New reflective postings appear here regularly: please visit again, if you want to keep up to date with news from our Myth and Voice storytelling community.

My Reflective Journal

I have come to really look forward to this annual staple of Myth and Voice two-layered engagement with the Year 10s (15yo) and the Year 8s (13yo) in one of our partner schools, Winston Churchill at Woking. We always start with a storytelling workshop offered to a small-ish group of the older students who experience a myth and rework and retell it in ways that express them as modern teenagers. They then design an experience for a very substantial cohort of their younger counterparts. I find it fascinating to watch the 15-year-old young people navigate the challenges and complexities of a predominantly adult role, that of the enabler, which rests on a delicate balance of self-confidence and deference in equal measure.

Stepping into the shoes of Others began for the Year 10s in their own workshop as they were given the task to think and decide in small groups who they cared most about in different segments of the tale of Phaethon, the young boy who tried, and failed, to navigate Sun’s (his dad’s) chariot, setting the world to flames. As the students slowly relaxed into this ‘no right or wrong answer’ environment, a world emerged of powerful and precarious figures intricately enmeshed with one another; a world where spaces, humans and other-than-humans alike all featured as poignant characters in an entangled story of loss and irresponsibility that, though long in the making, erupted with Phaethon’s catastrophic journey across the sky with his father’s uncontrollable chariot.

Not everyone volunteered their thoughts in the full group, but I was pleased to see that most students engaged in their small teams while, at the same time, some sketching and drawing began to evolve alongside the discussions. I took that as my cue that the time had come for us to move to the creative part of the workshop, their re-telling of the myth in modern times. With their imagination by now in full gear, the students used the imagery of the scarred earth as a metaphor to talk about a raft of open wounds in our world today. I was not surprised by the ecocritical storylines in their retellings as they resonate most directly with the scorched Earth of the ancient myth. But I noticed with interest that Phaethon’s story provided a trigger for them to also talk about political corruption, financial wrongdoings, social media manipulation, and greed of all kinds.

They started designing their patchwork storytelling during our workshop but during the week that followed they brought in newspaper cuttings, collage sheets, digitally generated art, photographs, aphorisms, drawings, poetry and short stories with all of which they spoke about corrupt political leaders, greed and financial markets, deforestation, destroyed harvests, social media bullying, the blight of relentless media attention. It looks like the old story of a young boy’s difficult relationship with a powerful father acted as a mirror in their minds for all those in position of power and as a metaphor for the abuse of power that bothers the younger generations of today. The patchwork now sits on the wall of their class, a reminder of the community making they experienced when patching it together but also a probing report of the abuses of many in positions of authority, and an indictment of corruption voiced by the younger generation that grows up amidst it. We are privileged to host pictures of the patchwork in the Ancient Tales, Modern Takes virtual exhibition here in our site.

Cross-year conversations

Facilitating a workshop for about 75 thirteen-year-olds is at best times an unpredictable affair: an element of chaos is often felt round the edges even when everyone is on the same page. Our teenage facilitators had evidently given some good thought on what was going to be the hardest part: the first engagement with the youngsters looking up at them with expectation, curiosity and doubt in equal measure. They had distilled the lengthier discussions they had had in the relative comfort of their small, close-knit group into a flash reaction to a handful of broad terms (responsibility, belonging, consequence etc). It was an activity well suited to a big audience of people with little or no prior relationship with each other and the broad terms were a great choice providing inspiration and a licence for people to start thinking big and to put themselves in the picture.

That said, they still struggled a bit to get volunteers to voice their flash reactions for everyone in the big room which made me wonder about improvements to this scenario: what if they had maybe asked their audience to write their short flash reactions and then get people to read aloud from a pile – belonging, discretion, community all in one simple step? In any case, they had their audience warmed up by now and they clearly also relied on a couple of the more forthcoming characters amidst them to jog everyone into focus, which they did with verve and determination – allocating roles according to individuals’ strengths is the sign of a self-aware group that make the most of collective capabilities.

More exercises followed and our facilitators slowly, gradually relaxed into their role and most of them started taking rounds to work with the various tables. They were clearly intrigued by the possibilities of role play as a device to both explore the characters in the story and instigate more interaction between the participants. So they asked all tables to write down questions for the different characters and then invited everyone to choose from this stock and use for role play scenes and quick interviews. This simple ploy was very popular – whether because the participants were curious to see others’ questions/perspectives or they responded positively to this element of choice that was introduced; these are two ways I, at least, can read this. The pile of post-it notes stuck on the white board made clever use of scarce resources, even if the notes kept falling…. But it also introduced kinaesthetic energy in the proceedings and set a vivid tempo: students would walk up and chat with the facilitators about the relative virtues of different questions before choosing. They also kept coming back for more questions, choosing the time they spent with them and the moment they would move on to more questions and new interviews and exchanges. I stepped back and observed the students in free flow and excited commotion as they were now responding to a collective identity, a multitude of active ‘blocks’ of the story telling community that the young facilitators were hoping to build.

The family interactions and family politics of the story seemed to have particularly strong resonance judging from the post it notes. Many of the questions revolved around Phaethon’s childhood, and his relationship with the absent father. ’How often did your father visit?’ asked a note. And another: ‘who do you listen to, if not your father?’ ‘What do you feel you need to prove?’ was scribbled on a third note, as a clear attempt to delve further into the psychology of the youngster and I would have loved to hear the answers to this one around the different tables. Others were drawn to imagine his experiences at school, some suspected bullying and a few wondered whether the boy found it difficult to have friends, or even exactly how old he was, in an attempt to connect better with his world. The answers varied a lot: several pictured Phaethon as an arrogant, spoilt kid, ‘annoying’, ‘cocky’, ‘boastful’. And yet, others wanted to dig further for explanation of his character traits and imagined him ‘lonely’ or ‘insecure’. I noticed that, speaking overall, there was not a huge amount of sympathy for Phaethon and I would love to hear more of the thinking behind this distancing. I also wondered whether more extensive discussion might have altered these attitudes in any number of ways.

