A Culture of Possibility Podcast #7: About Story: Ups and Downs of Story-Based Work

NOTE: This post is to introduce you to the seventh episode of François Matarasso’s and my monthly podcast, “A Culture of Possibility.” It will be available on 16 July 2021. You can find it and all episodes at iTunes along with miaaw.net’s other podcasts by Owen Kelly, Sophie Hope, and many guests, focusing on cultural democracy and related topics. You can also listen on Soundcloud and find links to accompany the podcasts. We hope you enjoy the episode and invite you to tune into our next episode in which François and I interview UK-based Bermudian artist Bill Ming. It drops on 20 August.

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Merely bringing someone’s story into the public arena is not enough either artistically or enough politically. A story isn’t art on its own, it has to become art, there’s craft and work and context that can turn a story into art. But also bringing stories into the public arena isn’t enough to bring about political change or any change, it’s just there…. Understanding of the purpose and the values is needed to make this work actually be meaningful. (François Matarasso)

On episode 7, François and I talked with each other about a topic we both find particularly interesting: the uses and growing prominence of first-person story in community arts work, its strengths and challenges. We started by offering examples of story-based work we’d done ourselves and felt good about.

I described a project very dear to me, the People’s State of the Union (PSOTU) that began in 2015 as part of the US Department of Arts and Culture (USDAC), where I served until 2019 as Chief Policy Wonk. We knew we wanted to do something parallel to the annual presidential State of the Union Address delivered each January, but the original idea, a pop-up performance, didn’t quite hit the spot. I was inspired by the Story Circles the late and much beloved John O’Neal had devised during his time at the Free Southern Theater in the heyday of the Sixties southern civil right movement, as well as the way I’d seen the practice evolve at Roadside Theater in Appalachia, with a focus on sharing stories as a key developmental step in devised theater. I was thrilled to introduce my USDAC colleagues to Story Circles, which ended up being just right for us to adapt as a way to engage many people across the United States in contributing their first-person stories to a collective state of the union. Not a monologue, we said, but a conversation.

You can read about the current People’s State of the Union (PSOTU) in detail at the USDAC site. Scroll down for more information about earlier iterations. You can download a Story Circle how-to from the miaaw.net listing for this podcast episode. For now, a brief description:

A Story Circle is a small group of individuals sitting in a circle, sharing stories focusing on a common theme. As each person in turn shares a story, a richer and more complex story emerges. Each Circle has a facilitator who calls on people and keeps time. Everyone is invited to offer a story of equal length in response to one or more prompts. For the PSOTU, an example of a prompt might be “Share a story about a time you felt a sense of belonging — or the opposite — in your community or in this country.” Stories are first-person accounts with a beginning, middle, and end — not just opinions. Each teller gets equal time and attention; there is no commentary or cross-talk to pull attention from the teller. Listening is just as important as telling. Guidelines make the practice equalizing: no one gets more space or influence over the process than anyone else. And when everyone who wants to has told a story, the group reflects on what emerged.

For the People’s State of the Union and other large-scale story-gathering events, with permission, stories are uploaded to a web site or otherwise shared so everyone can explore them. In the early years of the PSOTU, a curated group of poets read the stories and used them to create the “Poetic Address to the Nation,” which was published and live-streamed in concert. Stories also helped to shape policy proposals emerging from the USDAC.

Sharing his experience, François noted that “in the first 20 years of my working in community art, we didn’t talk about stories very much in the context of this work.… The one time I was involved in a project where story was important was around the end of the 1980s and beginning of the 1990s when in the UK there was a policy called “care in the community” to close the big old psychiatric institutions. A lot of people’s lives were being changed in a very fundamental way. We did a project with a writer-in-residence and a photographer-in-residence and that in itself was important because the hospital in question had asked us to do an oral history of the hospital as it was closing. I said yeah, that was good, but I also thought it was really important that we talk about the future, and the project ended up being called ‘Looking Back, Looking Forward.’ It produced two books. Some of those were memories and stories, but a lot of it was fictionalized or poetry, and the photography also allowed people to reflect on these people for whom words were not a natural environment.”

In the podcast, we discuss a distinction between that work and some contemporary story-based work. François put his finger on it: “The project I was involved in 30 years ago had a very directly and consciously political aim which was to enable people whose lives were changing because of the policy decision taken in government to express themselves in whatever way they wanted about what that might mean. Now there’s a spectrum of work. There are a lot of people doing very honorable work. But I hear the phrase a lot “unheard voices,” and that in itself makes me question. Who says these voices are unheard? Unheard by whom? Certainly not unheard by the people whose voices they are. So there’s a spectrum from people with very honorable intentions and who are good at that listening you were talking about. But at the other end of the spectrum I see artists who — there isn’t a nice way to put this — I think just see these stories as material, a more interesting material than the material they have to hand, and that worries me a lot.

Key questions for us are who has ownership, who has autonomy, who gets credit? I agreed with François: “You see a lot of art that was done for high-minded reasons but where the creators of the actual stories, artifacts, movements, whatever that are incorporated into the work didn’t get due credit for it, didn’t have due autonomy. You and I have done a ton of work around ethics of this practice. That’s unethical. But I don’t know that there’s anything we can do that would stop the unethical people from borrowing a technique but not the values that legitimate that technique.”

Please tune in to hear us talk about the roots of this work in liberation and civil rights movements of the 20th century, how sitting in a circle with people who had similar experiences and sharing stories carried a big message, that oppression is not a personal problem but a public issue and sharing our stories gives us a way to see that and opens a path to act on it. We’ll connect you to Storycenter to see the way digital storytelling has made an impact; to story-sharing as an adjunct to controversial media such as the 1999 dialogues around “American Love Stories” on PBS; to François’ Regular Marvels book series and the ethical guidelines that helped to shape it; and to Art Became The Oxygen, a free downloadable guide Arlene wrote for artists working in disaster and crisis situations, including the ethics of using people’s stories.

We hope you enjoy the podcast!

Alice Russell, “Mirror Mirror on The Wolf (Tell The Story Right)