“Interlaced,” an interfaith storytelling and applied theatre project

“Going beyond its artistic objectives, theatre becomes a cultural motor which infuses equal dignity to the different forms of expression in a community”.(From Odin Theatre’s invitation to their Symposium “ Theatre as a Laboratory for Community interaction,” Holstebro, Denmark, 15 – 19 May 2014)

Storytelling is an art form accessible to all. To be a storyteller is part of our humanity, it’s what we do when we communicate with others, when we have important experiences to share, when we want to make sense of the world around us, or to entertain and be entertained. The art of storytelling can be awakened in all of us. That’s why it is such an attractive way to start any applied theatre project, in which we want to engage a community and guide them to participate together in an artistic endeavour that will bring cohesiveness to the group.

We used the storytelling form for our project “Interlaced,” in which we worked with three faith groups in Victoria, BC: Hindu, Ismaili Muslim, and Jewish. It proved to be ideal. This project took place throughout the year 2013. It consisted of twelve workshops and a public presentation. It was conducted by Master Storyteller Jennifer Ferris and myself, Lina de Guevara, theatre director, theatre instructor and storyteller. The producer was Paulina Grainger, Arts and Outreach Coordinator at the Intercultural Association of Greater Victoria, ICA.

The project presented several challenges: We had to convince participants who did not have any performance background that they could become storytellers, and find an effective way of training them. We also had to engage with the subject of religion, without entering into comparisons, arguments, or disagreements, and create a high quality storytelling public presentation.

Background of the “Interlaced” project.

Between July, 2011 and June, 2012 ICA had been conducting an interfaith project in which various faith communities of Victoria had meetings to discuss their religions and get to know each other better. A partnership existed at the outset of the project between ICA, the Victoria Multifaith Society and the South Island Dispute Resolution Centre. These organizations developed collaborations and relationships with the following faith-based organizations: First Church of Christian Scientist, Kolot Mayim Jewish Reform Synagogue, Ismaili Muslim Community, Sikh Temple of Victoria, Hindu Temple of Victoria, Bahá’í Assembly, Budhist   Faith Community and Unitarian Church of Victoria.

These interfaith organizations met regularly, and over time organized a variety of projects with the purpose of getting to know the various faiths, establishing connections, and creating a tolerant, knowledgeable and welcoming environment.

Contacts with the different communities were then well established, and the ground was prepared for us to carry out “Interlaced” successfully: There was enough trust built up already so that the various faith groups were willing to accept “Interlaced,” an unusual project which required participants to step out of their comfort zones. We had several preparatory meetings with the chosen faith groups, in which we explained our goals, and the benefits of the project for them and for the Victoria community at large. It was clearly explained that the stories we were planning to collect were going to be personal: the topic being “How do you live your faith?” We would not discuss religious principles and practices, but would share personal experiences in an atmosphere of respect and friendliness. Scheduling the activities was challenging because each faith group had numerous religious celebrations, with firmly set dates, during the year. We finally agreed on various aspects of the project; the groundwork was done and we were ready to start.


We considered carefully the character and qualities the workshops should have: We agreed they should be inclusive, entertaining and participatory. Our facilitation would be simple, clear, factual, unthreatening, and considerate. In each session, most of the time should be dedicated to telling stories. We would limit the amount of time spent in discussions and conversations.

We were to conduct twelve workshops in total: three separately with each faith group and three in which each group, in its own locale, would take its turn as host, inviting the other two to share stories and a meal. Each workshop would be three and a half hours long and would happen on Sunday afternoons.  The last stage of the project would be the preparation of a performance for the community, to take place in a local theatre and featuring a selection of stories.

First workshop: “Everybody is a storyteller.”

The workshop started with a conversation about the topics each particular faith and cultural group would be most likely to choose. These were some of the subjects proposed: coming of age celebrations; wedding rituals; death ceremonies; celebration of other main events; principles regarding compassion and strangers; family relationships; dealing with misfortune, strife, anger and hate; dealing with discrimination; exile because of religion; meaningful sacred objects; religious “dress” practices; values; repair of the world; etc.; Did they have to leave behind some aspects of their religion when they immigrated? How did they educate their children to keep and practice their religion in the new society?

We explained two basic storytelling facts:

1. There are two participants in a storytelling interaction: the teller and the listener. Both are equally important: One doesn’t exist without the other.

2. A story is not a conversation. The teller has to be allowed to complete his/her story without interruption—no questions or comments are appropriate.

We established a clear “Storytelling Protocol”:

1. Stories will be short
2. Stories will be personal
3. Stories will start with:“My story is about…” (This beginning sentence was optional) and end with “And this is my story”. This ending was mandatory, as it made clear that the teller had finished and it was now the next person’s turn.
4. The only accepted comment at the end of each story was: ”Thank you!”

The protocol was very helpful; we referred to it constantly and were strict about respecting it.  We felt the participants relax: they had clear guidelines of how to act. The fact that there was no judgment at the end of each story was liberating. There was no need to give opinions, discuss, or contradict; each story would just “be.”