Phaethon for our times

A thoughtfully inclusive part of the design seemed to me to be the range of creative retellings/responses that the group gave as options which catered for many types. For example, those who wanted to express themselves in groups and in space chose the conviviality of the performance. Many others turned to comic or storyboarding in small groups or alone; comic strips, with their visual alacrity seemed to enable many to run detailed, step-by-step scenarios around various manifestations of ecological crisis. I wondered whether the simplicity of the message through the juxtaposition of square of minimum design inspired them to run through a series of causes and effects as a way to elaborate on a meaning that seemed to resonate throughout the engagement with Phaethon’s story and which was also one of the original keywords which they had been asked to think about: consequences.

There were also a number of political comic sketches re-iterating the calling out of irresponsible politicians and/or governments that I had also encountered in the original workshop with the Year 10s: it took me a little while to figure this out, but Phaethon’s immature use of his privilege conjured for students in both workshops images of inadequate politicians with a readiness that I found a bit unsettling; revealing a disapproval for those who run our institutions sitting only just under the surface. It is an alarming message for the leaders of this world.

The younger students went away having experienced two unusual hours of free, imaginative even somewhat riotous thinking, outside the box and the streamlined demands of the curriculum. They were asked to leave some impressions on post-it notes if they wished. A number chose to mention the listening actively to each other and to creating in a group as their important take away. I noticed that the opportunity to work with strangers, or people they never had talked to before, got several mentions. Some also associated this with risk taking.

Friendship bubbles are, naturally, important at school so I was pleased that the workshop gave this cohort of youngsters some counterintuitive experiences, interacting, laughing, debating beyond their comfort zone and normal groups. It was also an uplifting experience to see the fifteen-year-old workshop facilitators rising up to the occasion. We corresponded after the event; I sent them some observations and they sent back their own reflections on this twin experience they had with Myth and Voice which are now added to our Community Voices here.

King Erisycthon and Demeter’s Great Oak visited Waldegrave School in Twickenham in London for a three-part creative program this past January and February. For three consecutive wintry Monday afternoons, after school hours, an excited and excitable group of 12-14 year old students and a few older teenagers in a supporting role filed into the room, devoured the biscuits on offer and, with energy replenished, settled to enjoy, explore and make sense of this myth exploring human-nature togetherness and environmental destruction.

The first workshop started playfully by acting out the story. There was lots of laughter and inspiration as the different groups endeavoured to bring to life the magic of living in the shade of the oaks. I loved watching them making use of their sparse resources; ingenuously enlisting green post-it notes on sleeves, green coats and hyper-expressive poses, all the way shedding inhibitions in imaginative kinaesthetic expression. The group that dealt with the palace dispensed with any attempt at realistic representation altogether and opted for something more eccentric. They made the gateway to the palace a human door who could express the distance, maybe even suspicion, between royals and the community that they had sensed in the story. The great Oak arranged itself with pride on the chair leading to an impromptu but involved conversation of the kind of face it ought to have: happy? solemn? scared? cared – ‘that it will be neglected’. ‘Tired perhaps’, someone ventured, ‘because they continuously give and never take back’, which was a sensitive reaction to this unforced enactment of nature and human in togetherness.

The second half of the first workshop focused on the creation of offerings to the great tree, enacting the ancient ritual of votives. ‘Think of what you would like to ask for, or what you would like to give thanks for’, I suggested, wondering how (in fact, whether) the experience would resonate with them living in a predominantly secular world. I think they made sense of this activity in the spirit of reciprocity that they had started cultivating via their freeze frames and snippets of acting in the first half. We clearly had those who were attracted to the messaging and those who were attracted to the art involved in this particular activity. And it gave many of them pause for wondering about what their deepest wishes are or what they are thankful about. We got offerings for ‘my family’, ‘my heritage, ‘food’, ‘my four cats’, ‘the sun’, ‘colours’, ‘wifi’, ‘history’, ‘hair’ and very many others, some of which feature in our Gallery elsewhere in this site. There was deeply felt emotion in many of the votives but also cheeky humour, when someone offered to give the tree ‘their little brother’!

Through their offerings, the group was making community with the trees to which they had just given a face with their acting; they signed their offerings with pride and the slightly echoing gym space doubled for a modern-day Demeter’s grove, humans in togetherness with nature. Though the King hardly featured in their exchanges and art, one team placed his grave under the tree and another suggested that the great oak was cut for the King to be buried there. He was a spectral presence casting a shadow on the happy proceedings and the group was growing ready to turn to him.

The following Monday, the group had to come to terms with the disconcerting middle and grim ending of the tale: the king ordering the cutting of the giant oak and the devastating hunger imposed on the King by Demeter in revenge. The main dish on the menu was a Town Meeting and, as I had hoped, having acted out life in the shadow of the oaks, the group was ready to follow the people out of the grove and into a citizens’ assembly where the crisis of the cutting of the Giant Oak could be discussed – the kind of reckoning that the classical myth lacks. The oak grove, the community, and the royal council conferred among themselves. Our participants deliberated with level-headedness, keen to prepare a convincing defence of the rights of the group they had undertaken to represent, but they also made sure they made space for emotion and empathy in the civic space they were inhabiting.

