about and wrote poetry. We crafted presentations where students shared hopes and dreams. We experimented with making music, and used computers to design the dream homes that these children saw as the places where they would one day find comfort and safety.
After my two years in the corps, Teach For America hired me to help design a new version of their performance management platform, a tool they used to support their classroom teachers around the country. The existing tool was like a very complex online spreadsheet. Working with a team of graphic designers and the platform's primary users I designed a new system that stopped showing a teacher as a row on that spreadsheet, and instead framed that teacher's experience in narrative form. The data was still there, but it was liberated from the legacy application and used to tell each teacher’s story. I am told that some staff members who used the the old spreadsheet literally jumped out of their seats and applauded when they first saw the new tool.
In my current role at EducationSuperHighway as product owner and manager of the Compare and Connect K-12 application I was tasked with a similar transition. CCK12 takes data from the FCC about school district broadband, and turns it into a price transparency tool. For the most recent version I wanted to simplify the way we mapped and displayed the data into a simple, map based experience. I worked with our graphic designer to strip away the detritus and extraneous information to bring clarity to a tool that tells the story of how schools around the country are utilizing the E-rate program to bring high speed broadband and equitably support digital learning for all students.
The cure for boredom is curiosity. There is no cure for curiosity. — Ellen Parr