Jessica Blank is on a mission to influence our world through the transformative power of story. She’s an award-winning writer, producer, actor, and coach with an amazing track record of creating art that leads to impact. She and her husband, Erik Jensen, are collaborators in a form of art for impact called documentary theater. They created a play about people condemned to death for crimes they didn’t commit. That work of art helped change policy and save lives. She teaches about the brain science of storytelling; the structure of storytelling; and the power of storytelling to move us, change us, and make us see the world in new ways. We spoke with Jessica about how to use the power of storytelling to create impact.
Doug Hattaway: Jessica Blank, thank you so much for joining us. Let’s start with a story—one of our favorite topics and the topic of today’s conversation. Tell us about the origin of your play, The Exonerated. I can set the scene. It’s the year 2000. You’re newly arrived in New York City, studying acting, working as an activist. Then something happened.
Jessica Blank: Thanks for having me. Yes, the first thing that happened is that I met my writing partner and husband, Erik Jensen, and a couple of dates in I invited him to a conference on the death penalty at Columbia University because—
Doug: That’s the kind of thing to do on the first couple of dates?
Jessica: Yeah, we were a couple of actors in New York interested in writing, interested in storytelling, but really focused on being actors. We went to a workshop at a conference on a group of cases called the Death Row Ten, which [is] a group of guys in Chicago who had all been interrogated and tortured by a particular police commander, who was later prosecuted. [The Death Row Ten] were still sitting in prison, some of them with no other evidence against them besides these [so-called] confessions that had come out of that torture. We heard a lecture on the cases, and we saw some 60 Minutes-style documentary footage. We got a lot of information for an hour, and it was all very disturbing and upsetting, and it’s not as if it didn’t impact us, but [that conference] was all at an intellectual level.
But then the organizer set up a phone call from one of the [Death Row Ten] guys in prison, and they hooked the cellphone up to his speaker so that for a few minutes he was actually talking to us in the room. And he didn’t say anything mind-blowing; he just told his story. By the end, everyone in the room was in tears. And Erik and I, also in tears, looked at each other, and he was as moved as anybody in the room, but being an outsider to the activist-law scene, he said to me that these are not the people that need to be having the experience we’re having. Everybody who’s here is already here because they care. So we started writing notes to each other in the back of the law classroom about how [to] get around that problem. How do you get around the problem of preaching to the choir?
I am a huge fan of Anna Deavere Smith. As I was coming up, she was the only person I saw who was doing the writing, the acting, the activism, and engagement all at the same time. And Erik knew Moisés Kaufman a little bit, who at that time was working on The Laramie Project. It hadn’t come out yet, but both of us were interested in the form of documentary theater, and we got the idea in that conversation to travel around the country, interview death row exonerees—people who had been wrongly convicted, put on death row, and then later freed—and make a documentary play out of their words. That was the genesis of that idea, which wound up having a long life off-Broadway. It ran for two years, was made into a movie with Susan Sarandon and Danny Glover, and wound up having a lot of real-world impact. I think it’s worth noting that the genesis of that idea was our experience of the difference between learning something through an information dump and learning through a story.
Doug: We are going to get into the brain science behind that, but you’ve teased us with the impact. Tell us about the impact that The Exonerated had.
Jessica: When we first started working on The Exonerated, we had never written a play before. We didn’t know how to do what we were about to embark on at all. So we called everybody we knew, and we asked them for help. One of the main tasks was to get in touch with death row exonerees who might want to speak to us. We had to find them, and this was [in the] very early days of the internet. We reached out to the Innocence Project and to the Center on Wrongful Convictions, and we stumbled upon a model for our future work that proved very effective, which is forming informal partnerships with organizations that work directly with the impacted populations that we’re talking with at the outset of the project.
So, the Center on Wrongful Convictions vetted us. We were a couple of art kids from New York, and their attitude was, “Yeah, okay, you want to talk to death row exonerees—fine.” But we had put together a board of advisors, and we [had done] our homework. And [eventually] they helped us connect with the people they knew, the exonerees they worked with who actively wanted to tell their stories, which is something that’s really important to the work that Erik and I do. We’re not like investigative journalists; we don’t chase people who don’t want to talk to us. We are looking for enthusiastic consent.