We used ‘icebreakers’ done in pairs, and simple warm-up exercises to give participants self-confidence and practice basic storytelling skills. Successful ‘icebreakers’ were: tell a story about where your name comes from, what does it mean, who gave you your name, etc., or tell a story about something you are wearing: Was it a gift? Where was it bought? Any feelings associated with the item? and so on.

Story Circles: After the first exercises and explanations, we established what we called story circles. We arranged the participants in small groups of no more than five. Each one of them had to tell one story to the rest. The topic, agreed beforehand, was: “How do you live your faith?” After all the stories were told, each circle chose the one story that “resonated” most with everybody. The chosen story would be told to all the participants in the workshop. Notice we use the word ”resonate” and not “the best story.” We were careful to avoid judgements.  The reasoning behind the story circles was that for most people it’s intimidating to tell a story in front of a large audience, but in a small group it’s easier, and when the story was told once, to tell it a second time would not so be so hard.

After the story circles were done, we gathered to listen to the selected stories, and after doing that, we asked if anybody else felt now encouraged to tell their story to the whole group. We also asked for what we call “response story:” those that come to our minds when listening; one that echoes the story being told. At the end of this process every participants had at least told one story!

The story circles proved to be equally successful with the three faith groups. Many interesting stories were shared and people had fun listening to them. The facilitators asked participants to give a name to each story, and the names were recorded, so that we could access the stories again. The “Everybody is a storyteller” workshop was successful in inspiring trust, self-confidence and an interest in storytelling.

Second workshop: “The art of storytelling.”

In the first workshop we had proved that every participant could tell a story; now we were going to teach them how to turn the telling of stories into an art. We invited experienced storytellers to become models for the apprentices.  We asked the group about the qualities they had observed in the model, and what made the story clear, enjoyable, remarkable in any way. Voice and gestures were mentioned, the fact that the tellers addressed every person in the audience, their way of using the voice to portray characters, timing, continuity, the content of the stories, the teller’s stance, the use of music or singing, and so on. In this way the participants learned from an example, they discovered by themselves the qualities necessary for a good storytelling performance.

After this experience, we formed the story circles and asked the participants to apply what had been learned from the model. We continued to record all the names of the stories, and again, after listening to the first selection we encouraged everybody to share.

Third workshop: “Gathering the stories”.

During this workshop we discussed the topics that each community seemed to prefer, and made a list of them. We also asked the participants to reflect on which were the stories they would like to share with the other two communities, and eventually with an audience.

Once more we created story circles and proceeded to collect even more stories. At the end of the process we had gathered over a hundred.  Choosing which ones we were going to tell to the community at large was quite challenging. Each group chose the stories they felt reflected them the best.

Fourth to Sixth workshops: “Sharing the Stories”

In this stage of the project, each of the three faith groups hosted a workshop in their own locale. To inaugurate this new stage, a First Nations storyteller was invited to perform in the first one. Then selected stories were told, and response stories were elicited from the guests.  These sharing workshops were planned so that they also served as rehearsals for the future presentation of “Interlaced” for the Victoria community at the Belfry Theatre, the main theatre in the city.

Public Presentation of “Interlaced” at the Belfry Theatre.

One of our main considerations when planning this presentation, was to make it as polished and perfect as possible.  Over the years we had heard criticisms aimed at public performances of community arts projects, and we were aware of the importance of achieving the highest possible standards. So we were careful in the selection of the performers and their stories. We acknowledged that our performers were not theatre professionals and so it was up to us, the directors, to support them completely so that they could be at their best. Once we had reached a decision about which stories to present, we offered individual coaching to the tellers. We provided microphones for those who needed them, but allowed those with strong voices to perform without one, so that their movement would not be impeded.  We planned for a variety of ways of telling the stories: from different places and stances, a variety of costuming; some stories were accompanied by simple choreographies, etc. To be inclusive we created roles for children, who had been enthusiastic participants in the workshops, and made sure that their actions were suited to their talents and ages. We invited listeners to take their place on stage and create a true picture of what the story circles had been like. Two professional musicians accompanied the presentation, and sometimes accented the stories. Appropriate lighting and a colourful set enhanced the event.

The audience was enthusiastic. These are some of the comments we received: “This was an accessible, joyful event that fully engaged the audience and built respect and connections across the group;” “Very important – a need for more interfaith and multicultural events like these in my community;” “This was a brilliant and moving evening;” “What an evening, it was an enchanting journey through our past, through our fate, through many cultures and traditions, and through melodious music!”

Some conclusions.

As I’m writing this paper, “Interlaced” has entered a second phase, in which some of the storytellers who took part in the first are doing presentations in three other faith communities: Sikh, Bahai and Christian. These storytelling ‘concerts’ serve as an introduction to a workshop conducted by Jennifer Ferris and myself, the two facilitators. Another aspect of this second phase will be to record a selection of stories to be made available on radio and in the ICA website. To finish the experience, “Interlaced” storytellers will participate in a ‘house concert’ and a ‘café concert’. In this way, their training will be completed and those who want to continue this practice will have enough contacts and tools.