I was interested to hear the community’s animated debate regarding the necessity of the divine in their lives. ‘What did Demeter ever do for us?’ asked one. ‘The harvest?’ offered another tentatively whilst someone else advocated trust in their king to know what was best for them. The need for a dependable authority was palpable, juxtaposed with a tangible suspicion for the distant, menacing power of the goddess.

The grove comprised of a wise, a compassionate, an activist, and even a somewhat impertinent tree. The group, a close-knit group of friends, were, I think, trying out roles that they fancied impersonating – or even saw a bit of themselves in? The activist tree came closest to an environmental stance: ‘He has cut our friend, he will soon come for us’, it warned the others. Anxiety was juxtaposed with humour: ‘I am next in line to be the sacred tree!’ the insolent tree kept interjecting. Watching this spirited anthropomorphic enactment, made me curious to see what might come out if the challenge becomes explicitly about thinking like trees. That’s one for next time.

The King and the royal council tried to listen and to think up compromise. They explained that the tree was cut to make space for a banquet hall. The kingdom needed a banquet hall as a meeting hub where people could convene to make important decisions, fortifying the place against enemies. They offered to plant a tree inside the Hall, so people can bring their offerings and hang them on it (a nice link back to our first workshop).

The Town Meeting prompted our participants to explore modes of community making. But also, the King reasserted his authority and wisdom. Expression was forthcoming – compromise a bit less so, giving me the idea of including second statements/responses too in the next such engagement. In any case, by the end of the Town Meeting, the seed of re-greening, planting again/elsewhere had been sown, keeping our group invested and ready for the third- and last – instalment of the series.

Our third workshop buzzed with wild ideas. Continuing their journey with ‘making this myth their own’ our participants embarked on regreening plans – of their own school, not of Erisychthon’s ancient realms. For an afternoon they became architects, town planners, geographers, journalists, artists, gardeners producing templates for a new greener version of their school, Waldegrave school in Twickenham. They planned, crafted illustrations, sketched, toured the school for autopsy visits on their regreening spots, wrote diary entries about an imagined school life lived in harmony with the new environments: ‘… the hanging plants above me have just lost their delicious fruit to the food tech classes which were so eager to use them to make strawberry flapjacks’, was part of a diary entry blending smoothly the new green environment with the daily school schedule, while another team designed Form Time activities to enable a whole school participation to their plans.

A few weeks later, the School Leadership Team organised an assembly for the group to present their urban regreening suggestions. The joint presentation was co-ordinated by the 6th-Formers who had helped out with the workshops. In the discussion that followed, teachers and students agreed a way forward for some of the suggestions and collaborations with committee groups to look at the environment of the school.

I was really pleased that this curious and imaginative group of young people were given the space and opportunity to address ’the authorities’ with their vision for a greener future of their school; create a multi-level, collective, contemporary, relevant take of the ancient tale of King Erisychthon, Demeter, and the grove of oaks, and at the same time stage a positive intervention into the climate emergency.

We are happy to be hosting the Power Point that supported this presentation on our virtual exhibition space of Modern Takes on Ancient Tales. We hope to host many more such contemporary takes of this ancient myth as more schools and other local groups relate the old story to their lived experiences and local areas.

The session in the West London Migrant and Refugee Welcome Centre on a dark and rainy February afternoon was one of its kind for our Myth and Voice program. The moment Jojo (our student who is working on her own Myth and Voice program as part of her Royal Holloway Masters course on Classical Reception) and I walked through the doors, we were swept into an atmosphere of light and togetherness: a Pilates class run by one of the centre users was finishing up, a couple of people were in quiet conversation on the colourful settees in one corner of the big room, and tempting smells were coming out of the kitchen where a big and fairly boisterous group was preparing ‘home’ specialities for the annual ‘thank you to our volunteers’ event that was planned for that evening.

We were there to offer a Myth and Voice experience based on the myth of Demeter and Persephone to the weekly Book and Writing Club for those with more advanced English. We had been invited by Catherine Davidson, who has run the group with Anna Pereira for the last four years or so. Catherine and I had met for the first time for about 5 minutes on a ‘speed-dating(!)’ webinar for those interested in storytelling organised by NCACE (National Centre for Academic and Cultural Exchange). Our shared love for ancient myths and Greek heritage had led us to meet for a (much) longer chat in a coffee shop and this session in the centre was the next step in our new found connection.

Round the table we had participants from Afghanistan, Democratic Republic of Congo, Iraq, Siera Leonne, Syria, Ukraine and other countries. Activity was bubbling around us, people passed by, said hello, smiled and moved on. It felt to me as if everyone in that big room was in some way part of our storytelling event because they all do everything together there: setting up for events, offering from their skills, tidying, cooking – a big indistinguishable group owning up the space and its activities with shared labour. Jojo and I were sustained by this secure atmosphere of mutual trust that cocooned the table as we tried our best to prove worthy of it. Faces smiled expectantly and we started with two short poems retelling the myth in our contemporary world by the African-American poet Rita Dove. Rita Dove has straddled many worlds in her life and poetry: local and regional Black American communities as well as nation-wide recognition and presence through her work. In her poetry she has always tried to bring her multiple worlds to talk to, and come to terms with, each other.

So I had hoped Dove’s multiple worlds might strike a chord with our participants: they are displaced, potentially even more than once, and at the same time an integral part of this welcoming local West London community. I had also chosen the myth of Persephone and Demeter, the myth of a young daughter departing for a place far away and of a mother grieving for this break up and loss, as a story that could hopefully talk to many, a multigenerational story of families, love, and separation.

