classroom I am told of this child or that who has never before sat so still, listening; and
2.2 Core Methodology: reflective practice reshaping storytelling in the encounter with adolescents
2.2.1 My body of practice
Over two and a half years, I led (or co-led) over 350 hours of storytelling workshops with adolescent young people in a broad range of settings:
a secondary school (both in lessons and in informal extracurricular activities),
an adolescent residential psychiatric unit,
two youth theatres (including one for young people with learning difficulties),
an Indian dance group,
informal mentorships of talented young storytellers, and
holiday storytelling masterclasses.
In total I worked with approximately 400 young people, in some cases for only a few sessions, in other cases over a period of up to two years. Brief narratives of my work in each of these settings can be found in my online curated portfolio along with a filmed performance of a
meta-narrative of a typical workshop, including a folktale told by me.
If my fieldnotes and the creative outputs of this practice were to be viewed, as artistic work often has been, as playing ‘the role of data used for investigation within more traditional scientific methods’ (McNiff, cited in O’Connor and Anderson 2015:22), the research would appear to be highly profligate. That is, inevitably, only a small minority of these storytelling workshops are explicitly referred to in either my online portfolio or in this exegesis. However, in PaR the practice cycle does not simply generate data; it is also the principal means of analysis and the embodiment of its findings. Further, this process leaves its marks on the practitioner-researcher’s self, and the self thus becomes a research instrument, an ‘emphatic resonator with experiences that are familiar to him and which find in himself a resonant chord’ (Varela et al 1993, cited in Nelson 2013:67). Thus, in a blog post (18/06/2015) on this apparent profligacy, I note that
My skin has thickened, my instincts have been tuned, my range and repertoire has been stretched in every direction. I am incorporating this learning, these 'findings', into my own self, whether I choose to or not.
James Daichendt provides a metaphor that justifies such extensive and open-ended travel: I think this concept of a continuous understanding and development of knowledge is comparable to driving across the country. The more roads, towns, and states you explore, the better understanding you will have of the country and its residents [….] A new understanding is developed and a new knowledge of the country can be applied after these experiences, and the driver is apt to contribute to such a knowledge pool. (2012:14)
Indeed, I believe that the long-term nature and open-endedness of this practice was crucial in constituting it as research, as I now go on to explore.
220.127.116.11 Cultural democracy as a reference point for PaR in a participatory context
What has distinguished this as PaR, in contrast to my previous, hopefully always reflective and curious, professional practice as a storyteller? As the 2001-2006 Practice as Research in Performance (PARIP) initiative concluded, PaR challenges many received ideas in knowledge production, such as the dominance of text-based modes of knowledge; yet it must still
conform to basic criteria for research in comprising a research problem or question, a research context and a research methodology (Piccini 2004). In shaping these, I found a template in the early, long-term, open-ended residencies of the community arts movement (Braden 1978, Kelly 1984), which embodied a spirit of enquiry, even a research-like purpose. The role Braden saw for community artists was not to ‘bring their artform to the people’, but rather to act as enablers for cultural democracy by allowing their artform to be reshaped by the needs and resources of the context. This depended on their having sufficient time, commitment, relationships and fluidity in a particular community setting to allow them to respond to participants’ interests. Braden’s articulation of this distinction, and the conditions necessary for it, strike me as a helpful way of encapsulating the difference between reflective
professional practice and PaR in the participatory contexts within which I work. This quest to allow new forms to evolve could not have been pursued within short-term projects with predetermined educational or other objectives. The same is perhaps true of PaR in participatory settings. Nelson’s idea that ‘one notion of “rigour” in PaR is the worked- through-ness of ideas in process’ (2013:75) suggests the need for sufficient time and freedom for the praxis cycle to generate new ways of working. As my AHRC research bursary freed me from the constraints of project funding (e.g. particular desired outcomes or endpoints), and from the requirement to charge for my time, I was able to allow the practice to find its own form in each setting ̶ or indeed to discontinue it where it could not find a sustainable role for
itself. In the aforementioned blog post (18/06/2015) I noted that the work in each practice setting continued until it had ‘worked itself out’ in the view of all parties concerned, rather than up to a pre-planned moment at which a project had been completed. Importantly, in talking of the practice in the third person, as if it had its own volition, I acknowledge its ‘heteronomy’ (White 2015, Thompson 2011) – the fact that the nature of each setting and the wishes of participants and collaborators had as much role in creating it as I did myself. Here I follow Griffiths, who underscores that just as ‘we make ourselves in relation to others’ and influenced by ‘specificities of time and place’ (2010:168), PaR will be embedded in particular places, moments, and institutional power structures.
Proceeding from this focus on cultural democracy, my research question or problem became to find a genuinely participatory practice of storytelling with adolescents; my research context emerged as my own and others’ previous models of storytelling that might be challenged or developed; and my research methodology was that of open-ended, reflective praxis.
My experience is that, within such open-ended residencies, the highly intersubjective nature of the storytelling exchange (explored further in Chapters 3 and 4) provides a powerful
framework for a participative artistic research process. This is true even of the apparently singly voiced telling of a story, which can itself function as a process of participative enquiry, as I now go on to explore.