Wednesday, 17 August 2016

What knowledge are we creating when we tell and retell stories?

I am delighted to report that my first academic paper on storytelling (with Prof Matthew Reason) has now been published online, and will come out in Research in Drama Education in November.

A limited number of free e-copies can be had at this link:

Storytelling, Story-retelling, Storyknowing: Towards a Participatory Practice of Storytelling
This paper presents a practice-led research project that investigates how people from diverse community and school groups understand and respond to oral storytelling. Run in collaboration with York Theatre Royal, the project uses art form workshops (drama, music, fine art) to actively invite participants to make the transition from listeners to storytellers. This paper places these workshops within a theoretical framework that draws upon understandings of storytelling developed by Benjamin, Bruner, Kearney and Wilson.  We argue: 1) that through the process of (re)telling participants demonstrate a particular kind of embedded knowledge that we have termed ‘storyknowing’; and 2) that inhabiting a story in this open-ended way has intrinsic value.  We present a typology of strategies for retelling adopted by the participants and reflect on our development of a participatory practice of storytelling.
Key words
Storytelling, narrative, participatory practice, narrative knowing.

Wednesday, 13 July 2016

If you couldn't be at 'Storyknowing'....

The next best thing is to watch the short film we have made to share its learnings. 

'Storyknowing' was a festival and symposium of storytelling and theatre with young people.  It was in itself an act of practice research that aimed to connect many perspectives.  Thus it brought together practitioners, researchers and teenagers all interested in the artform of storytelling by, with and for the adolescent age group.  It brought together performance, applied practice and research.  It brought together arts practice, mental health, education and social work, and the area of expertise that we might call 'being adolescent in 2016'. 

Thus it is only logical that we disseminate our findings in a way that is vibrant, accessible and relevant to all these audiences.  We hope this 13-minute film does this and are very keen to hear your thoughts!  Contact me, as ever, via

Thanks to producers Ed Sunman of Freshlabel Ltd and A-level student filmmaker Maddie Drury for their excellent work on this film. 

For more information about 'Storyknowing' see here.

Monday, 25 January 2016

'Storyknowing' symposium now open for bookings!

Can a symposium on research be a kind of research itself? Can it bring together in dialogue all the different kinds of experts in storytelling with young people - that is, storytellers and practitioners, researchers, teachers, professionals and of course young people themselves?  And can it actually 'publish' its findings in a way that contributes to a much bigger dialogue?  In April we will find out, at 'Storyknowing: A Festival and Symposium of Storytelling and Theatre with Young People'.

So far the indications are promising.  As well as a 'call for papers', we took the unusual step of issuing a 'call for workshops' - asking facilitators to think their way around the issues at the interface between adolescents and storytelling, and make proposals.  We received almost 40 interesting, extremely diverse and carefully thought-through proposals.  Reading them through as a body seemed like the first step in the dialogue - it revealed that there is a deep seam of practice in storytelling with this age group, but that it is diffused across many disciplines and sectors.  Nonetheless it started to raise common issues and questions.  A full list of the workshop leaders we selected is here.

The Call for Papers is also up there - the deadline's not til Sunday 31st so get writing...!

Over two days (Fri 22nd and Sat 23rd April) we will see storytelling performances (e.g. from the young Indian dancers pictured above), host workshops across a wide range of disciplines and panels of research papers with facilitated discussion.  It's a delicate balancing act between 'what story knows' and 'what we know about story'.  Thus the whole event will be transformed into a short documentary by young filmmaker Maddie Drury, working under the mentorship of Ed Sunman.

Do get in touch to find out more ( or check out the event page.

Thursday, 26 November 2015

Where are the arts in mental health strategies?

Yesterday I attended Higher York's conference on young people's mental health, 'Everybody's Business', showing an extract of the performance 'Wormwood in the Garden' I developed with Imogen Godwin and other young people in a mental health setting).