Looking back at it now, it was one of the most rewarding workshops I have done so far with Myth and Voice; one of the most moving ones; and, in fact, one of the ‘easiest’ ones. The session flowed somehow effortlessly, it felt, sustained by our participants’ yearning for connection and their joy in communicating their thoughts about the story but also ultimately, through the cover of the story, about themselves.

One particular poem (Grief: the Council) seemed to especially animate the group. We rolled back and forth between details of word meanings and their register and bigger conversations on the significance of the images in the poem and slowly, gradually, we conjured up the atmosphere of a close-knit community in the American South, whose physical and emotional proximity gives its members permission to intervene in one another’s grief to offer support, nurture, and compassionate scolding in equal measure: a down to earth world of domestic intimacy that seemed to inspire. Catherine also did some nuanced vocabulary work with them, as every week, and drew up a list of new words – new tools for her group as they are building their communication skills and confidence in speaking in English. ‘Rallying round’ seemed to be a very meaningful to the group take away in this new list.

I was deeply impressed by the affection and camaraderie that marked the proceedings. There were amongst us the listening types, clearly working things quietly in their heads; there were also those keen to craft their words (I think they approvingly call one of them ‘the poet’); we also had a visually impaired man who did not miss a bit, gently led through words and images he could not read. But everyone belonged fully to this special time and space they had created working together with the myth. Some kept taking turns to talk about grief and community, about turning points in life, about what the suggested ‘shame’ in the daughter’s life might have been and I enjoyed a lot being let into their thoughts and worldview. But I also equally cherished the member who spoke only once in a heartfelt way about the seasons of life back home, when we were talking about the seasonality of loss. And the picture of another one who never talked but kept smiling broadly time and again still lingers in my mind – a picture of easy-going nonverbal communication with this trusted community.

For the last part, we all turned to free writing following the prompts from the story that I had brought with me. We wrote for less than ten minutes. As they do every week, those who wished – in fact, all of them who wrote that day- shared some of their writing with the group. One of our budding writers wrote about fearing loneliness and lack of community over and above war; another one offered us a direct and yet reconciled account of loss and grief, inevitable and yet transient like the seasons we talked about when discussing Demeter in the myth. Living in the Underworld became a byword for a temporary escape into fantasy for another, away from the ugliness of today’s world. A Turning Point for another was the day they decided to stay in the UK and not return home.

Jojo and I went away with our hearts full and deeply moved by the grace, dignity, and warmth of each one of our participants. We had offered this story-led opportunity for community making to them as a potential kind of refuge, a pause from all other kinds of onerous thinking they may have to be doing in their everyday life. Some used the devices of the story to shelter briefly from harsh realities; others used the inspiration of a myth-retold-for-our-world to talk about their lives and the countries they have left behind, keen – I thought – to encode through storytelling a personal identity that has been stripped of many markers through their displacement. And they all cherish their book club as a new community where belonging is built on a shared love for words and stories, rather than shared memories and experiences. We overran and we folded up our chatting as the room around us was already being prepared to host that evening’s event. We were very lucky to be invited and we very much hope we are invited back soon.

Myth and Voice had the privilege to be invited to FEM space at Kingsbury School in North London for two visits in November 2023. The afterschool club was created by sixth formers in the school after a visit by the Women and Girls Network a few years ago. It continues to be run by a spirited group determined to keep alive and thriving a supportive space for girls in the upper school to chat, unwind, play games, and occasionally discuss issues of interest or concern. The existence of this space speaks a lot about the girls’ needs, and I tried to mould the workshops specifically so they would support these needs and slot as smoothly as possible into the girls’ weekly routine which I felt privileged to join.

We started with Arachne, the girl with the ‘loud’ voice. The girls shared the story amongst them in four parts. This resulted in a wonderful adaptive storytelling. Their patchwork invented social influencers and their Instagram postings, had loud and physical acting, quieter retellings accompanied by a coy display of fun artwork and some comic sketches. Perhaps unsurprisingly for a FEM space, this group immediately took to Arachne. The emotions in the room favoured an empowerment of the female voice and there was not much time for Minerva. They saw the text as taking the side of Minerva but resisted following that suggestion. If anything, they felt that the older woman had the responsibility to help her ‘younger sister/self’ – a view that often gets aired by young groups keenly aware of generational discrepancies. But they were also disappointed that the two women were not united to face down the pressures of patriarchy in the fashion industry in which they both excelled.

Arachne’s decision to insert her own self in the tapestry made her voice authentic, argued a girl, as opposed to Minerva who, she said, lacked a distinct voice, being ‘simply’ the conduit of stable authority – a striking and uncommon reading of Minerva’s stark voice in the story. I wish we had more time for the girls’ versions of Arachne, briefly alluded to in some post-it notes that opened windows into personal strengths and individual interests: ‘My best needle is my words’; ‘As Arachne, I would weave about the experiences of women of colour in white societies’. Many girls were quickly drawn to the characters of the two women, somewhat contrary to the expectations of our University students co-designers of the materials who expected more interest in the reworking of the tapestry contents. But we also got a patchwork that had drawn sensitively and emphatically suffering women, responding to the content of Minerva’s original tapestry.

