Dwelling Story Development Workshop: rapid story development for student-led creative practice

This last week I was given the opportunity to lead a workshop at the Active Learning Network Conference at University of Sussex. The entire day was a great experience and I got meet a lot of new people and to explore lots of really interesting ideas about Active Learning. The workshop was great fun even though I managed to set up in the wrong room and had to prepare everything really quickly. Luckily the participants were really helpful and together we got everything ready in just a few minutes.

The workshop set out to model a silent collaborative activity that has an aim of placing inclusivity and quite reflection at the heart of a story development through Dwelling. The idea is that participants respond silently to a visual trigger and inscribe their contribution to the story idea via posters which are continually added to in an iterative process of questioning and response. The final posters are then taken away, either individually or in groups and used as the basis for further fiction/factual, script/story development. The approach can be as a rapid development activity that is of benefit where time for ideas development is restricted. It can also be adapted easily to other settings, contexts and subject disciplines. The workshop simulated the use of this technique on a media practice fiction production course where there is a need for rapid development of an outline story idea that can go into preproduction.

The idea for the workshop came about through a number of different influences. The first was the discovery of an alternative to brainstorming called brain writing. This technique has been around for a while and there are lots of different versions of it. However, the form I came across in an article online was a little different from the way it is usually done and also, I adapted it a little to fit the story development process. The basic premise is that the ideation part of the process is to be undertaken in silence and involves participants writing ideas on post-it notes. The aim is for everyone involved to come up with as many ideas as possible in a restricted time. One of the benefits of this approach is that there is no judging of ideas, there is no nervousness, there is no dominating and people are free to just have ideas.

A second influence was an experience I had at the Rethinking Research Conference at Coventry University earlier in the year. By the way, the conference keynote was delivered as a cabaret which was truly inspiring and made me want to learn to sing. Anyway, one of the workshops I attended was run by three Practitioner-Researchers from The University of Central Lancashire’s, Dance Performance and Teaching team: Sara Giddens, Ruth Margaret Spencer and Justyna Katarzyna Urbanczyk The session was entitled quite simply ‘Dwelling‘. During the workshop large, blank sheets of paper covered each of the tables around which we were sat. At the centre of each table was a one word theme and participants were asked to respond in writing to the theme in a state of silence. It was an interesting experience and not only did we inscribe our thoughts but we added to other people’s comments in this way developing a conversation with others in the room, though we might not know who they were.

Though the emphasis of the workshop was on how slowing-down and finding-still-ness might inform alternative approaches to research. The experience seemed to be just as applicable to the classroom setting. The aim of bringing mindfulness to the classroom seemed to be more than appropriate and certainly resonated with the experience of using brain writing in ideation sessions with students. Mindfulness offers an opportunity to regulate attention by focusing on the present moment and this is something I felt very strongly during the workshop, that engagement and focus without interruption. There is also a sense of openness about the process of focusing on the moment which seems to instil a sense of curiosity. There is even research that suggests mindfulness can lead to changes in the way students apprehend information, process it and even how they manage learning (Lynch 2013).

The workshop leaders informed us that they in turn were inspired by Heidegger’s idea of “attentive dwelling” (1978:150). In fact, Heidegger has spoken on Dwelling a number of times and he seems to suggest that building (or perhaps we can change this to creating) and dwelling a synonymous (Heidegger & Hofstadter 1971, 10). My reading of his ideas (a novice reading at best I acknowledge), to me posits the notion that dwelling clears a space for building (creating), one that opens up for the potentiality of ideas to reveal themselves. A space in which an idea is able to gather to itself, in its own way, those things around it. Heidegger uses a metaphor of a bridge to explain how this process occurs pointing out that the bridge gathers two sides together and locates itself as a site for the confluence, of what might be thought of as the unconscious spirit of ideas that lies below the surface of realisation. There is then, a sense that for Heidegger dwelling is about return to a sense of peace in which the true nature of things is known (Heidegger & Hofstadter 1971, 3). That Dwelling as a form of thinking that returns us to where we always have been, without the noise, without the distraction, to recognise we are already there through careful attention to the moment.

I and my colleagues (I attended the conference with two research assistants) were very taken by this approach and we adapted it to a focus group methodology for a project we were at the time, just about to initiate. With the intention of evaluating the introduction of course blogs at our institution, the focus group session started with participants (in this case students) writing ideas down on post-it notes in response to a prompt. These were then placed on large sheets of paper on which each key theme had been inscribed at the centre. They were then encouraged to add other comments to the posters in an iterative, but silent process. This worked very well and after each Dwelling session we were able to facilitate a lively and productive discussion around the poster comments.

