The Myth and Voice Initiative: Storytelling for Communities is an enrichment and development project run collaboratively by students and staff at Royal Holloway University of London and led by Dr Efi Spentzou in the Department of Classics. Aimed at schools, youth environments, community groups and other interested voluntary settings, the project comprises of a series of informal participatory workshops based on select Greek myths.

We foster collective re-imaginings of ancient mythical narratives to encourage self-development, inspire active citizenship and support community-building. The experience is flexible and adaptable to a diversity of communities, their ambitions and agendas. The Initiative operates as an ally to community organisations aspiring to support their programs as they strive to empower those with whom they work.

Dr. Efi Spentzou

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The advantage of using Greek myths is that these stories are distant, but still relatable. In their distance, the stories provide safe spaces for experimentation, reimagining and role play. They provide a structured environment in which young people can cultivate empathy with the many ‘Others’ within their myth and with each other through the processes of retelling.

At the core of the Initiative and the workshops is co-production and collaborative work. The workshops are collaboratively designed by Royal Holloway teachers and students. The staff involved act as collaborators and mentors in a partnership with the university students who themselves benefit through experiencing new roles and responsibilities. The workshops are comprised of diverse and fun tasks through which the young people engage in a shared interpretation of events and explorations of identities, relationships, motives, emotions, past lives and projected futures. The workshops are revised after trial and further co-creation with participant groups.

By their nature, Ancient Greek myths bound people together in a community. The stories were a shared heritage that allowed people to think through their concerns and problems. Integral to those stories are realities that we also face today: a multiplicity of separate experiences; conflict and negotiation between social powers and groups; and marginalisation along lines of gender, class and race.

Working with carefully selected mythical plotlines, the workshops engage young people in imaginative and non-threatening explorations of these distant, but topical, stories. By ‘digging into’ the evidently fictional environments of the myths, participants are gently nudged to also engage with dilemmas and challenges with contemporary resonance. These are mythical stories that are not owned by any one group. They welcome young people from varying cultural backgrounds to engage in ways that are personally meaningful, while also enriching their cultural capital.

Storytelling is social capital. The myths provide motivation for young people to articulate a voice which, without being confessional, can bring to the fore their tacit knowledge and legitimate their views and experiences in the eyes of the community. Questioning powerful figures from a distant world, young people develop impactful practices and a readiness to challenge the status quo. The workshops offer young people opportunities to build relationships of trust and mutual respect as they curate and develop each other’s voices in a process of collective storytelling. And through restoring justice and care in the reimagined stories, young people experiment with models of positive language that can bolster their ability to take positive action in their own environments. Ultimately, the workshops and The Myth and Voice Initiative, in general, aspire to be an ally to young people in their journey to realise their full potential and find their calling.

The workshops map well within Personal, Social Health and Economic education programs, as fun and supportive spaces for all characters and personalities to engage with important issues and relationships through role play and without the need to express personal opinions.

The workshops are also imaginative co-curricular enrichment activities for departments or subjects such as, for example, English, Drama, Politics, Psychology, Ethics and Philosophy.

They can also be offered within extra-curricular settings such as, 6th Form enrichment afternoon, or in a debate, oracy, creative writing, politics club, or storytelling, drawing, animation café etc.

The workshops can be offered during or after school. Each workshop can last between 1.00 and 1.30 hours and duration/type is decided in consultation with individual schools and teachers.

We can offer single events or a series of workshops in school hours or after school.

We can participate in special days dedicated to personal development alongside other offerings.

Workshop tools and techniques are appropriate to age, group size, group make up and context of delivery. They include Role on the Wall, Frame Freeze, Thought Tracking, Thinking Buddies, Story Circles, Reflective Craft Spaces, etc.

Activities are suitable for quieter as well as talkative personalities. Non-verbal forms of engagement are encouraged through crafting and free spatial/kinaesthetic expression.

Working creatively with the select myths, young participants 

  • model emotions, motives, desires, ambitions etc for their fictive protagonists
  • imagine alternative pasts, presents, and futures of individuals and the ways these might be achieved.
  • Role-play successful relationships and analyse toxic ones
  • explore affection, respect, consent, boundaries in imaginary relationships of any kind.

Working Together

Myth and Voice works a bit like a tent under which people shelter, mingle and connect to make community.

