classroom I am told of this child or that who has never before sat so still, listening; and
1.4.3 The ‘dynamic’ chronotope: applied storytelling and ‘telling your own story’
The growth of applied storytelling projects can be understood as the fruit of cross-fertilisation between the worlds of applied theatre (which, as Helen Nicholson (2005) discusses, has roots in Marxist and anarchist thinking as well as the socially ameliorative role of the welfare state) and of community, therapeutic, and schools-based work by storytellers following the
countercultural storytelling revival. The two strands of practice have different theoretical reference points, and intersect somewhat haphazardly. This sometimes makes their mutual influence difficult to chart, as the following discussion will indicate.
The most influential, erudite and articulate critic of magical approaches to storytelling has been Jack Zipes. Although he rarely refers by name to the Marxist-inspired work of Augusto Boal, Paulo Freire and Bertolt Brecht which is so foundational to applied theatre (explored in detail by Deborah Mutnick, 2006), his contribution is arguably to extend their critical pedagogy to storytelling, and in so doing to articulate what I call the dynamic chronotope. Like the magical chronotope, this starts from a critique of late-capitalist societal structures, but the relationship between story and contemporary circumstances is direct and critical,
encapsulated by the notion of praxis, a move ‘from reflective enquiry to social transformation’ (Mutnick 2006:37). Within the dynamic chronotope, engagement with a story should not bypass or escape advanced capitalism as in the magical chronotope, but rather facilitate listeners to grapple with and reshape it. While granting the power and magic of the liminal state, Zipes does not wish to linger there. He vehemently rejects a passive role for listeners or any ‘cult-like status’ or ‘mystical overtones’ for storytelling, whose function for him is rather
to provoke thought and curiosity […] Storytelling that is not engaged in the everyday struggles of the teachers and children is just another form of commercial amusement. (1995:6)
Zipes wishes storytellers to use the texts of the past as a framework to critique and prepare to change the present. His storytelling practice, emanating from this position, places heavy emphasis on understanding the structure and grammar of story, active story-making and often subversion of cultural myths by young people. In Bakhtinian terms, he wishes to entitle young people to ‘knock down’ the epic (Bakhtin 1981). In Brechtian terms, he wishes to hand over the means of mythic representation to them. Zipes’ influence has rendered community-based storytelling more critically reflective, ambitious, and socially relevant; for example Wilson cites him as the inspiration for the Developing Schools Project Storytelling Residency in six Northern Irish secondary schools, whose aim was that ‘the storytelling would not end as soon as the residency finished’ (2006:102).
The dynamic chronotope, whether transmitted through the Boalian or the Zipesean route, has had a further consequence for much of the work within applied theatre that might be called applied storytelling. Although Zipes’ work builds on his complex analysis of the utopian and subversive potential of folk and mythic material (1994, 1995, 2012), this focus on equipping
young people to be storytellers has intersected with the cultural democratic ethic in applied
theatre, to generate a focus on telling young people’s own stories. Thus, as with the magical chronotope, declared aspiration and prescribed repertoire are often intertwined.
That is, in applied theatre, the linkage of the term ‘storytelling’ with ‘young people’ almost invariably points to efforts to facilitate the retelling of young people’s own personal
experience in some form. The forms of applied theatre most often linked to oral storytelling, such as forum theatre and other Theatre of the Oppressed (TO) approaches (Boal 2000), playback theatre (Fox and Dauber 1999), and verbatim theatre (for example Anderson 2007) are all explicitly focused on this goal. Of these, forum and verbatim have been very widely used with adolescents. Personal digital storytelling too, often in tandem with applied theatre processes, has been seen by many practitioners as particularly suited to this age group; Megan Alrutz sees its potential to ‘invite youth to critically reflect on and (re)imagine metanarratives about their lives’ (2013:51), while Prue Wales finds it to allow for ‘resistance and authentic self-expression’ (2012:548). Accounts of devising processes in applied theatre projects have also emphasised that their starting points were personal storytelling by young people. Christine Hatton, for example, says of her devising with teenage girls that
In seeking out the personal narratives for exploration in drama, we invite the narrative meaning-making of each individual into the learning process of the group. (2003:151) Perhaps unsurprisingly, then, the majority of papers submitted to Storyknowing dealt with varying approaches (verbatim theatre, devising, digital storytelling) to the retelling of
teenagers’ experiences of suffering or marginalisation (Allum 2016, Davies 2016, Inchley and Baker 2016, King 2016, Shoba 2016, Village Storytelling Centre 2016, Walcon 2016). These projects aimed, variously, to use story to give the young people some distance from these experiences, help them envisage alternative stories of possible futures, build supportive communities to resist or cope with difficulties, or empower them to change current realities. All began with the starting point of the personal story.