The “Interlaced” project has been a very valuable experience for me, and, I believe, for all involved. In the workshops we witnessed the emotional moment of discovery which each teller experienced as they told of a meaningful event in their spiritual life. And they told it transformed into a story, using a traditional format, following simple rules, so that there was enough distance from the experience to give it the perspective and dignity of art. This has a strong significance: it has made me aware, once more, of the way in which these applied theatre projects serve to create strong community and intercultural connections.

Attending “Interlaced” performances and workshops has been a wonderful discovery for many. We continue to hear comments about how listening to the stories has changed somebody’s perceptions and opinions about the different faith groups. Our presentations and workshops created strong community interactions, because most of the participants are members of the community and not professional performers. Strong ties of friendship have been established between participants. They are already planning storytelling events in which they’ll continue to share and develop their practice. Many of the individual tellers have been featured in functions organized by the Storytellers Guild, the University of Victoria, and the Intercultural Association.

What are the demands of this type of project on the way we practice our art? It is clear that there are great advantages to working in collaboration with a service provider organization such as the Intercultural Association of Greater Victoria (ICA). They have built strong ties with community groups thanks to years of working together. They also have efficient administrative structures in place, an established access to grants, and a greater diversity of money sources. It’s important to remember that these organizations have their own priorities and requirements that have to be considered and respected. These requirements demand flexibility and creativity on the part of the applied theatre practitioner.  If the artist doesn’t pay attention to them, the relationship between the artist and the organization will probably be a “one time only.”

When conducting “Interlaced’ we did have to change some of our usual ways of working in theatre projects. We kept taking our lead from the participants: shaping our work carefully to fulfill their needs and possibilities, without loosing sight of the expectations of our future audiences. As Ruth Howard expresses it:  “Community arts is not just about art that changes community, but also about art that changes art” (CTR Winter 2014 “Responses (Visceral and Reflective) to Doug Borwick’s Building Communities not Audiences”). Here are some of the principles that governed the planning of our training program and our relationship with the participants:

■          Being two facilitators, we were careful to prepare our tasks beforehand so that we were always in agreement.

■          Maintain an atmosphere of trust and respect and nurture creativity.

■          Give tools that are practical and specific. The storytelling protocol kept everybody free from criticism, judgement and even praise, which can also be disquieting and interfering.

■         Provide an environment in which participants can learn by themselves and improve their confidence in their own abilities.

■          Be inclusive: create opportunities for everybody to participate.

■          Be sensitive to all differences; in language, cultures, ages, physical abilities, etc.

■          Support participants with simple, clear tools of the trade: physical warm ups, voice work, music, text coaching, etc.

■         Be flexible but demanding: important learning happens when we struggle for quality.

I have been facilitator and participant in many community engaged theatre projects, and I keep reflecting on how far reaching they are and how difficult I still find to define them. “Interlaced” was community storytelling, but it was also presented in a theatre, facing the demands of a public performance with enough skill to engage an audience. The project was about community interaction and expression. It was about developing new skills, and sharing them with others. It was also about religion, spirituality, about living together in harmony, celebrating other ways of thinking and structuring our lives. In “Interlaced” we engaged with the community in a successful way. New interactions developed through this project: faith groups that didn’t know much about each other are now working together, are interested in deepening relationships, exchanging more stories, visiting, and planning other activities.

The role of art in creating and strengthening communities, creating a better world, humane and peaceful, is so important that impels me to keep discussing and analyzing it, trying to reach its deeper meanings. The quality of a project shouldn’t be judged only by the number of spectators attending a performance, but also by the extent and character of the community engagement it creates. “Interlaced” was an example of a valuable, pioneering applied theatre event, one that brought positive change to a large number of participants and important groups within our community.

How do we explain what we do to funding agencies, to scholars and students, to “people in charge?” It is hard, and there are many prejudgments about this kind of work, that suffers from being considered “minor, not professional, just entertainment, not a priority, etc.” All these judgments diminish the worth of what we do, make it harder for performers to engage in it, to get funding, to get respect, and yet, we realize its enormous value when we witness its effects. Those of us who have practised applied theatre from the time it didn’t even have a name, know the struggle all this means. So now it is encouraging to hear other voices, like that of theatre directors Majdi Bou-Matar, Ruth Howard and Diane Roberts, who are discussing these issues and taking pride in the quality and effectiveness of this kind of work. (Articles and interviews, CTR Winter 2014).

I have dedicated my artistic life in Canada to using theatre to express the experiences of immigrants and of all the cultural communities that live and interact in this country. “Interlaced” is one of my most recent projects, and I look forward to hearing about the experiences of other theatre practitioners dealing with similar subjects and situations.

Lina de Guevara

Photos of the Project: http://flic.kr/s/aHsjGHbu5x

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