Feeling of warmth by Melanie Beer
Reflecting back on my experience of the conference, I am left with a feeling of warmth and togetherness, a sense of inspiration and creativity and images of wonderful spaces and fantastic food! The venues were wonderfully inspiring- it was exciting to be in artistic spaces where the aesthetics, atmosphere and potential space really came alive. There was a real buzz that ran through the whole event and shared ideas and creativity bounced between people who came from many different backgrounds, professions and countries. People were friendly, warm and genuinely interested in each other- there seemed to be a shared sense of understanding of how important and how powerful it is for people to tell their stories, to hear the stories of others and connect with the stories of our world; this is how we make meaning of our own lives... our own stories.
Having to choose what to attend proved a very challenging task...there was so much to choose from! On more than one occasion I felt torn with my choices and was left with a sense of missing out. I attended two series of presentations, focusing on mental health and working with children. I was taken aback by the amount of creative projects that are taking place throughout health care and with such diverse groups of people. It was exciting and I wanted to hear more but the short time frames only allowed for a whistle stop tour of these projects and approaches. Space was built in for questions from the audience and there were so many! There was interest and inspiration in the space but I also wonder whether this reflected an overall sense of needing more time to hear people and get into the ‘nitty gritty’ of the work.
The performances I attended focused on wide ranging health issues and each was very powerful. I enjoyed the intimacy of the small performance spaces and a small audience, a sense of getting ‘up close and personal’ with the performer’s stories of their experiences of ‘illness’, ‘disease’ and ‘conditions’. After Eirwen Malin’s then Jodie Allinson’s performances on the Friday, I found myself humbled and deeply moved; starkly contrasting performances, yet equally impactful.
I facilitated an experiential workshop on the Saturday afternoon, demonstrating how story is used as a clinical tool within our work as dramatherapists in the Arts Therapies Service for Adults with Learning Disabilities within ABMU Health Board. It was with curiosity and some anxiety that I awaited the workshop participants in the Volcano Theatre and when they arrived, what I found was a group of people ready to leap into the ‘potential space’ and play together! With limited time we quickly warmed up our bodies, voices and imaginations before a simple, yet powerful story was told, followed by a whole group enactment. From within the story landscape people shared their experiences before journeying back to the ‘here and now’, just in time for some reflection on the experience and to hear a clinical case vignette. I was struck by the open sharing amongst participants that unfolded within the space and was left with a sense of deep gratitude and respect and a desire for more time to share and to hear people! But we had to quickly move onto the following performance. The performance was also powerful, yet a very contrasting experience. I found it took me some time to adjust to the new space and to focus on the performance and I wondered if this was quite a challenging transition for the workshop participants too.
As I sat in the sunshine at the end of the conference, drinking a cold beer and chatting to new friends, I was hugely shocked and delighted to hear my name announced as an award winner for the best presentation/ workshop, it seems that participants from the workshop had found the experience powerful and were moved enough to share this with the rest of the conference. As a representative of the Arts Therapies Team, working with adult’s with Learning Disabilities in the community I am hugely proud of this award. It feels like recognition of the importance of the work that we do within the health board with a group of marginalised people who are rarely recognised or valued. ...I went home with a warm glow inside and out.
A view from Australia by Pam Blamey
I am an art therapist living in Brisbane, Australia. A mutual storyteller friend here put me in touch with Eirwen Malin, who in turn put me in touch with Prue. Imagine my excitement when Prue suggested that I submit an abstract for the Storytelling for Health Conference. I had recently joined an informal group of three arts professionals who support each other by sharing articles, conferences and links, so I shared the conference link with the group. One of them, Leanne Dodd, a creative writing PhD candidate, took up the baton and ran with it, also submitting an abstract. Both our submissions were accepted and we decided, at Prue’s suggestion, to combine our workshops into one.
As a storyteller of only a year’s standing, and the first conference workshop I had presented, the opportunity afforded us was pretty special and amazing. The warm welcome we were given is greatly appreciated, and Leanne and I have so much to learn from the experience and from the constructive feedback we received.
Eleanor was a great chairperson and so helpful, putting us at ease about the different venues, which really were easier to navigate than we thought they would be! Swansea is a fascinating city and I’m glad to have had time after the conference to explore it some more.
I am in awe of the innovative work people are doing in mental health with storytelling and the possibilities of working in different ways with diverse populations. It was a joy to listen to Daniel Morden, and to meet some wonderful people and hear their stories. I am inspired to keep trying to bring therapeutic storytelling to the attention of mental health and wellbeing workers in Queensland. I look forward to keeping in touch with new friends and wish I could come back some day. Diolch yn fawr iawn!
What is the relationship between art and health?
Who owns a story?
How do we best craft a story to be heard?
