Placement with Collective Encounters
by Eleanor Kilroy
On a Tuesday in mid-March 2020, I sat at my desk with a foggy head, clouded by the mist of confusion that surrounded coronavirus during those early weeks. I proceeded to write the necessary emails in the same fashion that many of us adopted that week, cancelling sessions for the ‘foreseeable’ and asking the recipients to ‘stay safe and healthy’. A sick feeling dipped and dived around my stomach, finally landing around my forehead, a dull tightness clamping my skull. I was full of worry, as I was in the midst of facilitating several theatrical workshop projects as part of my PhD fieldwork. Being in the room with participants is central to the research, as it explores the use of live and embodied performance processes to intervene with the pressure for young women to perform the perfect life digitally, on Instagram. I was also concerned about the future of another project I was co-directing, entitled Flow n Flux (with Natasha Richards), a feminist community group that uses creative arts methods to challenge societal issues. For theatre facilitators and researchers like myself, many of us were left thinking ‘What now?’
Though, while the theatres, schools and community centres had closed their doors, I was struck by the online work being carried out by Collective Encounters, a Liverpool based arts organisation, specialising in theatre for social change. Pioneered by artists, activists, thinkers and doers, Collective Encounters is embedded in the communities of Liverpool, using theatre to excite, entertain, challenge, resist and voice stories often unheard. During the early stages of lockdown the organisation made a swift transition online, signifying their refusal to let this moment of discovery escape them. Instead, Collective Encounters set out to uncover where hope lay for participatory theatre during these uncertain times. The series of online events and free resources provided by Collective Encounters created a sense of community and refuge, aiding participatory theatre makers to not only navigate but to thrive during lockdown. For myself, when the initial mist of lockdown confusion cleared, I found that the outcomes of my PhD fieldwork were particularly rich, which meant, luckily, I was able to move forward with theorising the findings I had previously gathered. With Flow n Flux, however, we too quickly made the jump to online facilitation, adopting a mode of working outside of our comfort zone. The events and resources generously provided by Collective Encounters acted as a source of inspiration and reassurance alongside this journey into the unknown. It was their ethos, creative innovation, altruism and community reach that led me to apply to carry out a placement as a member of their company.
I began a sixth month, part-time placement with Collective Encounters in April 2021. I was assigned the role of Programme Assistant, which involved working across a number of Collective Encounters programmes. This was an exciting prospect as they have an extensive range of programmes, stretching across all age spans and providing free creative outlets for a wide range of community groups whose access to creative arts might otherwise be restricted. The placement would occur almost entirely online, this could have been disheartening, however, I saw it as a valuable opportunity to soak up the knowledge the organisation had gained over the past year of online facilitation. At Flow n Flux, online sessions had meant that we were able to reach participants all over the country and internationally. This led us to commit to a future strategy of conducting the majority of our workshops online. I was keen to both share and develop my skills of virtual facilitation during my time at Collective Encounters.
One major component of the placement involved supporting the facilitation of Radical Makers, a free training course for emerging artists whose life events had meant that they had previously been unable to access formal arts education. In weekly Zoom sessions, I observed as a range of artists led classes in their areas of expertise, this contributed to widening my repertoire of dynamic exercises to explore with participants online. I ran weekly check-ins prompting participants to share their current life circumstances in creative ways. For example, I asked them to reflect on their week by sharing an event as a news headline or by tracing their changing moods in a weather report. I believe that check-ins are a crucial way to create connections in community settings. I aimed to deliver stimulating exercises that the participants could carry through into their practices as emerging artists. Additionally, working with the Radical Makers created opportunities for me to think about my PhD research in new and compelling ways. While my research is grounded in inhabiting embodied liveness in collective spaces, during a module on creating Digital Participatory Theatre, we explored my research topic, centred around issues of identity and performing the self online, solely within the digital sphere. I facilitated a series of creative exercises in which the group explored how the technological features of social media platforms could be used to investigate this provocation and engage with online audience members. As I near the end of my PhD it was exciting to work through new ideas with an incredibly inspiring group of emerging artists.
Another key facet of the placement involved supporting the Marketing team. I was tasked with developing a marketing and distribution campaign for a unique multimedia theatrical experience entitled, The Legend of the Mernix. This project was developed throughout lockdown by the Above and Beyond programme which is constituted by people from the Liverpool boroughs of Bootle and Birkenhead. This programme embeds creative and cultural activities in these communities by working in partnership with community organisations, activists and participants. Capturing the innovation that Collective Encounters has applied to making participatory theatre in COVID times, The Legend of the Mernix consists of four quests – two digital and two physical. There is truly something for everyone, with the quests combining, digital performance, song, animation, activism, storytelling and adventure. Developing the marketing strategy was a creative process that involved developing the voice, tone and visual content from the perspective of the storyteller, who sought to attract an audience keen to restore hope in hard times. Advancing my marketing skills, I produced a calendar to schedule campaign milestones and to plan posts across multiple social media platforms.
When I began working within the realm of marketing I didn’t anticipate the impact it would have on developing Flow n Flux. My fellow co-director and I felt certain that we would benefit from a marketing presence, however, as full-time PhD students, workshop facilitators and Associate Lectures, we struggled to find the time to move forward in this area. The experience I gained at Collective Encounters gave me a burst of inspiration and provided me with the necessary tools to develop a marketing strategy for Flow n Flux. We have since been able to transfer this knowledge to a small marketing team, who in the last few months have launched Flow n Flux social media pages and a monthly newsletter.
The Collective Encounters team were tremendously supportive throughout my placement, showing interest in my research and career development. They allowed me to tailor my placement according to my interests while providing key moments of discovery beyond the realms of my expectations. I finish the placement with a great sense of appreciation to the Collective Encounters team, I thoroughly look forward to crossing paths in the future.
PhD Candidate, Goldsmiths, University of London