Tuesday, 21 July 2015

Wormwood in the Garden

For the Love Arts Festival of Arts and Mental Health, some young people (from a mental health setting) and I devised a storytelling piece, based on Italo Calvino's folktale, Wormwood.  One young woman performed it with me and added her own poetry to amplify the emotions of these puzzling, cipher characters.  You can see a recording of it here and her blog post describing the process here

It was an inspiring and challenging process, provoking lots of questions for me about the nature of folktale and what it can do, which for now I simply present for your delectation / befuddlement.

Friday, 17 July 2015

The eloquence of non-engagement

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!

Tuesday, 14 July 2015

Starting to write my exegesis

The time has come for me to make an attempt to tie the threads of my learning over the past (nearly) two years into an exegesis - a short thesis which will explain the theoretical and practice-based grounding of my work.  

I have just re-read something I wrote in May - an attempt to pithily summarise 'the main point' of my research - my main, kernel finding.  Here it is for your edification!

I start from the position that young people benefit from genuine, ‘I-Thou’ dialogue with caring adults, that adults are enriched by such open-ended encounter with adolescents, but that this is difficult to achieve in institutional settings.  Thus different means of communication are needed from those used habitually in institutions and this is where I believe story enters.

The sparseness of story makes it inherently responsive to context, in that it requires ‘rehydration’ in each setting, transposition to the chronotope and particular context of each telling.  The storyteller must, however, be sparing and leave gaps for the listeners to stitch the story to their own experience.   
As the storyteller can only call on her own experiential vocabulary to perform this delicate task, and the listeners can only call on theirs to fill in the gaps, and these two processes are often simultaneous and reflexive, what results is a dialogue ‘in another room’ between their respective knowledges.  This ‘other room’ is a bounded place in which different discourses can be accommodated and then orchestrated, by both the storyteller and other participants; thus the boundaries of discourses and the existence of alternatives can be more clearly seen, and there can be negotiation to create new meanings and (imperfectly) shared understandings.  The story-world is also a place where all present can operate on a higher and roughly equal plane of understanding, because of the innate human tendency to think in narrative. 

The muscles being exercised are those of developing a responsible discourse of causalities, of recognising the ultimate unfathomability of the world while assuming the role of one who can help to shape it with others.

This ‘other room’, the story-world, is an inter-subjective place where no-one’s knowledge is sufficient and everyone’s is necessary, thus not even the storyteller can know her way around at the outset, nor can she have preordained goals for what should happen there.   While the institution’s goals may infiltrate, they are present usually only to the extent that one or more parties allow them in. 

Moreover, the story-world is a place no-one can be forced to enter, or to stay in once there, and the ultimate dampener of the storyteller’s hubris is the onus on her to ask the listeners for the gift of their listening.  Thus there will be many occasions when there is no meeting of ‘I’ and ‘Thou’, no real dialogue, sometimes because listeners are not disposed to listen.  On other occasions, failure will result because the storyteller puts her blinkers on and navigates the story-world using her own pre-planned route, or seeks to bind listeners into it against their will.