Can any story be true?
Last month, I ventured to Swansea, Wales to attend the Storytelling for Health conference, which featured academic panels and performances. I found myself drawn to the latter, having found myself already at quite a few academic health science & art/humanities conferences lately.
A woman with Parkinson’s interweaved her story with the legend of an old king.
A cast of four brought us the heartbreaking tale of a woman who lost six pregnancies.
A woman whose mother nursed her through a stroke talked about language and where it went when her mother was afflicted by stroke as well.
A storyteller gave us three narratives about cancer.
A multimedia performance: All About My Tits.
The keynote performance was by The Devil’s Violin–an amazing storyteller, Daniel Morden, with a violinist and cellist. The work, Stolen, was fable, fairy tale, and allegory, one created when Morden was undergoing cancer treatment. It was, quite simply, one of the best things I’ve ever seen.
I was apprehensive the next morning, when Morden was in the audience for my performance, Chronic Pain: A Comedy. I was the first performance of the morning, and I’m very glad that they moved me to before the cancer trilogy. Even though the room was small, I asked for a mic to better signal the comic nature of what I was doing–trying to make people laugh with me at my pain.
And it went well. They gasped when they were supposed to, laughed when they were supposed to. But I really knew it had gone over well when the staff at the theatre came up to me afterwards to talk about it. Mostly, people had questions. Why do Republicans in the US fight for something that will mean some people won’t have access to care? Why would anyone support a system in which someone could pay over a thousand dollars for an ER visit, even with insurance? Why would anyone support a system that can bankrupt someone who gets sick or disabled or gets into an accident? Had I really ripped my urethra? (The longer version–a first draft in Davis–can be seen here.)
This was one of the best conferences I’ve ever been to–and not only because it allowed me to discuss issues in a non-academic format, but because it encouraged real conversation and provoked real questions. The woman who talked about her breasts showed them to us at the very end of the performance, but then discovered in the Q&A that we hadn’t reacted to them in the way she assumed. She thought we would compare them to the young breasts we’d seen earlier and find hers wanting. We thought they were beautiful.
When Morden did a Q&A toward the end of the conference, he talked about how hard it was to talk about himself. Indeed, he was “just” the narrator of Stolen, not a “character,” and one wouldn’t know the real-life issue that inspired it. He said he couldn’t work well in first person.
I wonder why I can, why I write creative nonfiction instead of fiction.
It can’t just be because I’m American.
Swansea was also beautiful, from its castle to its waterfront.
I’m very much hoping to return next year
As an interdisciplinary artist my practice and research interests have been more concerned with ‘narrative’ than ‘storytelling’, so at the start of this extraordinary conference I felt a little out of my comfort zone. But it soon became apparent that storytelling takes many forms and has multiple methods, philosophies, and voices, literal and metaphorical. The sheer range of presenters, over 200 from all corners of the world, congregating in Swansea to share their research and build networks, was inspiring. I presented in the Stories for Mental Health stream along with Jess Wilson, whose experience of using storytelling in prisons and hospitals clearly touched many of the attendees and proved to be a real catalyst for debate.
I also found the Patient Stories session interesting as it relates to a personal research interest of mine, the lost voices of patients post mortem, as explored in ‘Narrative Remains’, one of the projects I discussed. My present research, ‘Virtual Embodiments’, with collaborator Prof. Ann John from Swansea Medical School, focuses on using ‘affective objects’ and virtual reality to help young people with depression and related mental health issues. This presentation generated intriguing debate around generational language differences for narratives and how physical and virtual objects can be used as abstract forms of language for mental health. I found strong synergies with many of my fellow presenters and audience members and hopefully new discussions and potential collaborations will grow from this.
This was a mammoth undertaking for the ABMU Arts in Health team, especially for Prue Thimbleby and Emily Underwood-Lee, who ensured that every aspect of the event went smoothly, including providing amazing catering and world class performative elements, such as ‘Stolen’ performed by Daniel Morden and the Devil’s Violin, a highlight of the conference. The team should be congratulated and following the success of this first conference it would be a positive outcome if this could set the tone for this to perhaps become a bi-annual event.
Blog from Janet Dowling
Back in 1980, I trained as a psychiatric social worker. I met Tom Rappaport, a psychologist who used storytelling in his work. He taught me how to do it, and I used it in my therapeutic practice. It was to be another 15 years before I met anyone else using storytelling in the same way. At the Storytelling in Health conference it was very moving to see how far the skill set had developed, and how many ways people were using storytelling- traditional, personal, made up - in their therapeutic work. From the “Relive “ group who worked with older people to tell the stories of their lives, to the young woman who experienced suicide in her family and storied her way through it. From Daniel Morden using traditional stories as a metaphor for his journey with cancer, to Jess Wilson accidentally discovering that a childhood tale could bring tranquillity to a psychiatric patient as an alternative to heavy medication. It was a joy and a pleasure to see the range and richness of experience out there, and how much more is in development.
