- Photo Illustration by Marlene Lacasse
By Carlina Duan, Daily Arts Writer
Published September 26, 2013
“It was an improv show,” chuckled Seth Samuels, a 2013 Ross School of Business BBA graduate, as he glanced at his glass filled with hot water and pulpy lemon. “We were improvising.”
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On the table, a red-covered book sprawled neatly over the wood. Next to the book, bread crumbs curled next to the back of a receipt, where Samuels had written “potential” in ballpoint ink, the letters pressed sharply onto the page to make indents. A small graph adorned the paper. Samuels ran his hand over the book’s cover.
“Storytelling is an ingrained part of being a human being,” he said. “It’s attributed to our survival — relieving stress. … At its core, storytelling starts with someone drawing out their own personal experience and considering it in a way that they hadn’t previously. And sharing that (experience) with other people.”
And so, Samuels’s self-described “improv” act led to a video compilation, an upcoming exhibition and a recently published book — all aimed at “sharing (stories) with other people.” More importantly, though, the “improvisation” cracked open the entrance to a new wave of storytelling on campus, titled the Spotlight Project.
The Spotlight Project, an extension of TEDxUofM, began in December 2011 as a half-formed thought in Samuels’s mind after attending and organizing one of the University’s TEDxUofM conferences. The TEDxUofM community itself joins the ranks of the broader TED nonprofit organization, a well acclaimed program linking its three pillars of technology, entertainment and design into a series of annual conferences. TED emphasizes the power and values of ideas to promote passionate change and additionally offers TED Talks, a series of lectures by prominent thinkers which further the mission to extend cultural, scientific and creative spaces into the lives of everyday people. The University’s branch of TEDx offers its own conference yearly. According to the TEDxUofM Facebook page, the conference hopes to “bring together great minds, brilliant talent and innovative thinkers who are eager to inform the universe about their passions and dreams for the future.”
More than speakers on the stage
Samuels echoes TEDx as the soundboard for his own curiosity and rich expansion of ideas. Yet, he noticed that the conference was doing something peculiar: emphasizing the stage for one day, and inadvertently forgetting to leave a long-lasting impact on its audience.
“A bunch of people would come together, have a great one-day experience … hearing inspiring speakers,” Samuels said, when discussing his first TEDx Conference. “Yet we had no way of determining if our conference — that we put so much time into outside of class — was having a huge impact.”
And so, the Spotlight Project bloomed into existence.
“I became enthralled with this idea that maybe there’s more to TEDxUofM than speakers on the stage,” Samuels said. “Maybe there’s something in the audience that we should focus on.”
The Spotlight Project is an effort to intentionally shift “the spotlight” from the stage to the audience. The project discovers and films remarkable stories on campus and gives those stories back to the campus community through a series of online videos and exhibitions. After concluding its nearly two-year production period in April 2013, the project has filmed 15 spotlight videos and compiled 27 of those additional interviews into a book.
“Picture a whiteboard,” Samuels said, as he sketched an axis on the back of a coffee-shop receipt. “It’s a perfect bell curve.” Samuels drew a peaked curve to represent the TEDx Conference. “The peak is a flicker of our human potential to consider, to create, to interact,” he said. “It’s really a special moment. But it’s unrealistic to believe that it can live on because once the conference ends, we go on with initial life.” Samuels paused, and drew a downward slope tapering off, in black ballpoint pen. “This is daily life,” he said.