For the second workshop with Eurydice, the girl ‘with no voice’, we had a more intimate group that coalesced around two teams. This time the girls spent all their time negotiating patchwork portraits of Eurydice. I felt from the beginning that the ties that had been created through the listening and sharing in the previous week’s workshop were still going strong as the teams settled into communal work. This time it felt natural to have one member of the group scribe everyone’s thoughts making sure all ideas were recorded. Alongside this, drawing was also going on, an effortless collaboration of different hands and minds. One girl was sketching an Orpheus with intense and frightening eyes, and, when I approached, ‘with a gaze that kills’ offered her friend sitting on her side and observing. Another drew a very innocent looking Eurydice, with Orpheus’ arm round her shoulders, an ambivalent gesture of overbearing care, explained her friend. This group remained critical friends throughout the session explaining each others’ drawings to the bigger group and collectively owning the effort.

The more boisterous group rooted for Eurydice and railed about Hades and Persephone as representatives of a patriarchal society – I wish we had time to develop more the relationship between Persephone and Eurydice, once again an older woman forced to come to terms with a young one. Some amongst them were very keen to give Eurydice her own space and life and, for them, the Underworld was a women’s space. I really enjoyed their unfettered visualisations. A3 sheets were filled with colourful and affectionate representations of her backstory, her friends, her family, her hobbies and a pair of handcuffs prominent on the page to signify that ‘she has always been restrained by some men in her life’, they said when I asked. Next to them, two other friends sketched out in endearingly minute detail her education, health, mood, home and everyday life. This pair viewed Orpheus’ strong feelings for Eurydice ambivalently and in the centre of their patchwork they drew a big grey square, ‘Eurydice’s elusive face, as befits a shadow of a person’, they told me. On that grey square they marked some stark physical contradictions such as: ‘beautiful, wavy hair but scruffy and unbrushed’; ‘beautiful, wide smile but chapped lips’; ‘bright, bold eyes but dark undereyes’. I wonder whether these contrasts suggested an untamed, undomesticated Eurydice.

One of the patchworks included a yet more ambivalent Eurydice, beautiful and aggressive like the swan they drew on the sheet, who ‘weaponised her silence’ as they explained. I was intrigued and keen to hear more but I also wanted to celebrate their voice without ‘interrogating’. It is important to get this balance right and I am working on it. This patchwork had thoughts spread on the sheet, a web of voices complementing and contradicting each other, a testament to the girls’ determination to honour all views and to Eurydice’s perennial challenge of a character.

Bonding playfully together was the dominant vibe in these sessions. In between re-imagining, acting and sketching the two ancient women, there was also chatting about how trust is built and what making community feels like for these FEM space girls. Towards the end, some post-it notes got separated from their original patches and the girls happily just attached them to another: this was their community voice emerging. They have now been invited to share with me any more of their own free writing or drawing or making inspired by Eurydice and/or Arachne. Maybe I will be lucky to get some more developed versions of the story arcs that intrigued me.

Myth and Voice had the pleasure to travel to Cheney School at East Oxford three times in June 2023 for a special collaboration with Dr Lorna Robinson, director of the Iris Project and the Rumble Community Museum housed at Cheney. Together we ran an after-school Myth and storytelling Café open to all of Cheney’s KS3 students and their friends. The café was open on three consecutive Mondays. Each Monday we had a new myth: first came Eurydice and Orpheus, then Arachne and Goddess Minerva, and last but not least was Narcissus and Echo. We were very happy to see that many of the ‘customers’ turned up all three Mondays; those who missed a session were at an end-of-year reward trip to Thorpe Park in Surrey – and a myth café cannot possibly compete with a renowned theme park…

But our sessions also felt very special! Some of the youngsters came in groups of friends, others came by themselves. Y9 volunteers were available to offer drinks, fruits and biscuits and that clearly contributed to a trusting and relaxed atmosphere, an ideal starting point for the collective activities and games that followed. But this is not the main reason why I remember these Y9 volunteers so fondly: the three of them kickstarted each event by acting out the story. There was something marvellously immediate in what they chose to do: with very few props and little preparation they produced free-spirited versions of each story bringing the characters and their emotions alive. These brief, spoken-word enactments empowered the café visitors to make the myth their own and build the characters in ways that were meaningful to them, inserting into the role play and the storytelling their own imaginations and concerns, the things that matter to them, the ways they see life and each other.

And not just that: the wonderful Y9 makeshift actors have also promised to film their short enactments and Myth and Voice will have them available for teachers and community leaders who might want to use them to set an energetic pace for their own workshops. What a wonderful resource they have gifted to our project – thank you so much!

My main preoccupation for each session was to match the initial stimulation through content with a supportive, blank space for the ‘café customers’ to fill with their responses to the story. There were several times when I had to hold back an urge to steer the conversation one way or the other. Yet, mostly I had to just sit back to enjoy the youngsters expressing themselves and supporting each other. And express themselves they did, with gusto!

A somewhat comedic Orpheus flexing his biceps in the Y9 volunteers’ initial enactment seemed to release the participants’ imagination who came up with bold accounts and images of an irresponsible – for some even talentless – pop singer wasting his riches. A lot of the sympathy was directed to Eurydice and someone even brought her right into the local life and classroom: a brainy girl who wanted to go to Oxford University but gets killed in a car crash on High Street. Alongside the modernisers were those who were drawn by the allure of the narration from a distant world and tried to compose the story as prologue (proem) to an epic poem and in between were those keen on reflective thinking who made the tale and the fleeing to the Underworld a thoughtful story of Eurydice’s journey to find herself and realise her desires free from familial interventions.