There was so much to see and hear. So much to do. Three parallel sessions, including live performances of stories in health. I wanted to go to everything- and yet had to make selections. In the end, I made decisions based on convenience of getting to venues- tendonitis in my calf limited my mobility. The event was cast over several venues, and fortunately, most of them were close to each other. The morning opening events and closing events were in the delightful Waterfront Museum, but sadly some distance away from the rest. A shuttle service for the less mobile would have been helpful. The venue I mainly visited sometimes had speakers silhouetted against a sun filled window - for future conferences it would be helpful for organisers to check some stories of access issues! All in all, there was lots of opportunity for linking, networking and generally being inspired! Many thanks to the organisers and looking forward to the next one!
Blog by Eleanor Allitt
First of all I would like to say thankyou for organising a box full of treasures. There were outstanding performances from many people, and given with the ever-powerful element of sharing and giving. When one’s passion turns to service there is gold indeed and this shone through their presentations.
Also it was so good to meet like-minded people and exchange enthusiasms. The time and space for personal contact and meeting the face is so much more effective than impersonal emails.
As the conference continued I began to clarify my personal way forward. This I feel was one of the benefits of being there. I found myself thinking hard about exactly what I had to offer in this field. From my background in textile design it was a short step to start illustrating. After attending the Bleddfa Summer School of Storytelling I started telling stories in the hospital in Coventry. This went on for 4 years and has gradually given way to further illustrations. I made a series of 11 pictures featuring the story of Hermes and Apollo, and the healing power of music. The pictures were linked by a series of smaller frames with a short text. These were exhibited outside the outpatients department. There was much interest, and so, encouraged by this I plan to continue. The conference has confirmed for me that I can contribute something worthwhile. That is, to provide a series of pictures linked by text which tell an interesting and uplifting story. The aim is to provide an environment which will refresh and renew.
As you may remember the dragonfly story will soon be installed outside the Faith Centre at University College Hospital of Coventry and Warwick.
So, all in all the conference has given me the confidence to continue in this area of work, and contribute something to patient wellbeing. That is, helping to make hospitals and care homes into more relaxing, interesting and less intimidating spaces.
Particular insights that resonated with me :
How hard can it be to start writing when I want to say something about voice? Here I am with an opportunity to say what I want, knowing my words will be read, weighed, considered and respected, and yet I find myself hesitating, wanting to say something of worth, wanting to engage but unsure. Voice is a complex mix of physical means, something to say, confidence to speak out and someone to hear what is said.
Most of the sessions I attended dealt with this mix:-
Jodie Allinson’s beautiful piece about finding her words after a stroke and honestly honouring her mother, whose words “fell further away” to re-find a genuine voice after stroke.
David Alderson’s True Cut brought in the element of where power lies in communications and how much courage it takes to speak out to power and how hard it is for power to hear.
Daniel Morden’s allegory of losing voice and finding it again.
Jac Saorsa talking of facilitating voices that weren’t heard
Carl Gough and Tony Evans actively demonstrating different physical manifestations of voicing the same story.
Personally in the performing of Sorting the Sock Drawer I was given the means to use the new voice I have found, to share what I have learned with others in full confidence that they were people who wanted to listen. I know they listened because most came to me individually to make a comment. It spurs me to take the performance to many more audiences and I will be working to do that.
Two days full of stories, many a tear shed, lots of laughter and fun and the sort of warmth and communication that makes me think of all the delegates as friends. It was certainly something to build on and I’ll help if I can.
Thanks to all.
Blog by Dino Rovaretti
From an early age I told stories to whoever would listen – I would convene an audience of plush animals and plastic figurines predictive of the path I would take as a performance-maker. It was important for me to tell stories and to reframe my experience, particularly of ill health and paediatric medicine, through re-enactment and fictionalised (re)membering. However, the space for my object-companions to listen was as equally important as one in which they too were in some way altered.
The ABMU & USW Storytelling for Health conference was a carefully curated and sensitively managed experience in a range of creative and inspiring places in Swansea. The focus of the conference was to bring together artists, academics and healthcare practitioners to share experiences, practices and knowledges around storytelling in health contexts. The impressive local and international attendance is a testament to the importance of the conversation that ABMU & USW facilitated and to the strength and breadth of storytelling as an effective instrument.
Policy makers heard first-hand accounts of the benefits of using storytelling in its broadest forms as part of a healthcare service. Emerging artists shared works with established practitioners and audiences spoke of the spirit of generosity throughout.