And because we’re dealing with heavily traumatized populations, we’re very sensitized to the fact that we’re looking for the folks [who] want to get their story out there as part of their own process. The Center on Wrongful Convictions helped us do that … and, at the same time, it started this informal partnership and conversation. We were always looking at how we can continue to contribute to each other’s processes. Fast forward a couple of years. The play is running. It’s a big off-Broadway hit. There are celebrities in it. It has a whole life, and at the same time, in Chicago, Governor George Ryan—[just] before we got the idea for The Exonerated—had declared a moratorium on the death penalty in Illinois in 1999–2000, because he was concerned about the rate of wrongful convictions.
He had appointed a bipartisan commission to look at the issue and at what we can do to minimize the risks of this [occurring]. They came back with 89 recommendations, only one of which was actually put into practice by the legislature. He’s facing a situation where both candidates running to replace him had said they were going to lift the moratorium on executions in Illinois when they took office. So he announced publicly that he was considering commuting the sentences of everyone on Illinois’s death row before he left office.
There was a huge public controversy. He decided to have hearings on all the cases. But, of course, they’re enormously complicated cases, and the daylong hearing on each one only made everything less clear. He’s being lobbied by all sides. The Center on Wrongful Convictions is at Northwestern, in Chicago; they’re involved in this conversation, and they called us up. They said, “If we can get the governor in a theater, can you bring the play from New York?”
So on a Monday night, we brought the cast from New York to Chicago to do a command performance for the governor, several members of the Illinois state legislature, [and] 50 death row exonerees as part of [the governor’s] decision-making process. He stayed late into the night listening to all of the exonerees who were there after the play and asking the questions that were brought up by the [play].
He has since written in his book and [has] said publicly that he didn’t know what he was going to do until that night, which was a turning point for him in his process of deciding to clear Illinois’s death row before he left office, [to] commute everyone’s sentences to life in prison, so that at least they could go through the appeals process. That was also a step in eventually abolishing the death penalty in the state of Illinois.
Doug: Wow. And the story was the turning point, that experience, to use your word.
Jessica: I mean, we would never take credit for his decision, and he has so many people who had more boots on the ground in this kind of work, but he has said the emotional experience that he had from hearing those stories in that form, [on] that night, was a turning point for him in his process.
Doug: So from that experience, and perhaps others—because you’ve gone on to do a number of documentary plays with a focus on impact—I’m hearing a guiding principle: get it in front of your decision-maker. [Many] times there are disconnects between the creative community and the policymaking world, if you will. What are some thoughts, guiding principles for folks in terms of how you help translate art into impact?
Jessica: Absolutely. From the beginning of the creation of the play, we were figuring it out as we went along, and then suddenly [we] found ourselves in a room with the governor. I [realized that] I needed to figure out how that happened. What were the steps that had to fall into place to make that happen? Is it repeatable and can I teach it to people?
I think one of the guiding principles that we stumbled into accidentally is that you [need to] find and work with organizations who are on the ground with impacted populations from the very beginning of the process. We did that out of need [in The Exonerated]. That partnership [with the Center on Wrongful Convictions], especially because it was in place before there was a work of art, put us in communication with each other so that we weren’t siloed. [It wasn’t] artists over here and activists and organizers doing the work over [there].
We were already connected, so that at any point during the life of their work or the life of our play, [if there was] an opportunity, we could plug in. I think those kinds of partnerships—and again, they don’t have to be formalized or complicated—are really crucial. And I also think [about] being able to move quickly, right? Being able to respond to circumstances on the ground. None of us knew the situation with the governor was going to arise in the way that it did. To be able to think creatively about how to leverage the work is really important, and then yes, absolutely, so is getting [the work] in front of decision-makers. Sometimes it is one executive who holds an enormous amount of power who’s considering making a decision that could change hundreds of lives.
Doug: It really is authentic, intensive collaboration with the people whose stories are being told, with the organizations that work with them and their communities. Speaking about getting it in front of decision-makers is actually a good segue into some of the brain science—because studies of communication persuasion have shown that everybody is more persuaded by stories than by statistics and facts and figures, including subject matter experts and decision-makers who see themselves as not persuaded by anecdote or story. But the scientific studies show no, in fact, they are. What’s going on there? What’s behind the power of a story?
Jessica: I mean, so many things, right? And MRI technology is amazing because it now enables us to understand what’s happening in people’s brains while they’re having all different kinds of experiences. The things that artists, professional storytellers, dramatists have known for millennia, intuitively, are now suddenly provable. Oh, there’s a reason why this blockbuster did great and that one failed. Oh, there’s a reason why we think of this work of dramatic literature as a classic. There are structures that our brains are wired to respond to in predictable ways. There’s a reason why what Aristotle talks about in the Poetics and what Joseph Campbell talks about in The Hero’s Journey match.
