My work in the adolescent mental health setting has been even more challenging than usual recently, with a difficult constellation of inpatients and a change of venue to a more distracting room. Often only a handful of young people join me for the storytelling sessions, and only a couple are still there at the end. Meanwhile, these few have engaged intensely and enthusiastically, and produced some beautiful work in their own artforms based on story.
It was in this context that I had a 'research chat' (I would say 'trialogue' but it sounds too grandiose, or 'interview' but that would be pushing the point) with the two teachers in the setting, some of my firmest and most perceptive allies in all I am doing. We looked into the reasons that many young people don't come, or leave part-way through.
The most challenging for me to consider is the fact that I often have an 'expectation' of 'something in return' for a story. We recognised that almost all the young people love listening to a story - the rest and privacy it gives them, the absorption in a storyworld away from their difficulties. But they know I will lead from that into a follow-up activity - a storytelling game, or creative writing exercise - which will demand an element of performance. No matter how low-key this seems to me, for some young people it is too big a risk to turn up at all. Perhaps they will be judged or assessed or analysed. I have to remember the framing of their lives here - being permanently 'under the microscope' as some of them rage - and their lifetime of school experience in which almost every activity has a measurable learning outcome. Such apparent open-endedness can only be suspect, or disorienting.
Then there is the power of symbolism. These young people are strikingly intelligent and self-critical. While the archetypes of myth and folktale might be an other-worldly common language, of great value in the right 'transitional space', they are just too obviously near to autobiography for some of these young people whose lives and emotions are in turmoil. It is not possible to 'play' with things that are too hot to handle. The 'storyworld' might be a place of danger rather than escape. No matter how many times I assure them I am not a therapist and have no designs to analyse or heal them, the thickness of the atmosphere may contradict this for them.
There is, too, the 'discomfort' factor - the workshops involve sitting down quite a bit; the young people do not control the physical space as they would in other group activities designed to relax them away from their difficulties for a space and let their minds free-flow (like, say, cooking). Thus unlike other groups, there is not the same element of escape from one's demons. Although I often bring plasticine, yarn, beans to shell...it must be hard for them to overcome their desire to roam and escape the intensity of the moment, especially in the distracting space of the lounge. There might be great value to their learning to weather the discomfort for sake of getting to a shared space of fun and creativity, but who am I to say that this is an achievable journey?
Then there is the adolescent suspicion of story and play - these are older teenagers for whom play has lost its charm and not yet regained it. And finally, certainly not least, for some young people there is the sheer joyful empowerment of refusal. We all felt there is considerable value to us turning up every day (in their case), every week (in mine), cheerful and consistent and pleased to see them, ready to be rejected or to fail another day, and then be back again the next morning.
All of these things call into profound question my belief in the 'other room' of the story, that a meeting of minds is possible in that room separate from the conditions and anxieties prevailing in the world next door. That in that other room, people can take on different roles than they habitually do and meet as artists, be seen and appreciated for their strengths. Yet this is a play space which can only exist under certain conditions, very difficult to achieve in this setting.
So one solution would be: I should just tell stories. Clearly demarcated by music or simple handwork activities. Many more young people would come along and would get something from it - the stories would stay with them to return to over the years. This would be much more faithful to the core idea of the storytelling exchange: a story is told as a gift, the listener lends their ear as a gift, then the two go their separate ways, both enriched. A more 'advanced' goal of getting to dialogue, genuine creative encounter between artists, is perhaps usually inappropriate to this setting. Does an ill person want to be (benefit from being) in close dialogue with other ill people? Am I treading on very dangerous territory here?
And yet I am not ready to give up on the power of play and retelling. Because some individuals have stated in so many words their joy in playing together in the storyworld, knowingly perhaps but with great spark. Because too, some groups in the ever-shifting parade of this community have seized certain stories and turned them into powerful satires, or used them to address the outside world. What right have I to claim all the storytelling role for myself, if there are such desires? And related to this, because for a few young people story and related artforms are a way to start charting paths back out into life - to the theatre, to other identities they are experimenting with.
What this leads us to is an understanding that I need to do more to demarcate the storytelling space itself as a place where nothing will be demanded. A gift only (and which can only be given if they choose). I can use music, I can give undertakings and timings. Thus the storyworld and its potential for free-floating will be available to everyone. And (this is a bit Zen) by giving up any hope that we will get into the play space that lies beyond, I will therefore make it possible that just sometimes we will. Some people will drift off and those few who have the will and ability to pass the many barricades will stay. And we will fail and fail again, and see what happens!