Although these papers demonstrated clearly how valuable these projects can be to young participants, the emphasis on personal experience in work with this age group needs some unpicking. It may partly owe to the affinity already identified in this chapter between teenagers, anecdote and personal myth-making. It undoubtedly also arises from TO
approaches aiming to foreground young people’s own knowledge and perspectives rather than stories brought by facilitators, and thus ‘to position even the least powerful individual in the proactive, subject position’ (Cohen-Cruz and Schutzman 2006:103). It is rooted too in Boal’s concept of ‘ascesis’, glossed by Seyla Benhabib as the understanding that
All struggles against oppression in the modern world begin by defining what had previously been considered private, non-public, and non-political as matters of public concern, issues of justice, and sites of power. (Cited in Cohen-Cruz and Schutzman 2006:102)
Yet the emphasis on personal storytelling also confirms James Thompson’s characterisation of a dominant ‘discursive system’ within applied theatre, the ‘imperative’ to ‘tell one’s story’, particularly one’s story of trauma (2011:43). While not denigrating such work, Thompson suggests that it rests on a) an uncritical parallel with psychological understandings of post- traumatic stress disorder, and b) an unsafe assumption that telling one’s story will lead to empowerment and solutions to social problems. This way of working may also deny young people’s right to choose not to tell their story, rather to retain their own complex, private relationship with their own experience – what Thompson calls a ‘difficult return’ – and good reasons they may have for doing so. For example, Jenny Hughes and Simon Ruding found that for a young woman involved in a project based on individuals’ stories of offending behaviour, ‘a focus on the offence was damaging efforts to support the development of a positive sense of self and capacity to control events in her life’ (2009:220).
Meanwhile an overlapping category of applied storytelling projects using personal storytelling shift the focus away from the political realm, towards individualised behaviour change goals: to reduce adolescent pregnancy rates (Cox 2003); to combat persistent offending behaviour (Village Storytelling Centre 2016); to improve ability to cope with stress (Goodman and
Newman 2014). This is consistent with developments within applied theatre, as Tim Prentki and Sheila Preston observe: ‘It is commonplace in the UK today for applied theatre projects to be undertaken directly or indirectly at the behest of the Government’s social inclusion policies’ (2009:14).
Such projects, in the hands of skilled practitioners, may in fact be far less narrow than they sound, and provide empowering and rewarding experiences for young participants. However, they evidence a complex and often misty grafting-together of therapeutic, socially critical, and sometimes overly mechanistic understandings of storytelling. By seeking to be about a particular issue, they may also impose a restricted, propositional agenda on a creative
narrative encounter that has the potential to be much more. Nick Rowe, director of Converge,
an arts and education programme for users of the mental health system, points out that ‘Just because a group of young women have anorexia, does not mean they will want to tell stories about anorexia’ (pers. comm. 2014). I suggest that, just like an overweening belief in the healing power of certain archetypal stories in some therapeutic circles, the assumption that ‘telling young people’s own stories’ is the main purpose of storytelling with this age group still often goes unchallenged within applied theatre.
The magical and dynamic forms of engagement are possible responses to any storytelling situation; I suggest that it is in preferentially setting out to engender one or the other that the storyteller declares their (perhaps unconscious) affiliation to a magical or dynamic chronotope. Resisting this choice is perhaps the most notable characteristic of the final chronotope in my trajectory.