Statecraft Stories: A Storytelling Workshop

What happens when you bring Hollywood to a Washington, D.C. think tank? The Statecraft Stories workshop, held virtually in July, invited Quincy Institute researchers, policy analysts, CNN contributors, journalists, authors, veterans, and a former CIA staffer to put aside their jobs promoting diplomacy to participate in interactive sessions designed to provide powerful storytelling tools in communicating important messages.

The instructor for the sessions, organized by Hollywood, Health & Society, was TV executive producer/writer and showrunner Jennifer Cecil (The Umbrella Academy, Private Practice, Hell on Wheels), who previously conducted this workshop for professionals in the health field and nuclear risks world. The fundamentals of storytelling, from story arc to character, were covered, providing the workshop participants with inspiring exercises and writing prompts to practice integrating these techniques. Video clips from shows further illustrated how the skills can be applied to their work, and their wealth of expertise and experience for consultations.

On day two, television writers and producers joined breakout groups to guide the participants in collaboratively creating story ideas. Four mock “writers rooms” were led by David Grae (Madam Secretary, Fire Country, Gilmore Girls), Carol Flint (The West Wing, Designated Survivor, ER), Joy Gregory (Monarch, Madam Secretary, Jericho) and Kristi Korzec (Superman & Lois, Madam Secretary, Always Sunny in Philadelphia). In just 45 minutes, gripping stories were developed, based on two options: global hotspots (Ukraine/Russia to the Middle East) and story areas ranging from demilitarization to human rights.

Each team delivered their premise and outline in detail, with settings from Pakistan to Finland, an Olympic competition to Ukraine, 40 years in the future still dealing with landmines. They described the players, the plots and peaceful resolutions, complete with moving themes, receiving feedback on ways to raise the stakes and shout-outs on clever twists and insightful metaphors.

The final session opened with a conversation about Netflix’s hit show The Diplomat (starring Keri Russell and Rufus Sewell), showing an excerpt of a speech by Sewell’s character, Hal Wyler, about the importance of negotiating for peaceful ends: “Diplomacy never works. Until it does.” 

The series’ consulting producer, Eli Attie, addressed how he’d made the tricky transition from Vice President Al Gore’s speechwriter to writing for The West Wing. He offered insights into the narrative writing along with the other guest writers who rejoined. Participants got a chance to ask questions and share their own stories. The writers offered critiques, compliments and suggestions. One workshop participant recognized that the basic story structure (inciting incident, climactic intervention, and resolution) has mostly always been used to tell stories of war.

“What we need is an alternative—a peace narrative,” he said.

Mission accomplished.