There is clearly high awareness at every level of the need for really concerted action on mental health in children and young people.  Action that recognises that, for whatever reasons (we may suspect them but cannot prove them), we have a bit of an epidemic on our hands.  And for a different, more ecosystemic model of working in which young people don't need to jump over thresholds to 'qualify' for treatment, where all the adults working with them do feel qualified to engage with and support their wellbeing without fear.  The recent policy 'Future in Mind' is inspiring stuff in many ways.  And just seeing the full room of intensely engaged individuals coming together from such a variety of professions and institutions was equally heartening.

What still concerns me is that what is being called 'mental health' may be part of an agenda of shifting responsibility for concrete, economic, social societal issues onto individual young minds. However supportive we may learn to be of them, are we empowering (naff word but very apt here, no apologies) them to define these causes and help reshape the society we are growing up in?  If, for example, as one speaker said, the majority of Year 10 and sixth form girls are experiencing mental distress of some kind, can we not go further than lamenting the cuts to further education budgets and the increasingly competitive, individualistic employment market?  Not to mention the media-engendered body fascism, the constant requirement to perform an acceptable identity in the virtual sphere, the growing inequality gap, the precarious zero-hours contracts, the doom-laden inevitability of austerity and climate change? Don't young people need to rage, as well as conscientiously work to improve their mental wellbeing along with everything else we ask of them?

I will keep saying it til I am blue in the face, but young people need the arts.  They need them so as they have the widest possible spectrum of languages to find their own understandings of these things and decide just what needs to change.  Of course storytelling can provide this language for some.  So can theatre.  So can other artforms.  I could not find one single mention of the arts in 'Future in Mind'.  Yet eight different people, representing eight different organisations/teams, approached me after our session asking how they could get training in using storytelling and the arts in their work.  All seemed to be saying that talking 'about' young people's mental health problems with them was not enough.  Other languages are needed.  We need the big stories of our culture to help us understand where it's going and open up real dialogue.

Thursday, 12 November 2015

Whose story is it?

For me as a storyteller, as for most drama practitioners I meet and read, stories are like oxygen - they are essential, help to make up the very fabric of the world, belong in some sense to everybody, can be used for all sorts of things and combined with all sorts of things.  We understand the respect we owe to their tellers, but feel entitled to be inspired by their stories and reshape them.  We inhabit their 'gaps' with our own perspectives.

But is this fluid relationship with stories actually something that most young people are ready to take on?  We might assume that everyone is postmodern these days, everyone understands that 'reality' is a complicated concept.  Yet, on several occasions recently I have worked with groups of young people whose anxiety about using the stories of others to make a piece of performance has surprised me.

In a reflective dialogue with one talented young storyteller I worked with, I asked her, 'What strikes you about storytelling, as an artform?  What potential do you see in it for yourself?'  Her reply made me realise that our methodology had been new to her: 'I like how you can take something you like and mix it up with other things that go to make the story change.  Before I thought that that was called plagiarism!'  She had been able to accept it easily because our 'source' story was an old folktale, everyone's and no-one's, and the experience she was mixing it with was largely her own.

In contrast, a youth theatre group tasked with devising a piece of theatre in response to the current refugee crisis was full of apprehension.  They felt that interviewing refugees, as well as people who had worked to support them, would give them a too-weighty responsibility for honouring painful and traumatic stories.  The lead practitioner and I explained that we would not be 'taking' those people's stories or 'twisting' them - rather we would learn from them with both our minds, hearts and bodies, use them to build an understanding of the refugee experience. We would use a myth (Dido and Aeneas, the refugee story par excellence, as in Nathaniel Dance-Holland's painting here) as our starting point, and infuse it with elements of our research into the modern-day refugee crisis.

