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Giancarlo Esposito, Susanna Fogel, More Talk Freedom in Storytelling

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The role of a storyteller goes beyond simply bringing the words on a page to life. “We’ve been trained from a very young age and educated to think a certain way,” Giancarlo Esposito said.

Until you think for yourself and you look and talk to someone that you never thought you would ever understand and realize that they’re closer to you than you ever imagined, then you’ll understand their story, and that’s why we’re storytellers,” the executive producer and star of AMC’s “Parish” continued.

Esposito was joined by “Winner” filmmaker Susanna Fogel, “Rob Peace” filmmaker Chiwetel Ejiofor, author, poet, comedian and public speaker Alok Vaid-Menon and Audible’s head of creative development Kate Navin to discuss the importance of creative freedom in storytelling across different mediums in Variety + Audible’s Cocktails and Conversations at Sundance.

When Variety senior entertainment reporter Angelique Jackson asked what sparks their creativity, Vaid-Menon emphasized that to be an artist means to outgrow the story of “yourself continually” and that the best way to do so is “implode that awful sentence, ‘I am.’” 

“We live in a world where art is the antithesis because this world is a world that requires us to live in categories and pledge allegiance to them,” Vaid-Menon said. “What I’ve had to continue to do in my practice is to repeat to myself, ‘Your projection is not my reality, nor my responsibility.’” 

Ejiofor added to this sentiment, expressing that for a project to excite him, it must be able to transport him to an uncharted place that, especially as an actor, he hadn’t explored before.

As storytellers, the presentation of one’s work is just as crucial as its intent or meaning. When speaking about her experience as the director of “Winner,” a biopic about the life of American translator Reality Winner and what compelled her to leak proof of Russian interference in the 2016 election, Fogel expressed that when looking at specific stories, she’s learned to deduce the medium it’s most apt to be told in. 

“There are some stories where the discrete nature of it, the beginning, middle, and endness of it makes it want to be a movie where you want to experience that journey in one sitting,” Fogel said. 

The panelists concluded by talking about how they’ve been able to create empathy in their new projects, with Vaid-Menon saying they see comedy as a way to use “silly solutions to solve big problems,” a way to practice resistance in the service of others: “From the point of view of death, all living is stand-up comedy.” 

Elaborating on this, Vaid-Menon (who is gender non-conforming and transfeminine) said there is “nothing more absurd than being alive,” so “comedy is a conscientious practice of being alive.” Describing that there was a comedy to the fact that they were now in Utah, where if they were a citizen of the state, they could be “thrown in jail for using a bathroom and being on a stage because I’m here at Sundance. There’s a comedy to this.” 

As for all art, the panelists stressed how imperfections are vital to telling any story, be it a play, film or television series. 

“I’m imperfect, and stories are imperfect,” Esposito said. “Why not embrace that imperfection and allow that to be perfect?” 

Watch the full conversation above.

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