Dr David Bullen, my colleague from the Drama department at Royal Holloway, has been on board almost from the beginning and I am very grateful to him for this. As a theatre director and dramaturg as well as an academic teacher and writer, he brings to the project his rich experience with community and action theatre. David is also a co-founder of By Jove, a collective of artists and academics keen on ‘pulling myths apart and weaving them back together for contemporary audiences’. This mission also permeates his contributions to our co-creative workshops where role play and story-telling encourage and inspire future participants to build bridges and experience belonging.

Karl Falconer is a theatre director in Liverpool and a Royal Holloway PhD student working on the arts and community engagement. Karl and I have teamed up to work up resources and a program of civic engagement around woods, wellbeing, and urban greening prompted by the myth of King Erisychthon and the felling of Demeter’s sacred Oak. As Karl is also a local authority employee, our joint project blends happily many different strands of his expertise and experience.

Myth and Voice is committed to support a wide variety of community groups, whether through isolated events or a longer-term program. It is especially exciting when, as trust develops with time, particular communities become long term partners.

Dan Fisher from Winston Churchill School at Woking in Surrey and Dr Lorna Robinson, director of the Iris project and the Rumble Museum at Cheney at East Oxford are two such much valued collaborators. Their communities and their aspirations act as forces of renewal for Myth and Voice, as we adapt our presence and our materials to suit their needs. We have worked closely with Dan to create experiences that bring different year groups together in shared spaces of reflecting and debating and motivate older students to trial models of leadership suitable to them. And Lorna’s commitment to crafting and playfulness in learning and self-expression inspired the popular Myth and Voice cafes that are now available.

Ottilie Cheetham of East Walthamstow School for Girls and of Classics for All is a valuable friend and adviser of Myth and Voice offering generously time, thoughts and ideas drawn from her experiences of many schools and classes. I always enjoy, and benefit from, our ‘blue-sky’ meetings.

It would not be an exaggeration to claim that the project thrives on the youthful exuberance, inventiveness and energy of its volunteer student co-creators who offer time and imagination so generously in amidst their very full schedules in university, at work, etc.

  • Chloe, Daisy, Emma, Harriet, Sam and Zoe were the first ever student co-creators of Myth and Voice whose artful ideas gave life to the first participatory workshop of the programme that has now offered many school students the opportunity to build exciting and moving alternative lives and a voice for silent Eurydice. I will be for ever in their debt for putting trust and energy into the program in its very first hesitant steps.
  • Then came Lisa, Lucy and T-J who set themselves the task to explore innovative ways to engage new audiences with the probing voice of another young girl, Arachne, and through her, with powerful movements of today.
  • We followed up with resources on Phaethon, the boy who set the world on flames, inventively curated by Amber, Honor, Lucy, Rusty, and Son who worked out astute ways to motivate future audiences to debate ecology, accountability and privilege as vital conversations around climate change.
  • Extending our repertory, Cameron and Jake put their heads together to workshop a myth that intrigued them both: Pentheus and the Maenads. Ideas bounced back and forth and we have now put together a resource stimulating conversation around citizenship, surveillance and civil unrest that we’re very excited about.
  • Cameron and Jake returned one last time before their graduation and teamed up with Eleanor to design highly animated activities inspired by the myth of Echo and Narcissus for young audiences to reflect on and debate social media, self-perception, self-projection, even self-delusion and other such urgent contemporary issues.
  • It was then Eleanor’s turn to come back once more and join Ashleigh, Hugo, Jojo, Linnie, Orlanda, Polly, Tom, and Zayneb. They explored and helped each other calibrate a multi-sensory interactive environment in which participants are invited to empathise with the war’s impact on the society’s most vulnerable through patchwork portraits giving voice to the women that the war in Troy left bereft and homeless.
I am continuously impressed and humbled by our students’ ability and willingness to think on behalf of others, to put themselves in the shoes of new audiences and to act as enablers of community and expression. I very much look forward to welcoming more of our students in our storytelling/story making family! Forthcoming plans include student facilitators in school events on credit bearing volunteering placements and a student Myth and Voice internship.
In the beginning of January I was privileged to be able to participate (virtually!) in the annual meeting of the Society for Classical Studies which was taking place in Chicago as part of a panel on Classics and Social Justice. I used my slot to share some socially engaged research from our program.
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