Monday, 31 July 2017

Reflections after the dust has settled

In April, I underwent my viva voce examination, and that same day my examiners Prof Mike Wilson and Prof Julian Stern awarded me a PhD for the research that is assembled within these pages. Three months on, there is a final chapter to write in this research project – a reflection on the examination process, and by extension on the whole PhD. 

The question arose during my viva of how original the practice I developed really was. In this respect, a significant omission from my practice review was highlighted, Zipes’ 2004 book ‘Speaking Out’.  On reading this subsequently, Zipes does in fact talk of something akin to a dialogic approach to storytelling in this volume.  He describes his approach as ‘genuine storytelling’ – perhaps a problematic term, but one I feel is justified by his transparent laying out of the values on which this rests.  As in his other writings, he is most concerned that storytellers should be honest, critical, committed visitors; artists who are at the service to communities, cutting byways past the highroads of corrupt commercial media, and helping young people to find, inform and hone their voices.  In short, reading this book should make any storyteller grateful that he has gone before, and blasted a lot of hokum out of the water. 

Zipes and I are, however, working in very different territory. Although he like me is one of Benjamin’s (1973) ‘sailor-storytellers’, working in an education system often hostile to narrative, criticality and the arts, he is an honoured guest in the way that I will never be.  He describes arriving at the door of a cluster of elementary schools every year with an amply funded, year-long programme designed by himself in advance, shaped by his own stated goal of ‘genuine storytelling’.  My experience of carving out spaces in which to work with teenagers, in contrast, is that it is a constant below-the-radar process of negotiation – with them, and with the institutions which define their days.  This work is ‘dialogic’ not by establishing overt dialogue, but by letting each session shape the next, and indeed each moment shape the next – by continually moving across shifting sands, feeling one’s way to which stories might be told and how.  And indeed, why.  It cannot really be for the storyteller working with adolescents to decide in advance what genuine storytelling should look like, or which of their needs it may meet.

It is certainly true that other storytellers work in a way I would recognise as dialogic – a fact which helped me to define a dialogic mode of practice in the PhD.  I hope that my discussion of it helps others to clarify their own approach to storytelling, but thorough investigation into the practice of others is undoubtedly lacking from the work.  Perhaps more significantly, there is a hole in my exegesis, the omission of a serious consideration of adolescents’ own storytelling practice, and how they intersect with the practice of a visiting storyteller. 

This absence seemed to relate to my difficulty in ensuring that young people involved in the Storyknowing symposium were fully included in the discussions being held.  This occurred despite my firm intention to make them equal and valued participants in dialogue.  On reflection, I think the problem was one defined by Alison Jeffers (2016) in relation to her collaborative research: the question of ‘who is holding the umbrella?’  Whenever we collaborate with participants or practitioners, there is always an ‘umbrella’ – a lens through which we are understanding a situation, a set of questions that define it and certain languages for talking about it.  In ‘Storyknowing’, it was not the young people who got to make any of these decisions, and the result was that they were  disadvantaged in discussion and somewhat sidelined.  Having learned from this experience, in my current, explicitly collaborative research project, ‘Things As They Are’, we are taking a very different approach.  Young people aged 14-25, defined not as participants but as potential co-leaders of the project, are very much holding the umbrella, involved in naming the research enquiry and approach from the very start.

Another area my PhD was not able to get to grips with was the challenge of communicating itself to an education audience.  Both the potential and the obstacles to storytelling in ‘City School’ were beyond the scope of the school, stretched to breaking point by external pressures, to appreciate or address – leaving me feeling unable to find the right language to communicate them to a wider educational public.  I also lacked in-depth knowledge of the role of narrative in different approaches to teaching and learning that have predominated at different times in UK schools.  Immediately after my PhD, I began to investigate this, and found a more complex picture than I imagined.  Narrative and storytelling have, it seems, been challenging not only to compliance-focused educational regimes such as the post-National Curriculum UK scene, but almost as much to the progressive tradition.  I have currently a paper in submission to an education journal which grapples with these issues. 

Issues like this bring home the inevitable reality that a storyteller can only work where they can find a space in which their artform fits and is welcomed (or at least tolerated).  Thus, reviewing the settings where my practice flourished, they were all somewhat similar: they were all within ‘protected settings’ – either small-scale groups for vulnerable young people, or enclaves within larger institutions.  I could not make a long-term success of a storytelling lunch club in a big comprehensive, nor in a youth club, nor in a school’s mainstream classes.  It becomes difficult to separate out the external constraints from my individual ‘comfort zone’.  Do I simply prefer to work in a cosy environment, where I can control at least some of the surroundings?  Or is it simply that mainstream youth settings allow no space for non-instrumental dialogue and artmaking?  

Looking back over my practice, in some cases I hold up my hands to the former charge.  It is a relief to be able to plan at least a little in advance, and put some kind of holding structure onto a session.  In others, however, I was ready to help young people invent their own informal practices of social storytelling, and they were ready to join in – but there was no interstice big enough for us to fit into.  The main challenge to the storyteller working with adolescents is this: How to recapture the fluidity of social storytelling and harness all its potential, without the social institutions that make it accessible? 

My examiners observed, very perceptively, that I seem to struggle with endings.  Every time I tell a story, whether to a big audience or a few reticent teenagers, I find it very difficult to tie it up with a flourish.  I feel the awkward moment of transition to ‘normal’ conversation far too keenly, and perhaps I also don’t want to tell them what to think by giving the story a particular spin.  And yet, it is absolutely part of my job to give them a satisfying conclusion.  Endings of a residency in a setting, and endings to a PhD exegesis, seem to suffer from a similar inconclusiveness.

This project, my PhD, is in itself only the first ‘volume’ in a longer ‘series’ – the further practice research I hope to undertake during the coming years into the potential of storytelling to meet the needs of the current moment.  In allowing me to move forward from Volume 1 without corrections, Mike and Julian seemed to acknowledge that what we write is never our last word; in fact is always the plateau from which we can start to see the next peak to climb.  I am grateful for their collegiate, respectful and thorough examination of what I offered.


Benjamin, Walter (1973(1955)) The Storyteller: Reflections on the Works of Nikolai Leskov. In Hannah Arendt (ed) Illuminations. London: Fontana.
Jeffers, Alison (2016) Voices and sources: who gets to hold the umbrella? University of Manchester.

Zipes, Jack (2004) Speaking Out: Storytelling and Creative Drama for Children. New York/London: Routledge.

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.