For me, the stories of change shared by healthcare practitioners and artists provided a particular kind of evidence that I felt confirmed the worth of the work I strive to make. As an artist it is not often that you see the effects of your work and the arts can appear ornamental. Yet performances from The Devils Violin, Eirwen Malin and Joseph Sobol, moved me in a way that I became altered, as a listener riding the voice, feeling my way through the dark experience of another. I will remember this conference as an experience of recognising the importance of story, of arts in health and of listening and take this commitment to the form with me as I create more solo performance and interactive works with paediatric patients.
Dino Rovaretti presented solo-show ‘This Could Be Us’ at the Storytelling for Health Conference 2017. For information see www.facebook.com/MissingBear
Keeping Quiet by Cindy Hayward
The trouble with a good conference is that you can’t be at every session, and Storytelling for Health was a good conference. I wish I could have borrowed Hermione Granger’s Time-Turner for a couple of days!
As we mark the 20year anniversary of Harry Potter in print, it’s easy to see the power of a good story told by a good storyteller who in this instance was able to awaken and engage the interest of a generation by telling the story of a boy wizard and his adventures in a way that made us want to listen and hear more.
I see myself as a storylistener rather than a storyteller, so the idea of presenting (along with my colleagues from the 4Rs project from Swansea University Medical School) was exciting with a tinge of ‘will they be interested in the power and potential of learning to listen, rather than telling?’ I think they were; everyone gave everyone the respect of listening which was a noticeable conference theme.
The power of good listening never ceases to amaze me, and there was plenty of material at the conference that was worthy of our attention. We sampled a variety of experience and ideas presented and discussed throughout the two days in various locations. Wandering through Swansea may have challenged some, but if met with curiosity, challenge can take us boldly into whole new worlds.
So much of what I listened to felt good. Many of the projects we heard about were relatively new and show great promise, and for me the keynote by Dan Yashinsky whose ability to tell stories, entertain, encourage, engage and educate was a reminder of how far we could all go with our work. The buzz of chatter over coffee and walking to our next session after this was supercharged, and I think he gave the majority of people an infusion of the benefit of storytelling on health that we all strive to give to others.
My experience and work comes from learning to listen to our own story first by using reflection and reflective practice. The 4Rs is one aspect of that, and relates to how medical students learn reflective practice through writing. I also work with patients, so am privileged to be able to see ‘health relationships’ from different perspectives.
There is a poem by Pablo Neruda called ‘Keeping Quiet’, I encourage you to have a look (and maybe a listen). He considers what might happen if,
‘we count to twelve and we will all keep still’.
We are often told that a major cause of loneliness, depression and poor mental health is not being listened to. Neruda says,
‘If we were not so single-minded
about keeping our lives moving,
and for once could do nothing,
perhaps a huge silence
might interrupt this sadness
of never understanding ourselves
and of threatening ourselves with death.’
Herein may lie the power of storytelling for health, and the conference certainly provided the environment for change and new collaborations between medicine and the arts, which could be worth listening to.
Patient Stories by Catherine Lamont
I chose to follow the patients’ stories strand as this relates most closely to the participant-led arts in health research which brought me to this Swansea conference. The diversity of voices and contexts were both complementary and enriching - expanding my perspectives around the significance of patients creating and co-constructing story within situations ranging from tense encounters in secure units to crafting narratives in GP consultations around the taking of medication. The cathartic impact of being witnessed authentically by both clinical and arts in health practitioners was highlighted in many presentations and for me, powerfully reinforced how patients’ wishes to contribute their stories to inform current practices within healthcare is a privileged duty we must honour despite ethical challenges in exchange for receiving these unique, un-homogenized and hard-won insights.
The range and excellence of creative practitioners seamlessly interwoven across the conference programme, exhibitions and events brought further facets of storytelling to light. The exquisite and poignant performance ‘Stolen’ by the Devil’s Violin fused spoken word, sublime music and gesture in a metaphorical alchemy I continue to unwrap. An equally impactful performance was ‘Chronic Pain; A Comedy’ by Karma Waltonen whose, by contrast, no-holds-barred, intensely embodied exposition of lived experience negotiating a multitude of chronic and acute conditions highlighted the harsh personal and socio-political realities of pharmaceutical dependence.
I relished the joy of spontaneous exchanges with delegates who also sought from this conference an opportunity to develop their world-view and individual practices. I am grateful to have left this exceptionally holistic event with carefully-honed treasures to share as a facilitator/researcher across arts and health communities and reference in medical education teaching programmes.
I have also gained an enhanced appreciation of the non-verbal aspects of story-telling which I intend to take further in my research and creative practices.
20 Blogs describing the First Storytelling for Health Conference held in Swansea UK in June 2017