The morning of the first workshop I was feeling quite worried, not because I wasn't prepared, but because I had only two participants sign up out of a possible five. I believe there are several factors at play here: I am asking people to give up two hours a week for four weeks, plus two one-hour meetings and a six-hour digital storytelling workshop - people would need to be really keen on storytelling or Milton Keynes to agree to this. Secondly, I think the idea of being a participant can be off putting, so can 'part of PhD research' in the advertising - for some this might conjure an image of highbrow experiments or study perhaps making it sound a bit elitist without meaning to. This research is far from exclusive or highbrow as it was designed to be inclusive and accessible to all. Trying to bring storytelling to a wider audience has always been a challenge outside of school education (and sometimes even then), this is part of the reason why I wanted to do a storytelling PhD in the first place, to add to the body of work raising awareness of the real world benefits of using storytelling in social and cultural issues, and to engage more people who might not ordinarily come into contact with storytelling to experience it and reflect upon the benefits (or otherwise) of their experience.
But whatever the reason, the image or the time, this data gathering project is an up-hill climb!
With only one audience member for the first show, and with only two participants for the workshops I worried if I was ever going to get the data I needed to prove or disprove my theories. In many ways I felt a failure, like the last two years of research had ground to a halt.
Then I had a wonderful idea, a terribly wonderful, awful idea.
Milton Keynes is often seen as having a poor sense of place, the council even reports it, and this was my starting position for my research. Then I started interviewing and chatting to residents, and try as I might people all reported they had a good sense of place, but that they thought people in other areas had a poor sense of place, so I went to the other areas, and they all thought they had a good sense of place, but some other areas had a poor sense of place, and so on... So, then I started to muse that the biggest myth of all was that Milton Keynes has a poor sense of place. Then I started the engagement, the poor turn out seemed to back up the first hypothesis. People complain there is nothing to do, no culture, which isn't true, but then they don't turn out to things (and it’s not the advertising because social media, flyers, posters, word of mouth, and newspapers and magazines are always brimming with events). I have heard it said that only 40 people live in Milton Keynes, because depending on what circles you move in, when you do turn up to events, it is always the same 40 people you see. Fred Roche said that it is the people who are important and not the buildings. It is not that there is no culture in Milton Keynes because there are lots of people organising events and creating cultural work, it is perhaps there is too much and we have developed a blind spot and can't see what is under our noses.
Anyway, as it turns out having just two participants for the digital storytelling workshop on the 27th of October (the second workshop) worked out brilliantly because it meant I was able to give them more support during the technical difficulties that arose. The workshop over ran, but because I was holding the session in my studio, we didn't have venue pressures, so we were able to be flexible to allow the participants the extra time they wanted to finish a first version of their digital stories. Although it was a tiring seven hours in the end, it was also a very creative and productive session too. So, in the end what felt like failure turned into a triumph.
I have completed the first performance; it is great to get the first one done. I was unbelievably nervous. I managed to get to the venue early despite having to work in the morning (I teach three youth drama groups on a Saturday, and it must be said doing that helped to focus on their up-coming performances and reminded me what it is like to get a bit of stage fright). We set up the backdrop, organised the feedback area, lead out the welcome and further information/participation material, stashed the biscuits, milk, teas and coffees for the breakout session, and put up the media stories poster. This last part I created because when it came to including the media stories about the areas into the performance it proved difficult to translate this style of story into an oral format. I was also mindful that these stories may pertain to persons known in the area and with getting their first-hand account it would be easy to misrepresent the story. Therefore, I decided the inclusion of media stories whilst important to be recognised as a form of storytelling relating to Milton Keynes and its specific areas was probably best represented in poster form rather as an oral version.
When storytelling begins there is an acceptance of roles each party takes, whether teller or listener, and certain responsibilities that go with that, mostly obviously a teller will tell, and a listener will listen. There is also an acceptance that these roles can be played with once trust is built between teller and listener. When you have one person on their own you want to conduct the story in more of a conversational style rather than a set piece, this changes the dynamic of the teller and listener relationship, and in this context was difficult because where as a normal conversational story the pausing for listener's input can occur naturally, in this case it was set up in the space as a performance. It is also difficult because you end up making quite intense eye contact with your one audience member and it's difficult for that not to become intimidating on either side of the relationship.
Throughout the live performance I had to do a continual of process editing and creative adjustments, we started late waiting for or rather hoping for other audience members to arrive, but because I knew we only had a limited time in the space I knew I still had to finish at 3.45pm. Also one hour to tell to one person I felt was a bit long so I was assessing my audience throughout and when I felt that she was beginning to have enough I wrapped up the stories. In some ways all these challenges show how adaptable storytelling can be in the moment and sympathetic to the needs of the audience. On the other hand because it didn't run to plan, I can't help but feel slightly disappointed in my delivery and the lack of data generated from it.