As the trip to Thorpe Park kept some away from Arachne’s (second café) session, those present found the intimacy of the smaller group physically liberating. The session was a wonderfully kinaesthetic affair with a lot of energetic movement, sorting of fabrics, feeling of textures and short, spontaneous performances. Having grown more comfortable with each other and building on the trust that they had developed in the previous week, the group soon became curious about the conflict between the two women, the young promising and bold weaver and the older figure of authority.  After testing a variety of storylines, they settled with Arachne and Minerva as a pair of female influencers publicly warring with each other for followers and likes, their way of touching upon Minerva’s insecurity, the weakness behind the authoritarian pose that they detected in the story. This storyline soon became a commentary on social media use and public postures, in a world where the ‘how’ was at least as important as the ‘what’ Arachne and Minerva did. One striking example: Arachne, as the more principled influencer was weaving on responsibly sourced fabric to Minerva’s synthetic, non-recyclable materials. I had activities available that would direct the group to the protest content of Arachne’s tapestry but they were hooked on the social and personal dimension of this female antagonism with a verve that led to a most enjoyable and very tactile final performance of the two characters in Britain Has – Weaving – Talent, a highly entertaining spin off of the well known TV reality program.

The final café session on Narcissus and Echo was a bigger and buzzing affair with almost everyone involved having returned for a last go at role play and storytelling. The other thing I noticed immediately was an air of contentment and anticipation. It also seemed that this easy atmosphere had a beneficial impact on a few new visitors who were turning up for the first time.

The story of the boy who was obsessed with himself really struck a chord. Stories, diary entries, Instagram postings and shared drawings proliferated. Many offerings teased out the awkwardness, hypermasculinity, and self-absorption they saw in this case of extreme self-love. There was a childish, rather immature, quality in Narcissus’ thoughts according to a number of diary entries that revealed him bragging about his appeal while also clearly dependent mainly on his ‘Pa’ for validation. We were treated to a fascinating mix of arrogance and insecurity in some entries. Some of the participants enjoyed sharing their entries aloud which also revealed some intriguing connection between class and self-absorption through exaggerated accents and references to emphatically wealthy circumstances. Alongside this markedly contemporary retelling were alluring re-imaginings of Narcissus as a girl (Narcissa!), an 18th century debutante tragically losing her life due to an illicit affair, and another 18th century female Narcissus secretly in love with another girl, an example of a handful of more introvert stories that attempted to explore further the youth’s sexuality.

It was a privilege for Myth and Voice to be part of this first Classical myth and storytelling café at Cheney school and I am thankful to Lorna for inviting me to run these special sessions. I believe everyone involved grew a little bit as a result. I practiced stepping back and ‘out of the way’ of the free flow of the sessions. These developed as a space where students listened to each other and participated as their interests led them to. But I was also mindful of the responsibility to provide the session with supportive scaffolding so the different characters and personalities in the room could feel heard and validated. Here the earlier empathetic co-creation and design process that we undertook with our Undergraduate University volunteer students made a big difference. Some of the activities they proposed, such as the round-robin sketching, were real hits.  I am learning a lot from them every step of the way.

It was fascinating to observe the trust developing subtly and gradually week on week. Participants that in the first week preferred to stay away from bigger groups and do their own thing, by the end of the last week wanted to participate/even co-ordinate small group enactments. Some others persuaded their friends to come along to the last session. The hardest part in the sessions was not to encourage the students to talk; what needed work and patience was to inspire them to actively listen and modify their role play with others’ input. But the sessions had been developed with the building of trust and community as their central ambition and so the activities week on week kept nudging gently those involved to blend their voices and notice each other’s expressions. I could sense trust growing amongst individuals and groups as the students slowly released themselves from school expectations and relaxed into more spontaneous and unguarded modes of expression and felt free to take time to support each other’s offerings. Amongst some memorable take away-slips was ‘laughter’ and opportunities to ‘smile all the time’, ‘enjoying stories more’, ‘meeting people’ and, more than once, ‘free food(!)’. Myth and Voice looks forward to more encounters with the wonderful Cheney school community and their friends and families!

Myth and Voice was very excited to be invited to run a storytelling workshop at the Launch of Royal Holloway Link 2023-4a two-year program aimed to mentor and support Y12 students from a cohort of local schools as they consider possible University journeys. The launching event on a bright, sunny, and frosty Saturday in January was the first opportunity for the cohort to meet in person and start getting to know each other.

I was particularly pleased to be asked to engage with the program which looks after students who may have had opportunity-limiting factors in their lives (disability, caring responsibilities, living in an area with higher deprivation index, being the first in their family to consider going to university etc). There were about 20 of us and we had only an hour together but it was a happy, creative time full of energy, listening and talking in small groups and as a whole room too.

I started with inviting them to take pride in their diverse and unique voices: turn to the person next to them and exchange with them just something, anything they want, about themselves. The gentle excitement and curiosity rose in the room as people realised how surprisingly nice it felt to make a very small statement of their own choice to that stranger that was ready to listen and to offer something back. And then we tried to imagine how it might feel carrying that storytelling to the new environments they will engage with after school. I wanted them to think a bit about the power they already hold: their own unique experiences with the help of which they will make sense of new surroundings, new peers and friends, choices of modules, choice of training etc. Wherever they will find themselves, they will be a special somebody carrying a special story. And they will explore community with their voice as the building tool, co-creating stories with others, speaking, actively listening, negotiating.

