Identity and Giving Voice

Post-it notes

Across the six micro commission sites, groups of freelancers responded to various prompts, drawing on themes that had come through strongly in our previous research, including the interviews and focus groups. Two of these prompts were Identity and Giving Voice, explored by groups in Plymouth and Newcastle upon Tyne. As researchers, we were interested in the creative process and we asked each group to respond to the prompts within the context of their experiences over the pandemic, but we left the brief broad in order to allow it to be taken in different directions. The results brought huge variety to the micro commissions, and reflected the diverse skills and approaches from our brilliant participants.

One Giving Voice group spent time sharing their own personal experiences and reflections, dedicating time to free writing to give voice to everyone in the group. In particular, this group reflected on the gendered imbalances and particular challenges women can face in making their voices heard. They worked with text and monologues, allowing space for everyone to speak and share on their own terms and in a way that they felt comfortable with. They created a space where it felt safe to speak honestly, with Giving Voice not only being the prompt for discussion, but also a central part of their process.

“We all had very big experiences of someone taking away your voice. And we all perhaps felt that we hadn’t been able to get that out or say what we wanted to say. These conversations gave us that opportunity.”

While there were a number of positive aspects to Giving Voice, there was also reflection on how voice is given and the potential for voices to drown each other out for instance, when using social media. During the pandemic as there was a reliance on technology for communication, some voices spoke loudly while others faded. The second group playfully explored the concepts of voices speaking together and over one another.

“We had this great image of a megaphone and this idea giving voice. If there’s only megaphone in a room full of people, who gets to use the megaphone? How is it used? What if you have several megaphones? What if you have more megaphones than people? How is the voice heard through the din of other people?”

They also gave voice to some of the challenges they felt as freelancers, including the ongoing need to negotiate working conditions and pay, and the need to adapt and change over the pandemic. Certain disciplines and specialisms were particularly difficult to shift online, such as clowning and physical theatre. Despite no verbal communication, a scene where Aron used mime and movement allowed his voice to shine. As one of the audience members reflected “obviously you had no voice, but it was your clearest voice throughout the whole thing. It was your instrument, what you were comfortable with. You had no sound, no voice in that respect, yet you were at your most comfortable and your voice was the clearest when you weren’t saying anything at all.”

Giving Voice also connected closely to the theme of Identity. As one freelancer said, ‘it was amazing to get back to that sense of identity as a maker. It made me think about the power of my voice.’ The groups working on the theme of Identity again worked in different ways, bringing their own skills and approaches to the rooms.

There was a strong feeling that the identity of creatives had been devalued during the pandemic, as they often felt they were not being heard. The government campaign to Rethink, Reskill, Reboot, for example, came up frequently in our research. One group looking at Identity started with the pose of the original image used within the campaign, of two dancers back to back. Working with improvised dialogue, Jaime and Sam explored feelings of working together with, as well as the enforced separation from, other creatives. The campaign was also a route to engage with a lack of understanding of the importance of the arts and cultural sectors. In improvisation, one participant exclaimed “Useful, useful, useful!” They felt a pressure to ‘do something useful’, which of course at the same time insinuated that theatre and the cultural sectors are not useful. Reflecting on this together and processing it creatively allowed some reclamation of the value of that identity.

“I think today made me feel quite, quite fiercely, like I want to defend theatre making as an identity… No it is actually really important what we do. We don’t want to retrain.”

The second Identity group worked with spoken word, instruments, movement and silks. They mapped out their journeys from the pandemic considering what it meant to be a creative, and the pressure they had felt to keep being creative. As a line from Imogen’s poem states, “But still the weight of creative expectation hangs heavy as lead. Don’t treat the pandemic as a residency, they said.” Moving toward reopening, the group reclaimed their creative identity, and through the process and working together they also realised that it was not only their individual identities that had significance, but also their group identity as creatives. Through their collaboration and discussions they found that this shared identity brought strength and optimism.

“I ended with a reinforced appreciation of group identity. Because as soon as you think of identity it becomes very individualistic… And then today there was something really poignant about us all discussing our stories and realising… that we are a group of creatives. A group of freelancers. That identity is as important as your own individual one.”

Being back in the room with other creative freelancers and making work became a celebration of that collective identity, and gave voice and space to process the shared experiences of the pandemic.

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