It was not easy for the young people to understand what we meant by this, or who was giving us permission to play so fast and loose.  It turns out that other practitioners have had similar experiences. Helen Nicholson, in her excellent book 'Applied Drama - The gift of theatre', discusses an intergenerational oral history theatre project she led in which young people portrayed the experiences of elderly neighbours: 
'Because I had not introduced the students to the idea that memories are continually revised in the retelling, they were concerned to tell the stories as ‘authentically’ and ‘faithfully’ as they could.  However, I found this desire to reproduce events rather than represent them troubling…Their reluctance to experiment theatrically meant that their drama was limited by the confines of a form which, whilst it suited a rather simplistic retelling of events, did not really capture the ambiguity or emotions of memory.’ (2005, p.89)
In other words, as I often used to marvel in the first storytelling work I did with adolescents, the question 'is it a true story?' still often demands a literal answer.

Are there simple developmental factors at play here? Is it related to what David Elkind (1967) called adolescents' 'personal fable' - their belief in the uniqueness and incommunicability of their own strong emotions - and thus by extension, any one else' story or experience? Do you simply need to live for a certain length of time to develop an understanding that, while experience is not universal, all our stories draw on everyone else's stories?

Or is there also a generational factor at work?  I chatted this over with a friend who works and researches likewise with young people and in mental health. We suspected that the requirement to maintain a sophisticated performance of one's self on social media may make young people burningly aware of the value of retaining ownership of their own stories.  Danah Boyd (2014) charts the minefield this can pose and the considerable skills required to negotiate it.  For young carers I once worked with, their stories were a form of 'capital' they curated and built upon, both politically (to improve the lot of young carers) and personally (to obtain work experience, respect and contacts).  

One's story is one's life, perhaps, to a greater extent than in previous generations.  I am reminded of the Plains Indians' practice of burying their hair and nail clippings, so no-one could steal their soul.  It all presents an interesting challenge to a storytelling practice based on playing within storyworlds and celebrating the multiple possibilities they contain.  That is our understanding, from a position of relative comfort.  We certainly need to understand and respect young people's chariness of being too cavalier with The Truth.

Boyd, Danah (2014) It’s complicated: the social lives of networked teens. New Haven: Yale University Press.
Elkind, David (1967) ‘Egocentrism in Adolescence’. Child Development 38, pp.1025-34.
Nicholson, Helen (2005) Applied drama: the gift of theatre. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.

Wednesday, 28 October 2015

Young people's mental health is 'Everybody's Business'

Last night I heard a radio programme, All in the Mind on Radio 4, which was asking: is there an 'epidemic' of mental ill health among young people?  And if so, why?  The general conclusion confirmed my impressions gathered from extensive work with young people, teachers and artsworkers: though nothing so subjective can be 'proven', the pressures on young people at present seem to be qualitatively different from those faced by previous generations.  And they need more support than is currently available.  The fact is that a third of young people seeking mental health treatment are turned away - and that some parents I have met 'pray' that their child will have a 'crisis' so that they can get access to treatment.  With the current cuts to all 'early intervention' services, and further rounds planned, it seems we can't expect any change to that situation. (A sort of slow-burning anger is becoming the undertone to most of what I speak and write these days, surely a corrosive state of mind for me too!)

So what's the answer?  There are increasing calls for schools and universities to start viewing students' mental health as part of their responsibility. These are resisted by many as 'not really their job'.  I think the interesting question here is, what can schools and colleges in fact do and what can they not?  How can they start to build a culture of communication and mutual support around mental health?  And - well I would say this wouldn't I - how can they provide opportunities for young people to explore alternative narratives, different versions of themselves and different ways of forming supportive, collaborative communities? A lot of what is being called 'mental ill health' may in fact be a chronic condition of our advanced capitalist society.  The stories of economic competition, commodification, academic pressure, social judgement, physical perfection are being heard clearly enough.  How can schools and colleges help young people to take the world with a pinch (or a barrel) of salt?