We then turned to explore community with Arachne, the proud girl with the weaving talent that dared to question in her tapestry the ways Gods behaved with mortals and challenged Goddess Athena (for the Greeks) or Minerva (for the Romans) to a competition for Best Artist on the loom. Community was being built as everyone adopted roles that suited them most. The quieter ones reflected more than talked, many spoke in twos or in small groups, and others took over the responsibility to represent what was said in the team discussions. Arachne’s story peeked their interest: several of them found Athena’s domineering posture hard to fathom. They could not quite understand, in their modern perspective, an authority so uninterested in keeping people on its side. Which led to comparisons with modern dictators, of recent and current repute and helped me see Athena through a fresh angle.  Some very perceptive opinions were aired when we tried to decide whether the story, as they had it in front of them, tried to coerce them to condemn Arachne’s challenging pose.

One might feel diffident to question authority, and especially a power that comes adorned with the glory of past traditions, the Classics in our case. But the young people in the room kept digging into this ancient story and questioning its premises. They noticed Arachne’s disrespect for Athena in the guise of an elderly woman, but that did not lead them to straightforward condemnation of the younger woman. It rather led to an extensive discussion of what, if anything, generations owe to each other, giving me fascinating insights into the thoughts and experiences of a young generation whose life opportunities are predicted to be worse than that of their parents and grandparents for the first time after many such life cycles.

As a final activity, the group enjoyed thinking of Arachnes in their own world and life. I was honoured to hear about them. Some of them have had a wider impact, like Malala or Greta Thunberg. But there were also other more individual Arachnes and stories that I received as valuable windows into what, and who, is making a difference in these young people’s lives. What I liked a lot was that they all seem to feel progressively trusting to answer with questions and half-formed thoughts and became less and less worried about being judged. Their feedback seems to corroborate that, as they singled out community as their favourite part of the session: ‘Teams!’, ‘Group work’, ‘Discussions’, being ‘actively encouraged to share your ideas in the class’ was what was left behind in their feedback notes. They stood by what we had agreed about in the beginning of our time together: that each one has a story to offer that makes the world a richer place. They gathered courage to form a welcoming, if transient, community with new people and I’m proud of them.

I recall very fondly the Myth and Voice workshop with about 30 Y7 students from Walthamstow School for Girls, this past February and feel very grateful to their teacher, Ottillie Cheetham, for inviting me to her school. There was a palpable curiosity about this unusual type of story-led creative and relationship-building work rising in the group right from the start, as the girls were told they have the freedom to agree amongst themselves and retell that ancient story in ways that mattered and spoke to them. And yet, exciting as that may have felt, it took the group some time and encouragement to get going. There is a lot of reassurance behind the belief that there is ‘a right’ answer behind every question and a ‘right’ outcome as a result of every effort; and a leap of faith is often needed for young people to free themselves from these inevitable ‘hidden curriculum’ demands and enjoy the sound of their own voice.

So the story was taken pretty much at face value in the beginning, following the text’s own attention on Orpheus, the famous young singer who loves his new, and newly deceased, wife Eurydice so much that he achieves the unthinkable: to persuade with his music and his devotion the king and queen of the Underworld to allow Eurydice to leave the place of the dead for a second chance up in the world of the living. But after some discussion in small groups and in twos, the girls plucked up the courage to start digging into and doubting the ancient story that comes down to us loaded with authority and centuries of critical acclaim. And once this process started, the group felt increasingly empowered to question the motives of the various individuals involved in the story.

The scenario of a forced marriage came up as different students started seeing incompatibilities between the two partners: what would Eurydice do in the long periods Orpheus would be on a tour? Was that why she was with her girlfriends and not him, though newlywed, the day she died? Had she been able to cultivate her own interests and follow her own dreams? The class was torn between a responsible Orpheus and a selfish Orpheus, which became a trigger for them to imagine the two in a number of different types of relationships and environments.

The Underworld as a place far away also seriously intrigued the group. The more emancipated in their storytelling they felt the more promising, if also unsettling, this place emerged in their imagination. For some it was the place where Eurydice could escape from Orpheus. Others, who carried a fascination with Eurydice’s background and the role of her own family in what, by this point, they were keen to see as an imbalanced marriage, suggested that journey ‘far away’ as a return to those she trusted as a young child. Some others yet, pictured this far away place as the location where Eurydice could be, and find, herself.

They all seemed to relish the power of metaphors once they started working with them in their storytelling. I was particularly impressed with two that floated in the chatting. That Eurydice ‘being away’ (in the underworld) means she has changed dramatically which would explain why Orpheus turned to look at her (despite having been warned not to) unable to shake the certainty that the girl, as he knew her, was not there. And following from this train of thinking, that the precarious road up to the world ‘above’ was a measure of the state of their relationship and their changing selves.

How ever they attempted to picture it, the story seemed to impress onto these young minds the significance of having, and being able to use, a voice: ‘You should always have an opinion or a voice and share: otherwise you may disappear’ as one comment put it with striking lucidity.

Myth and Voice was at our partner school Winston Churchill at Woking twice this summer term. We are very fortunate to have an established and lively partnership with the school with tried and tested patterns of Myth and Voice participatory storytelling workshops where older students are mentored and supported to deliver storytelling and role play experiences with Greek myths to their younger peers down the school. But this last term we piloted something new and exciting in our growing partnership and I am very thankful to Dan Fisher, my partner teacher in the school, who has been managing our collaboration on the school side with creativity and enthusiasm.

