Scientists and philosophers, artists and humanists all delight in attempting to define what it means to be human. One could do far worse than to say this very simply: we are the species that tells stories, so that one of the most evocative phrases in our language consists of four simple words: once upon a time. They mark the beginning of a story; when we hear them, we sit back to listen. At their most powerful, stories can transform us by giving voice to those members of society who for one reason or another have lost their voice.
There is a story in all things. Yet many of us cannot see the story, and even should we glimpse it in its outlines, most lack the words to tell it in a way that connects the listeners to the words being told. Today, I have the honour to introduce to this convocation a gifted storyteller.
Chris Brookes has been telling stories all his life. A native of St. John’s, he began Engineering at MUN, completing it at Nova Scotia Technical College and then did a complete switch by studying theatre at both Yale and Michigan. Returning to Newfoundland in the early 1970s, he encountered and revived the performance of the Mummer’s Play. Recognizing the tremendous power of theatre as an instrument of social change, the Mummer’s Troupe, which he founded, created and staged numerous plays that gave a compelling voice to a number of social problems: relocation in Gros Morne, the Buchans miners, the Newfoundland fishery, the seal hunt. The work of the troupe, and their acquisition in 1975 of the LSPU Hall, catalyzed an explosion in the performing arts in this province. Our own theatre program, started in 1988, was a consequence of this explosion.
In 1980, Chris Brookes left Newfoundland for a while to begin a career in radio, where he has become one of North America’s most celebrated documentary producers. He has won numerous awards, including a number of Gabriel Awards, presented for excellence in broadcasting that “upholds universally recognized human values of community creativity, tolerance, justice, [and] compassion.” In 1997, Chris Brookes was inducted into the Arts Council Hall of Honour; in 2000, he was appointed to the Order of Canada.
In one of his documentaries, he talks about the North American Monarch butterfly, a species that undertakes an annual migration of 3,000 miles to its winter range in the mountain forests of Mexico. As these forests are being logged, the disappearance of their winter habitat may cause this subspecies to become extinct. At the end, Brookes muses: “Would it mean extinction of the butterfly or the story of the butterfly? The insect as a species may survive its story may not. Stories are the way we humans as a species explain the world to ourselves. And what is the value of that?”
Indeed, what is the value of that? Without our stories, what do we have left? Without our story tellers, how will we know where we belong, in this confusing world that keeps changing ever more rapidly, eroding everything that is familiar under our very feet? Once upon a time, not so very long ago, the Mummer’s Play was part of who we were we would have forgotten this, had not the storytellers of the Mummer’s Troupe come knocking to remind us. And yet what is the value of that? Where is the need?
“Oh, reason not the need,” lamented King Lear. “Allow not nature more than nature needs; man’s life is cheap as beasts.” We need the stories, told in our own words, arising out of our own community, and speaking to that community. Some years ago, Chris Brookes lamented the decision by CBC to cut back regional programming. “I think communicators ought to be communicating to our own society. I mean, if everybody leaves, and Andy Jones leaves and Ron Hynes leaves, and our writers and our artists and our journalists too, how do we know who we are?”
Chris Brookes has not left. Like the Monarch butterfly, he has been on many migrations across the face of our globe; like the Monarch butterfly, he has always returned to tell his stories. Vice-Chancellor, here upon this time there sits with us on this stage a story-teller of sublime craft. From the time of Homer and before, storytellers have been greatly honoured by their societies, and so, in this tradition, I am proud to present to you, for the degree doctor of letters, honoris causa, Chris Brookes.
Dr. Georg Gunther