I never got that moment where I was really completely in the story, I was always very firmly in the room making the necessary adjustments for the situation, so while I feel like delivery of the stories was competent, I don't feel I did my best telling. That said, I received good feedback from my audience member, who in discussion after the performance, it turned out was on the committee for the Big Local venue and told me they had had similar issues with turnouts to events they have been running. Both my audience member and the manager of the Big Local both said that they had seen the information on social media and the posters as well as the flyers all around the area, so they did not feel that it was a lack of promotion that caused the low turnout. Maybe the lack of an audience in itself provides some data on the people in Conniburrow, my audience member adding that in the years she's lived there (since the 1980s) she has noticed how the population in the area has seen a decline in the number of families who live there and arise in landlords renting out property to multiple occupants who show little interest in the community. Without having engaged members of this community, it is hard to assess this statement and its effect.
It was a hard first show but at least the first show is out the way and hopefully in the other venues I will have a higher turnout.
Today is the day of the first performance. I have gathered together my resources (biography, posters, video cameras, questionnaires, I have even got up this morning and made bread so I can have a sandwich) I have and tea and coffee for those who come along, I'm yet to get the biscuits!
I have my stories, I have the comfy cushions, and I have the backdrop.
And yet I still have butterflies in my stomach!
I must have told thousands of stories in hundreds of venues to thousands of people and yet this event has turned my knees to jelly. Perhaps that is because it is my PhD, or perhaps it is because even though I've lived in Milton Keynes since 2013 I worry that I may be seen as the outsider gathering these stories and imposing them upon the people to whom they really belong. I like to think that if people in the audience already know the stories there'll enjoy hearing them retold and if people in the audience don't know the stories that they can take them away and share them with other people for these stories belong to the people of Milton Keynes.
Most of all I worry if people will actually turn up; that I will have created flyers and posters, driven around distributing them and preparing and worrying in preparation for the event and then nobody turns up. If this is the case, I will tell to the camera and then at least I can put it on Youtube and it can go on the website so if people miss it they can catch up later. But I really hope that somebody does turn up because a story without a listener is only half the story.
Hello, and welcome to this blog.
In these posts will be a commentary and a reflection of the process of creating the practical project 'Knowing My Milton Keynes'.
Creating this project has been both daunting and exciting. As a professional storyteller, creating performances and workshops helping other people to create stories is something I have always loved doing and is taken up most of my professional career. However, creating a practical project for PhD research was at first a little out of my comfort zone, it seemed pigheaded to think that the practice I have been doing my entire professional career was worthy of PhD research, so this has been a journey of overcoming my inner critic as well as developing useful research data for my thesis.
On this journey I have discovered many things, that there are clear comparisons between the worlds of practice and theory, but that very often, as far as storytelling is concerned, the two do not always meet. This is where I see my role, with a background in storytelling practice and now moving towards storytelling research and theory I hope to be able to bridge the gap between. I also hope to prove that storytelling is far from mere entertainment to amuse children and it has a relevance in the real-world making differences across social and cultural issues, improving all of our lives, for we are storytelling creatures.
My research has led me to discover when storytelling started to be used by Homo sapiens, how this dramatically affected the way that they could socialise and create social structure, and how to this day it underpins many of our social and cultural institutions by which we govern our lives. I think possibly the part which has filled me with most joy was when I realised that looking at stories of Milton Keynes there was a blatant story staring me in the face which had both led and given foundation to my entire thesis. However, if you want to know more about that you have to wait to my research is published.
Before I conclude this first post, I would also like to thank people who have helped me thus far; My Supervisors Professor Michael Wilson and Dr Antonia Liguori (thank you for your support, patience, and belief in me), Dr Lyndsey Bakewell (you are just amazing) fellow storytelling PhD researcher Kristina Gavran (thank for walking this road with me), all the PhD researchers in the English and Drama PGR office (your advice on life, the research, and everything has been invaluable), Loughborough University (for giving me this opportunity), Kerry Pace of Diverse Learners (for your support, confidence, and helping me find ways to manage my dyslexic short comings and celebrate my dyslexic superpowers), Milton Keynes Council, Living Archive, Milton Keynes City Discovery Centre, and Buckinghamshire County Archives (for your advice, support, interest, and guidance to finding those needles in haystacks), the whole community of Stony Stratford who have inspired, supported, taken interest, and given tip bits of information to the research. And lastly to my parents, partner and pooch who have borne the brunt of stress, lack of time and sleep, and who have taken so well my being lost in action under piles of books for the past two years.
Sometimes known as storyteller Red Phoenix, Terrie has been a storyteller since 2004, and run her own storytelling and performing arts company since 2007. In 2016 she began a PhD in applied storytelling and heritage exploring how storytelling as heritage can impact on the sense of place experienced by residents in Milton Keynes in England.