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‘There is not story that is not true” Chinua Achebe

Working with the parents group at Midland Road Children’s Centre in Manningham, Bradford over the past weeks, I’m struck by their fantastic stories.  They are full of banter and anecdotes which intrigue me and make me laugh and want to know more. During my last session with them, we made instant books, working with collaged materials. For this week’s session I wanted to find a creative way of accessing some more of the stories – of  the group, their community, their friendships, and their history, without disrupting the organic and spontaneous flow of conversation.

I’ve been doing some collaborating and talking lately with Chemaine Cooke and Sam Musgrave, two Bradford based artists who run integrated dance company Maho. I’ve known Sam and Chemaine for some time and we share similiar approaches and ethos in working with people. Sam and Chemaine have worked with the parents group before me and were interested in collaborating with me on my sessions with them. As it happens our interests in storytelling shave converged at this time – Maho are involved in a current project called Electric Fireside which brings people together  in two sites in Bradford over two weekends “to share stories and express themselves creatively”.

So I spent the early part of this week gathering materials that could be used to explore stories with; cutouts, acetates, lights, objects, props. I’ve been exploring a lot of these materials through my own work over the past year  in my photographic project WE ARE ALIVE AGAIN in which I have been exploring performative and collage processes in working with personal and family archival materials – and I have been keen to involve others to expand the project.

So I had proper fun making a cardboard box set and covering it with streetmaps of Manningham. It felt like playing like a child again. I photocopied images of buildings and printed some onto acetate, and mined my box of cutouts to find images I thought might appeal. Letters to make words, and mini lamps for stage lighting, and by Thursday morning I had a box of goodies to bring.

Sam and I co-facilitated the session – Sam began by asking the group to get into pairs and come up with two stories to share with the group – one true, and one made up. Much hilarity ensued as the ladies told their real and made-up stories and we all had to guess which was which. We talked about what makes a good story, and decided as a group to make and enact a story, using the materials I’d brought.  A photocopy of mehndi sparked the story of how the group came about; two years ago one of the ladies offered to show a couple of the other mothers how to do menhdi, over a coffee morning at her house. The numbers grew over time and the group got too big to fit in a living room. They found space to meet at the nursery (where many of their children go) and have been meeting up there every week since. The ladies made the set and stood up at the front, and the story was told to us all. For the ending of the story the group chose to tell about a communal trip to the Bradford Alhambra to see a show, where they danced onstage with the cast and their celebration afterwards. Everyone got up to tell this last bit. The telling was communal, collective, joyous and fun, dancing and laughing. It was magical. The identity of the group is so strong, and this I think comes from the stories they tell about themselves.

Later that day I went to another storytelling event. My best friend Andrea has recently set up the Ilkley Writers group  and they put on an event as part of the Ilkley Literature Festival Fringe called ‘The Witching Hour: Dark Tales From Ilkley Moor“. In a darkened room,  we listened to ten stories by ten tellers, a mix of professional and amateur writers, told against a background of a eerily beautiful black and white film showing details of the moor. It was a powerful evening, the tales all so different but all with a darkness at their heart. I thought about all the stories I had heard that day- formal and informal, real and made up, and how they’re all mixed up in my head. Our lives are just the stories that we tell.

On Friday, I made a zine  called 60 Minutes Later – A Collaborative Zine About Identity” with a Facebook friend who I have never met. Arlene lives in Largs, Scotland, and I’m near Bradford. From 2pm  – 3pm we each made 12 pages of a zine which we are going to collate and photocopy. It’s something Arlene and I have been talking about for a while  – inspired by a zine Arlene had made and sent me called ’58 minutes later’ in which she set herself the challenge of making a zine in under an hour. We agreed that we could gather materials beforehand but that we had to actually make it within the hour. It was an exhilarating, fun, and slightly stressful experience. I surprised myself slightly by the stories I told of myself in this pressured time span. They are far more direct (and true) than anything I could have done given more time. Maybe this is a good method for getting to the heart of a story, the heart of a person.