7 Observations on Participatory Art
On a soggy Sunday morning, driving through an industrial estate in Purfleet, Essex, I hadn’t expected to turn left at Carpetright and be greeted with a complex of buildings dedicated to arts and culture. Yet there they were. Looming mirage-like out of the greyness was the huge curved roof of the Royal Opera House’s scenic workshop, where the sets are made and painted. In addition, there was an 18th-century farmhouse-turned-café, a gleaming new office building, and a large renovated barn, complete with a walled garden and roses that were dripping with rain. This was to be a day of surprises, under the auspices of the Singing Our Lives (SOL) project.
The aims of the SOL project are to “[bring] refugee, migrant and local communities together with professional musicians to compose new music and perform together.” Now in its third year, it combines the forces of Together Productions with partners IOM (the International Organisation for Migration), the Guildhall School of Music and Drama, the Royal Opera House and public art charity Kinetika. Convened by Musical Director Jeremy Haneman and Producer Holly Jones of Together Productions, people from four choirs (The Mixed Up Chorus, the Royal Opera House Thurrock Community Chorus, Citizens of the World Choir, and the Sing for Freedom choir) were welcomed to Purfleet. In addition to the 120 or so people from these groups, we were joined by Guildhall students, as well as clients from the charity Freedom from Torture and the Refugee Drop-In at the Red Cross Centre in Tilbury.
The day was split into a rotating programme of four sessions, consisting of group singing and drumming, a performance by two members of the Orchestra of Syrian Musicians, Mandala painting with Kinetika, and (this is where Tess Berry-Hart and I came in): musical storytelling. I was assisting writer and playwright Tess Berry-Hart, who has been commissioned by Together Productions to gather and create the text for three new songs, with music by Mike Roberts, based on stories shared by the participants. Our four main themes, which Tess had already distilled from previous sessions with the choirs, were: NATURE, FUTURE, UNITY and LOVE. We had a number of strategies planned to encourage people to share their stories, drawing on these themes, which I’ve condensed into 7 observations, as follows:
- The Important of Icebreakers
Tess and I only had 40 minutes in which to try and encourage people to share their stories. We opted for a couple of simple ice-breaking exercises, which will be familiar to most drama practitioners: everyone stands in a circle, and says their name along with an action, which everyone else in the circle repeats. Our alternative was the same, but with the addition of an interesting fact about yourself. At the end of the day, one lady said she felt that this exercise gave her permission to ‘let go’.
2. Using a range of approaches
Some people are more than happy to talk about their stories in public, others prefer to keep quiet. By using a mixture of spoken and written responses, we hope that everyone has had the chance to contribute something, depending on what they are comfortable with.
3. Background music
It’s somehow much more intimidating to speak into a room of silence, than to speak into a room with background music. We were lucky enough to have the talents of Gustav Pickering on guitar, and Jeremy Haneman on piano in various sessions, improvising according to the themes, and the difference was palpable. In our first session, as soon as Gustav started to play, people immediately opened up to one another.
4. Describe your favourite place
Everyone has a favourite place they love to go to, and we asked people to share this place with each other, and then feed this back to the group. For some people this was somewhere local – Kew Gardens and Walton-on-the-Naze were mentioned – for others, it was out in nature, high in the mountains, or somewhere exotic, such as relaxing in Ethiopian mud baths! All of these were places with positive and/or poignant associations for people, and we captured many of these with voice recordings.
5. Bring a treasured object
This was a treasure trove in itself: there were pictures of family, tattoos of Icelandic runes, a miniature piano symbolizing someone’s return to music-making, an eighteenth-century musket mechanism, tales of war in Iran, local history, and a small bear to remind someone of home. Each one was an artefact of something deeply personal. It was only at the end of the day that I realized I hadn’t brought an object of my own to share. Still pondering that one, but I realised that we tend to treasure objects for the memories and people they encapsulate.
6. Same themes, different scales
Two Syrian musicians, Basel and Hannan, performed and taught us “Lamma bada”: a 600-year-old Arabic song from Galicia, describing a beautiful woman who sways when she walks, sending the singer into outbursts of despair and longing. There was a fascinating Q & A after the session I attended, in which Basel explained that there are over 50 scales in Syrian music, including ‘Rast’, the most basic. To the Western ear, it can sound almost ‘out of tune’, owing to the use of quartertones on the third and seventh notes of the scale. It creates a sound world that is neither ‘major’ nor ‘minor’, but flirts with both, in the same bittersweet way that Greensleeves does (incidentally, another Medieval song of romantic yearning…)
7. Workshops are a bit like weddings
….In that, once you give people food, a theme, and a task, the guests will generally entertain themselves and have a good time! (You hope…)
As I drove out of the industrial estate, exhausted but full of ideas and stories, it occurred to me that if you put all of these people in a train carriage together, they wouldn’t communicate, or know anything about each other. Yet with a few simple games, and a common thematic thread, we created a space in which people could share their stories, and the effects were powerful. Many thanks to Holly, Jeremy, Tess and Reylon from Together Productions for making me feel so welcome, and for letting me be part of such a thought-provoking day. It will be exciting to see what songs Tess and Mike create from the day’s discoveries – due for performance in 2020. Watch this space…