I have been asked to present a little bit of something at 'Everybody's Business', an upcoming conference about mental health services for young people in York on 25th November.  Unlike most conferences it has a specific outcome in mind - to inform the council's Health and Wellbeing Committee and how they shape their future strategy.  It will bring together people from all the city's higher education providers, with health professionals and local authority decision makers, to start to build a sense of common cause around some of the questions around young people's mental health.

I am delighted that I will be speaking/performing with Imogen Godwin, a young writer and storyteller who is very eloquent on the subject of the CAMHS system.  We will show a bit of our show, Wormwood in the Garden, and talk about the value of artistic collaboration in helping young people develop and articulate their own perspectives on their wellbeing. 

You can book for the conference here.

Friday, 25 September 2015

Epic distance and the rupture in experience: Bakhtin, Benjamin and me!

For over a year I have been setting up internal ‘discussions’ between two of my main influences: Walter Benjamin (particularly his essay ‘The Storyteller’) and Mikhail Bakhtin (particularly his thoughts on ‘epic’ versus ‘novel’).  This morning I feel I can intervene in their dialogue and help sort out their differences.  WARNING: this is a long and detailed post, I am deep in my theoretical woods here, so if you're feeling like a short walk by the river, check out some of my other posts instead...

If, as Bakhtin rejoices, the novel is about polyphony – multiple social languages in wondrous, open-ended, unresolved dialogue  (‘life’s fullness’, as Benjamin grants) – the flipside of this, mourned by Benjamin, is that it is about the irredeemably perplexing and ultimately lonely nature of life.  The novel is about the individual’s search for the meaning of life, ultimately a hopeless search in which no-one can guide him to the answer.  He is lacking ‘counsel’ (Benjamin) – why? Because of the ruptures brought about by rapid social change, the information age, the isolation of each individual’s experience.  Think of the working class father whose experience as a builder seems to have no bearing on his son’s endless string of casual call centre jobs, silencing his reminiscences.  Or think of the online ‘fangirl’ community where young women create disturbing and sexually explicit fantasy stories in an environment untrodden by any guiding adult, with its own social norms utterly different from those of the mainstream.  So the novel celebrates the individual’s endurance of perplexity in polyphonic chaos – their strivings to make it up as they go along, and call this meaning.

If on the other hand, the story is about continuity and communicability of experience (Benjamin), the common underlying structures of life (Milan Kundera called this the sense of ‘es muss sein’, ‘it has to be’), it travels along archetypal paths which bind the teller and the listeners.  The flipside of this is Bakhtin's view that the story’s epic nature denies either any agency: the epic story is finished and unchallengeable. (I realise I am conflating his views on epic with his contrasting views on folktale, but I think I wouldn't mind me doing so for the purposes of dialogue.) He forgets perhaps that the storyteller has already travelled these paths in her own particular way, as will the listeners in their own.

Then my burning desire to tell stories is an urge to declare underlying commonality of experience – to sew up tears in the rupture.  I feel this is the case: I want to show my counsel to be relevant, ‘useful’ as Benjamin says. 
Yet both I and my listeners were brought up primarily on the novel, not the story.  So it could not be otherwise than that I would ‘novelise’ (Bakhtin) the stories I tell, giving them psychological interiority and inconclusiveness.  As Benjamin decrees and I like most storytellers feel to be right, I will do this very little in my first telling – I will leave in that ‘chaste compactness’ that allows the listeners to bind the story into their own experience – but this is very much what I and the young people will be about in subsequent workshop activities.  We could hardly do otherwise.  Thus Bakhtin describes the way the novel pulls all other forms to itself. 

