“Before the workshop began, the women shared stories. One woman had just lost her brother the week before but had also celebrated her aunt’s 100th Birthday: she passed the photos on her phone around and described the letters that her aunt had received from various dignitaries with obvious happiness. The women’s love for one another could be seen and sensed. As one woman came in at the beginning of the workshop, another teased her: ‘Are you going on a date after this? You look so good.’ And turning to her neighbor, the woman who had called out continued ‘she always looks so good, with her makeup and her hair, and she doesn’t believe it! You should tell her!’ Everyone seemed relaxed and that established an atmosphere of trust with us — though I have no doubt the ease with which Catherine and Jennie interacted with the women really made that possible so that was great that rapport was pre-existent.”
— Elysée Nouvet, TSDC research team, School of Health Studies.
Meet, Greet, Eat
We always begin our workshops with the same social ritual: We sit and talk over food. Because of their casual feel, these opening gatherings can be viewed as not really being part of the workshops, or worse, as potentially taking time away from the workshops’ more formal creative activities. In fact, the above quote about the gathering phase of the first workshop in TSDC’s pilot project begins with the words, ‘Before the workshop began…’ Reading on, however, it’s clear that the point of Elysée’s reflection is the value of this way of coming together.
Here are some of the reasons we consider beginning workshops by gathering in a hospitable and informal way to be a crucial element of the workshop process:
- In the first phase of the workshop process, it’s an opportunity for everyone to get to know one another through a familiar social activity.
- In situations where workshop participants already know one another, it’s a chance for them to ‘welcome’ the facilitator(s) and community worker into their pre-existing community.
- In situations where workshop participants are meeting for the first time, it’s a chance for the facilitator and community worker to set a tone and atmosphere for the workshops.
- Beginning with a familiar and hospitable activity helps to relax the group before entering into physical creative activities, which are likely to be less familiar to participants.
- As the workshop series proceeds, the trust and comfort of these gatherings make them ideal times and spaces for the group to reflect on how things are coming along, and to discuss any adjustments to either the workshop process or the play’s storyline.
The facilitator and community worker are full participants during these gatherings. This means that they eat with the group and contribute to the conversation in a way that feels authentic for them. While doing this, they also keep in mind their overarching roles as workshop facilitators by paying attention both to what’s happening within the group as well as to the overall purpose of the workshop. For example, the facilitator or community worker may notice that a participant is particularly quiet, or that they’ve shared something that is quite vulnerable. In such cases, the facilitator might make adjustments to the workshop plan, or they may make a point of following up informally with the participant after the workshop. In some situations, the community worker might also find a way to touch base with the participant during the workshop.
To say that these gatherings are social and informal, is not to suggest that they never focus on workshop content. After the initial workshops when everyone is getting to know one another, the opening gathering often includes an invitation to reflect on the previous week’s work with questions like, “What stuck with you about last week?” or “What were you excited about?”
After everyone has had a chance to visit, and before transitioning to the structured physical and creative exploration part of the workshop, the facilitator initiates a more formal check-in. We think of this a kind of taking the temperature of the room, and frequently use the question: “On a scale of 1 to 10, how do we feel about starting today?” This exercise is an overt invitation to participants to let the group know if they are feeling low energy (without having to disclose details). Participant responses alert the facilitator if someone is feeling particularly low energy and can help guide the facilitator’s tone. With their own check-ins, the facilitator and community worker also have an opportunity to model that it’s okay to feel low, or conflicted, or super excited, that they too come with a range of feelings and energy levels.
We wrap-up each workshop similarly to how we begin — with the group sitting down to talk. The first part of the wrap-up is an extension of the workshop’s creative activities and are focused on collectively identifying themes that emerged. The length of time and the prompts used during these reflections vary depending on the activity and the phase of the workshop series.
The purpose of the next part of the reflection is to give everyone an opportunity to say how they felt about their experience. At its simplest, this can take the form of a ‘check-out’ that mirrors the check-in: “On a scale of 1 to 10, how do you feel about what we did today?” If either the facilitator or the community support worker feel it would be helpful, or is necessary, more elaborate or directed questions can be asked.