When we hear information, the way I’m talking right now, it activates two areas of the brain, Broca’s area and Wernicke’s area, which are the areas of the brain that are essentially concerned with language comprehension and information processing. That’s all that happens. But [when] we hear something in story form—and by that I mean a character goes on a journey, overcoming obstacles toward a goal, and transforms through that process—it does all kinds of other things in our brain.
The first thing it does is [to] activate the mirror neuron network, which is in the sensory cortex. The mirror neuron network is the foundation of how babies learn, how we as human beings learn anything. If you’ve ever spent time around a baby and you make a face and they copy the face, that’s the mirror neuron network at work. Say I tell you a story about a guy who walks into a room where the walls are bright blue and bacon is sizzling on the stove and he smells it and hears a loud pop from the fat. If I told you that in story form, it would activate your sensory cortex as if you were seeing the color blue, smelling bacon fat, and hearing that sound, right? Your sensory experience would not be able to distinguish between hearing a story about somebody having that experience and [actually having] it happen to you, as far as your brain is concerned. Which, by the way, is why our high-school creative writing teachers always said use the five senses. We know this intuitively. It’s activating the mirror neurons in the sensory cortex.
Doug: My mouth is watering as we speak.
Jessica: Totally! The second thing that happens in the brain when we hear a story is it activates a network of regions in our brain that are involved with what’s called mentalization or theory of mind, which is the ability to imagine another person’s interior psychological experience. This to me is miraculous, because what it means is that story is a technology for triggering empathy. That automatically, once we are identified with a protagonist, once we are on a journey with a character, we are imagining what it is like to be them. And we know this [empathetic feeling], right? If we go to the theater and we don’t leave feeling like we walked in the main character’s shoes, it was a bad night at the theater. It was a boring play.
We know that part of the experience of a good story is feeling like we [are] the protagonist or are inside their story. To me, in terms of impact work, that tells me there is so much to be gained from looking at who we are asking our audiences to identify with, who are the protagonists, whose journey are we asking people to go on, and [whose interior life are we asking people to] imagine. That makes a big difference, actually, in terms of what kind of society we build.
Doug: You have a play and documentary film called Coal Country? I know our [community] would love to hear about what’s next and what your vision is for that. Full disclosure for listeners, Jessica and I, and our teams, are collaborating on an impact campaign around this very fascinating topic: coal country.
Jessica: Yes, since The Exonerated, Eric and I have continued to work in documentary theater. With our documentary plays, of which we’ve done several now, we’re always looking for a very specific kind of entry point. I mentioned a strategic [choice of] protagonist. I mentioned asking [whose shoes we’re] asking the audience to walk in. Who are we asking them to identify with? When we’re choosing a subject for a documentary play, we’re not just looking for what’s compelling, what has high stakes, what we think is important. We’re also looking for a place where there’s a conversation nationally, maybe sometimes even internationally, that’s stuck in a polarized deadlock. Where there’s a binary and where there are people whose lived experiences, were we to identify with them, could lead us out of that deadlock and into a larger conversation. With The Exonerated, that’s the death penalty and exonerees.
Coal Country is another one of these stories. The binary at work around this story is a deadlock between coal miners and environmentalists that was fostered by politicians and corporations. We’re all familiar with this story, right? On one side: coal is bad [and is] killing the planet; [and on the other side:] we need jobs, and this is our way of life and livelihood. In the meantime, politicians and corporations are profiting off this controversy. In 2010 there was an explosion at the Upper Big Branch Mine in West Virginia, and 29 coal miners were killed. Miners had been warning for years that this mine was unsafe. There were multiple safety violations that had not been addressed. I mean, coal mining is a very dangerous job. Coal dust is essentially gunpowder, and you’re dealing with heavy machinery. So the risks are very real, and the safety laws are there for a very necessary reason.
[This] was a national news story. Several of the minors were missing. Eric and I followed the story as it was happening. We were very compelled by it, and [after] the cameras left and left the community behind, the story stuck with us. At the time, in 2010, we had just had a baby. So we were not prepared to go into an intensive research process for a new documentary play. But the idea didn’t leave us alone. In 2015, once we were ready, we reached out to the country musician Steve Earl, because we knew this story probably [needed] to have Appalachian music.
