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.
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.