But things have moved on.  Bakhtin might have envisaged the novel endlessly tearing up ‘epic distance’, knocking down gods, parodying archetypes.  He might not have foreseen how, once all the gods had been destroyed, humanity would feel the need to rediscover the paths of counsel – that in storytelling workshops, a group of young people might sometimes take refuge in the ‘es muss sein’ of epic distance, telling them how they might live their lives and define themselves.  At other times, of course, they would restore the multiplicity and perplexity that they know must on some level exist within the most perfectly formed story.  They would play with these opposing pulls like a tug of war.
So when Tom Maguire talks about the ‘return of the storytellers’ to the stage, or when youth theatre practitioners tell me that stories are right back at the heart of practice with young people, they are evidencing what Kearney, Ricoeur and countless others call the ‘narrative turn’.  It’s a swing of the pendulum back towards counsel and archetype, but because of where it started we have assimilated many skills of navigating perplexity and writing our own identities.  This time, we listen to the stories and consciously choose to use their archetypal paths to guide us and dignify our experience.  This is the dialogic mode of storytelling.  It is a mode which restores the necessary role of the storyteller, but foregrounds the listeners' active re-making of the story as never before.

However, it gives the storyteller new responsibilities and insecurities.  No longer can she work in the innocent community Benjamin yearned back towards, assuming her listeners' life experience will turn out to be similar to her own, and thus relying on the self-evident usefulness of her counsel.  Her ‘usefulness’ (in fact her right to tell at all) must now be earned, by making it evident that she is ready to put her counsel at the listeners’ free disposal, as well as receive counsel from their knowledge, gained in their different world.  (I wonder: was Benjamin aware of this different, more knowing spirit of storylistening?  Did he foresee the narrative turn even as he was mourning the passing of story?  Is this why he emphasises the ‘chaste compactness’ and the vital role of the gaps in the story?  Because this is indeed where these dialogic processes occur.)  This is the 'moment' of the storytelling revival; this is why storytelling is in some ways a different artform than the archaic forms it claims descendance from, and I am experiencing this in my encounters with adolescents.  I need to justify my choice of story, contract delicately with them as to the right opportunity for telling it.  We take delicate steps together unto long-untrodden ground.
Then in what way is the counsel contained in this epic material ‘at their disposal’? What do they use it for?  Well, novelisation - understood as bringing the epic onto a level with interiority and everyday experience - can go two ways.  The adolescent young people I work with very rarely 'knock it down' to meet earthy everyday life in the way Bakhtin described.  Their engagement with it is playful but not always subversive. It frequently seems to be more about raising their personal experience up to meet the epic on its own archetypal plane.  Or something in between.  A young woman with whom I collaborated on a retelling of an Italian folktale drew on her own poetry written in moments of great emotion or insight.  She described this process of conscious novelisation afterwards: 'I was looking to myself and what I would do or feel.'

In fact, strikingly often, young people use epic to dignify their own experience – experience that sometimes seems uncelebrated, isolating and uncommunicable.  ‘Dignifying’ – what do I mean? Simply transcribing this experience onto the archetypal paths of counsel, simultaneously allowing it to reshape these.  In this way the rupture is healed and experience becomes communicable again.  At a sufficient epic distance, universality is re-established: say, between the teenage self-harmer and the young hero on an impossible quest up the glass mountain.  You see the same in novels and theatre: think of Jeanette Winterson’s parallels (in 'Sexing the Cherry') between her lesbian or transgender characters and the mermaids and dancing princesses of legend.  The apparently untraversable gap, between the young people's experience, mine and that of all the storytellers and storylisteners that went before, shrinks for a while.  There is no need to be contrived about this – it happens by itself.  I often don't see it til long after a workshop and I assume they do not either.  Story is a mutually comprehensible language which can re-frame adolescent experience, and be re-shaped in turn by it.  Thus lines of communication can be opened and I, at least, feel the better for it.  

         Bakhtin, Mikhail (1981) 'Epic and Novel' in The Dialogic Imagination. Austin: University of Texas.
         Benjamin, Walter (1973(1955)) ‘The Storyteller: Reflections on the Works of Nikolai Leskov’ in Hannah Arendt (ed). Illuminations. London: Fontana.
         Kearney, Richard (2002) On Stories: thinking in action. London: Routledge.