[We] wanted the story to be situated in a larger historical context, which the music could help us do, while still adhering to the documentary form. Steve got together [with us], and we went down to West Virginia and interviewed family members of the coal miners who were killed in the Upper Big Branch disaster and some miners who were in the mine that day and survived. And we made a play based on those interviews called Coal Country. Steve’s album of the songs from the place was called Ghosts of West Virginia. We opened it in March 2020 at the Public Theater and then of course quickly had to shut down [due to COVID-19]. This past year we recorded it for Audible. Before we were shut down by the pandemic, we brought the families from West Virginia to see the play in New York City, which is another thing that’s important to Eric and me: bringing the real people together with the work.
We had that experience before with The Exonerated. It’s enormously powerful, but I don’t think any of us were quite prepared for how powerful this particular encounter was, because it was essentially also a cross-cultural encounter. I mean, here we are in New York City off-Broadway, a bunch of coastal progressive art weirdos, to be perfectly frank, with coal miners and mining families from very, very rural West Virginia. I don’t know if I vote the same way some of these folks vote, and I don’t know if we talked about hot-button issues and used terminology that’s been on Twitter, but what we discovered is that we [could speak] to these larger questions about job safety, about the right to a safe workplace, about family, about corporate power and corporate greed, about unions; we actually agreed on everything and had a deep human encounter that [recurred] when we reopened the play in 2022. Audible allowed us to invite all 29 families, even the ones that weren’t in the play.
At that point, we had already started talking about making a documentary film, because we had seen this encounter between the families and the play and knew there was something there that opened up the possibility of a much larger conversation. There was a human encounter that went to the heart of all [those issues]. So we brought a crew with us and kept some of the actors for a week after the show; they hung out with their real-life counterparts, and we filmed some of that. We started putting together the beginnings of this project, which we knew was going to be about the Upper Big Branch disaster and we knew was going to somehow be about the encounter between the play and the community and the opening that encounter created.
Full disclosure: We’re collaborating [with Hattaway Communications]. We started getting into early conversations with you about what that conversation—that opening [with these groups]—could do. It quickly became clear that we were talking across professional disciplines with people from EPA, with people from climate funds, with people from foundations. With all these different disciplines, it [really] could be possible to use this opening to do something concrete on the ground. So the conversation started to become: what if we brought or helped to bring a sustainable energy project into the former coal fields of southern West Virginia? To some of the places where it’s not a question anymore of whether we’re preserving coal jobs or not, because the coal is gone, the mines are used up.
I think you had the right phrase—regret teaches us about the human condition. And it’s surprising, too, because we say, Oh, I don’t want to talk about regret. I don’t have any regrets. And yet, if we take this emotion, and not get [freaked] out by it but just examine it, it’s telling us about the human condition. It’s telling us what constitutes a good life. Because when people tell you what they regret the most, they’re telling you what they value the most. If you don’t have a regret from something you did or didn’t do 30 years ago, that’s a very strong signal. Regret is a very strong knock at the door. So answer the door and see what it’s telling you.
Doug: Knowing folks in TV and film and other elements of media and entertainment, there’s so much desire for art to make a difference in the world, but this is another level of intentionality, strategy, and collaboration that can amplify the impact. Let’s talk about your journey as a creative person. You’ve written documentary plays, novels, screenplays, TV shows, and you have an e-book with inspirational ideas for people who might be stuck, who have an idea or story that won’t leave them alone. They can get this e-book at your website, but if you don’t mind, share an insider [tip] for somebody who has a story they need to tell.
Jessica: We understand, for example, that musicians are working with a set of underlying mathematical patterns that [already] exist in the world: chord structures, scales. A composer is working with that stuff, and that’s their craft. Then they bring their full self to it, and it can become art. Storytellers are actually working with a set of preexisting structures that can be learned as a craft. It’s not some magical thing that great writers already know how to do because they’re talented. It’s a concrete set of principles that anybody can learn. I don’t believe that the prerequisite to telling a great story is some kind of talent or some kind of inherent ability or magical skill or charisma or genius or anything like that.
I believe that the prerequisite to learning to tell a great story is the desire and drive to do it. If you have the desire and drive to do it, if you have a story that won’t leave you alone or a world of stories that won’t leave you alone, that means you have what it takes to work hard enough and seek out teachers, to learn how to work with the sacred geometry of story, [those] preexisting structures, and craft that story into something that can move people. It’s for everybody. It’s not just for artists.
Doug: To get access to the wisdom, visit www.jessicacblank.com. Or simply Google “Jessica Blank.” I know we could talk for hours on brain science and storytelling and strategy and impact, so we’ll do it again sometime. Thank you so much for joining me today.
Jessica: Thanks for having me.
To hear the original version of this story, tune into our Achieve Great Things podcast.