Alongside the development of the focus group methjod, I also adapted the approach to tackle a problem with a drama production module I was about to run for a group of second year production students. The issue here is that without teaching screenwriting (which would take a good 6 to 8 weeks) I needed the students to generate a story idea within the first three weeks of the semester so that we could get the pre-production planning started as early as possible. I also hopped to tackle another associated issue I which is that left to their own devices students, as novice screenwriters will tend to default to the lowest common denominator and you get stories that are immature, predicable, reflect a narrow world view and mostly involve a gun. A final problem I wished to tackle revolved around the attachment students have to their first idea. They seem to think that their first idea is the only idea and own it with such deep emotional attachment that it is difficult to shift them from it.

So, the aim of the story workshop would hopefully fast track the development of an idea, root that idea in a real-world experience and divest students of their attachment to their own first idea.

It seemed to work, the students were extremely engaged, and really excited about the posters (they were virtually ripped off the wall by their respective owners). Plus, the trick I played on them (see below for more on this) seemed to work in that their ideas changed and they continued to change as they received further feedback during the later stages of the story development process. Perhaps the real evidence of the approaches success though, concerns a group of students who arrived back from the winter break some three or four weeks into the semester. Having missed the workshop, they were offered the opportunity to develop a script on any topic they chose (this was the control group that added an empirical dimension to the research). Needless to say, while all the other scripts were dramas with a real depth to them, this one group made a somewhat cliched film about gangsters that featured a gun.

For anyone who wishes to adopt the methodology for this approach to story development I will close with a short recipe for its use. Feel free to adapt it any way you chose and I look forward to hearing of other people’s experience of using dwelling in other ways.

Workshop Methodology

Context: the need for rapid story development for drama production, to address the difficulty for novice screenwriters to write anything complex and mature i.e. without a, to break them of their addiction to their first idea.

Preamble: in advance invite participants to bring with them to the workshop an image or artefact from their past which for them evokes a story that they can tell. It is of value if they believe that they will be expected to tell this story in class and if possible it should be written down in advance (one page – title, logline, synopsis) and handed in to the workshop facilitator. Even though the participants won’t get to tell the story they have prepared it is important they have one in mind so that at the end of the workshop they can compare their first idea with their new ideas.

Instructions: place large A0 sheets of paper around the room with at least one per workshop participant. Invite the participants to stick their photo or artefact to the centre of a poster. Explain that in silence (you may need to police this) everyone will now go around the room and look at each poster in turn. Explain that they should write whatever comes to mind (what does the image or artefact make them think of). Let them know that as the workshop evolves you will be giving verbal prompts to add other comments to the posters. They should understand that they can write anything, they can add to other comments, change them, engage in dialogue with others through their comments. However, they are not allowed to write on their own poster.

Process: as the workshop evolves give prompts to initiate further writing (I use prompts designed to develop a three-act structure i.e. people, place, time; inciting incident; problem encounters; resolution or ending). You should probably allow anything between 45 minutes to an hour but be sure to give time for each participant to write something on each poster after your prompts. At the conclusion of the workshop invite the participants to take sometime to view their own posters. Ask them “has your idea changed”?

References

Giddens, S., Spencer, R.M., Urbanczyk, J.K., (2018). ‘Dwelling’, paper presented to Rethinking Research: Disrupting Challenges Research Practices, Coventry University, January 19th 2018. Available at: https://goo.gl/twYVCg [Accessed 9 June 2018].

Heidegger, M., 1978 (first published in 1956). The Origin of the Work of Art. In: D. Farrell Krell, ed. Basic Writings. London: Routledge.

Heidegger, M., & Hofstadter, A. (1971). Building Dwelling Thinking. Poetry, Language, Thought, (1), 42.

Lynch, S, 2013. Mindfulness in Higher Education: It’s a Win-Win Situation. Enhancement Themes, [Online]. Available at: https://goo.gl/4EyxtV [Accessed 9 June 2018].

Tucker, C., (2017). Borrowing a Powerful Brainstorm Protocol from IDEO. In: Catlin Tucker, 1st September 2017. Available at: https://goo.gl/R47B3p [Accessed 9 June 2018].