A time to ‘stand with’ — A time to ‘stand back’

Many researchers think it’s very important to ‘stand back’ — to keep our own values out of the picture, and not to share much of ourselves with participants, as (the thinking goes) these things interfere with a researcher’s capacity to see or ‘know’ a situation clearly. TSDC researchers have a different view: we think that acknowledging our commitments, and being involved (sharing things about ourselves, allowing ourselves to be affected) helps us better understand the stories the people we’re working with tell… plus it just feels more real and respectful!

— Chris Sinding, TSDC research team lead, School of Social Work.

TSDC facilitators have a clear role, and with that role comes responsibilities. But this doesn’t mean that facilitators are just our roles. We are real people, and we bring our own values and commitments to the project. We mentioned earlier that community workers regularly take part in some of the workshop’s weekly activities. TSDC theatre facilitators also take part in these activities. During informal conversations over meals and during check-ins, for example, the community workers and workshop facilitators often share personal stories and information based on their lived experiences. We don’t pretend that we don’t need food, we don’t have struggles, we don’t need comfort. We don’t only listen and observe (as researchers with other kinds of commitments and approaches do). Rather, we seek to cultivate and contribute to an environment of collective care and sociability.

Workshop facilitators (and community workers) also take part in story circles and warm-up games. These activities act as bridges between the space of informal gathering and the period of the workshop that’s focused on physical creative exploration. Participating in these activities allows workshop facilitators to performatively model the exercises. It also gives them an opportunity to ‘play’ alongside participants. It’s a way of saying, “Even though you’re going to be doing some things that might feel new, strange, maybe even scary, we’re with you, and we’re going to have fun along the way.”

There are also activities that workshop facilitators and the community worker do not take part in. Activities designed to generate the play’s story arc are respected as the domain of the performer-advocates. This ensures that the embodied images and stories that emerge through these explorations, and from which the play’s narrative arc is created, are those of the performer-advocates. As facilitators, we don’t enter these images as ‘performers’ except in situations where someone from the workshop team might need to stand-in for a participant who is unable to attend that session. But though workshop facilitators and the community worker don’t actively participate in story development activities, they also don’t retreat as indifferent observers. We always remain present as a warm, encouraging, and attentive audience and are active contributors during the group reflections that follow story development activities.

The challenge in facilitation is trying to recognize and affirm the common ground we have with participants while never minimizing or denying the differences between us (differences in our roles in the project, and also in social status). Although we structure some workshop activities in ways that disrupt social hierarchies, workshop facilitators nevertheless have power in the process (and typically much more power in the wider world). This is yet another reason it’s important that facilitators don’t work alone. By sharing their knowledge and expertise with workshop facilitators, community workers assist the creative team in addressing potential oversights or unrecognized power dynamics and providing guidance for the facilitators, and sufficient support for workshop participants. In return, members of the creative team often help community workers see familiar situations in new ways, which can allow for the development of new kinds of approaches in their community work.


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Transforming Stories, Driving Change Copyright © by Helene Vosters, Catherine Graham, Chris Sinding is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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