A small group of creative writers from Y9 gathered together for two sessions in three weeks to try and ‘get into the shoes’ of Eurydice, the young girl that marries Orpheus, the famous singer of the Greek myth, and dies tragically as a newlywed when out on a walk with girlfriends, remaining silent throughout, at least in the Roman poet Ovid’s version of the tale. This was a free space for the involved students to be themselves and imagine and retell the story in a way that mattered to them. Curiosity, empathy for the distant girl of the myth, and determination to support each other’s voice were the rules of engagement. The students spent a good part of the first session building their own character of Eurydice working at giving her a backstory: about her family, her friends, what she liked doing and such things, what made her happy or unhappy. But they also spent time thinking up her relationship with Orpheus: how they met, what kind of relationship they had developed, what Eurydice’s everyday life alongside her famous partner might look like, did they have common friends, the nature of their bond/feelings/interdependence. They even tried to think of a special object associated with her to feed their imagined story! The discussion finally moved naturally to the big question of the myth: why did Orpheus turn to see Eurydice, when he had explicitly been warned by the gods of the Underworld that he would lose her for good if he did so?

The participants went away with an invitation to do their own free writing and bring a draft to share with their group next time. And so they did: they lined up into the next session and a bit demurely opened up their sheets in front of them. It took some time and encouragement for them to loosen up and relate something about their experience of writing their own thing. Some fascinating insights into their thoughts emerged slowly: one or two sought to bring their own friends into this experience using them as springboards for trialling ideas and phrases. Someone talked to their dad about different ways of structuring their offering. Another one turned to the thesaurus for word enrichment and a couple of them supported each other as they were writing. I felt honoured to hear about these young people’s ingenuity as they reached out to others in their communities for support. It gave me a glimpse of their networks and the ways they think. And these kindly others also became part of the interconnected community of storytelling that was emerging both in and out of the room we were meeting.

I’m particularly proud of how this small group rose up to this unusual experience they were offered as they found themselves operating in modes that are not the norm within the school context, where tasks are firmly designed with set deadlines for compulsory outcomes. They were asked to turn to each other, actively listen and modify their own voice to accommodate the voices of the others in the room and, most importantly, place their trust in each other, to talk and be respected, to ask for help and receive it, to reach out and find out how the person next to them was thinking and how they could complement this thinking with their own. They were thus naturally hesitant and not always forthcoming with their thoughts as they were cautiously exploring this unfamiliar setting. They were more confident in pairs, turning to each other for support slowly and steadily acknowledging that a community was emerging of young people looking at each other, and not at the teacher, for guidance and validation.

As a fun final experiment, we tried to storyboard the tale as a snapchat exchange. We wanted to see how voices mesh into each other as the kids embarked on picking up and following up on one another’s impulsive exchanges. The setting this time was this far away place, the Underworld, that Eurydice finds herself in after her death by snake bite. The spontaneity and simultaneity seems to have sharpened the relationship between Hades and Persephone (the gods of the place), as well as Orpheus and Eurydice. What was interesting to observe was how the two dominant males, Orpheus and Hades, came out progressively less confident, less convincing. Is it probably the case that this kind of ephemeral/improvised/spontaneous writing allows for authority to be challenged with more assurance? It was certainly an environment where emotion and relationships dominated the exchanges. Intriguingly, Eurydice and Orpheus’ prickly co-existence seemed to spill over and infect Hades and Persephone too, with Persephone even threatening to also leave the Underworld too – a nice touch alluding to the background of her own myth whether consciously or unwittingly, I am not sure. The verve of the exchange brought to my mind Hadestown, the musical by Anais Mitchell that has been touring successfully in the past few years round the world, including in the National Theatre in London.

What I did notice, though, was that the medium allowed questions hanging and experimental thoughts to rise, as the collectivity and transcience empowered voices to emerge without the need for a well-shaped character to be present.  There was even a mystery interlocutor introduced as well as a collective within the collective: Eurydice and Persephone gravitating towards each other to form strong, outspoken expressions of protest.

The draft samples of free writing I have seen, so far, were all touching and so diverse: we have had innernal monologues, sensitive descriptions of Eurydice’s mix of determination and fragility, school diary entries, a focus on the Underworld as a promising and frightening place of new starts and even Eurydice moving to a scary new place with her dad to start at a new school after the death of her mother, a raw, heartfelt contemporary take on her back story. I look forward to hosting this wonderful free writing on our Ancient Tales New Takes gallery! 

Dr Efi Spentzou (Classics) and Dr David Bullen (Drama) of the Myth and Voice project had a thoroughly enjoyable development and reflective practice day with a small and very energised group of PhD students from Royal Holloway, Roehampton, Loughborough and Brighton Universities on the 5th of June 2023.

To start the day, the students had the opportunity to reflect on the community experiences and aspirations of their PhD programs. They then co-created as a group draft resources for a community storytelling workshop based on the Greek myth of Io and her experience of abuse, forced mobility and homelessness, toxic masculinity and other related issues. Through its attention to gendered violence and female suffering, the story is an apt case study for engaging with sensitive topics and difficult conversations through story(re)telling. The day finished with the students reflecting on the specific ways this co-production experience could re-orient their relationship with their work and their forging of new partnerships.

It was great to have the chance to support these creative young minds as they engaged with the experience with real curiosity and an attitude open and welcoming to change and renewal. The drafting of the Io resource triggered thoughtful discussions about care aesthetics and dance in the community, audience involvement in place making events, communicating the fraud issues around gendered violence and many more. They all called the experience, approvingly, a kind of ‘reverse Panopticon’, empowering those in the periphery as they probe into a common, central theme.

If you are an action-based research student engaging with grassroots organisations, aspiring to reach out to underrepresented/marginalised communities, intrigued about immersive storytelling or critical facilitation or empathetic spaces of co-creation and role play and their place in community-building workshops, Myth and Voice would very much like to hear from you! With many thanks to the Techne Partnership for supporting and funding the event.

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