Michele O'Brien (left) and Alice Flynn of Valise Noire Storytelling Theatre
BCHA Refuge Support worker Anna Mclaughlin has been a driving force behind a unique project to help women who have experienced domestic abuse to tell their own stories in their own words. Women of Words is the result of a collaboration between Alice Flynn and Michele O’Brien of Valise Noire Storytelling Theatre and Anna’s writing group at the Refuge
Here at BCHA’s Bournemouth Refuge, we have been taking part in an incredibly exciting, local project, to do with storytelling. The need for this project became clear during our Pattern Changing group. Pattern changing is an educational programme for survivors of Domestic Abuse, which is facilitated by myself and Hannah Thorneycroft.
When I am facilitating Pattern Changing, I always close sessions by holding a group poetry reading. In one particular group, at Bournemouth Refuge, the poems became such a joyful experience that many women started to write their own and shared them with the group.
I was completely blown away by this powerful and brave act. I was also seriously impressed with the talent and diversity of the creative expression. We even had a rap performance.
Many women struggle to speak when starting the course and watching women expressing themselves and courageously sharing their work, was very moving.
As this began to unfold, many women said that the story of their life had often been told by other people. Written into reports and care plans.
One of our resident’s said: “When I write my poetry, I feel like I am claiming back my story and often when I write, I read it back and am quite surprised at what I actually feel. We spend so much time saying “I am fine” and “It’s ok”. But when you write, you don’t have to pretend.”
We have spoken at length, in group, about the notion of “self-editing.” We all think very carefully before we share things with other people, be it on social media, in an email or a conversation with others. What came across is, when we are writing privately for ourselves, the self-editing slips away and we are left with the truth. It can sometimes reveal emotions to us that we weren’t even aware of.
Much research has been carried out into the health benefits of therapeutic and reflective writing, which have been proven to benefit physical wellbeing as well as mental health.
Research by Dr. Pennebaker and Joshua Smyth PhD., Syracuse University, suggests that writing about emotions and stress can boost immune functioning.
It became clear to me that there was a need for this work and the group asked me if I could create a writing group for them. They wanted a space to explore these talents. But I knew that I needed guidance from experienced writers.
I started seeking out a writing space with the vision that it could be offered to survivors of domestic abuse who were attending BCHA’s Domestic Abuse Courses, both at refuge and in the wider community.
It felt important that it was led by experienced female creatives who were sensitive and would deliver in a trauma informed way.
Immediately, Alice Flynn came to mind. I had been lucky enough to attend classes with Alice and also watch her performing. She is a local creativity leader and theatre practitioner. She teaches embodiment practices and is also a skilled writer.
Alice was bubbling with ideas and she introduced me to her business partner, Michele O’Brien, who is also a theatre practitioner/actress and award winning storyteller.
They were both filled with passion about forming a space for women to explore their voices and writing. They also had an interest in incorporating female history into the project, and so began Women of Words, Dorset.
The project, which is funded by the National Lottery Heritage Fund, provided incredibly rich sessions for the women, giving them the opportunity to source inspiration from the local Dorset History Museum. It was important, in terms of empowerment, that the group’s content was led by the group’s interests and that the sessions were led by the group itself.
Alice and Michele chose artefacts and pieces of writing that shared the stories of local women in history for comparison. Different themes were then chosen, including the theme of “voice”. It was fascinating for all involved to see the parallels between local women in history and ourselves.
Particularly in the sense of how women’s stories are told, it posed the question: What narratives are told when women are the storytellers? Following this, the group were offered a free workshop with an actress and voice specialist, Paula Langdon.
Lessons on poetry began and pens went to paper.
Fast forward eight weeks and poems have been written, displayed and performed at Bournemouth Emerging Arts Festival.
If you have walked through Boscombe recently, you will have seen strings of coloured ribbons and various fantastic pieces of art for BEAF. The Women of Words poems are also there, displayed proudly at Boscombe Library.
It has been a privilege to work alongside Alice Flynn and Michele O’Brien of the Valise Noire Storytelling Theatre and watch Women of Words unfurl. I feel inspired and grateful to have had the opportunity to watch them create and to be a part of it in some way.
Thank you to:
Alice Flynn and Michele O’Brien of Valise Noire Storytelling Theatre, for helping bring Women of Words to life. You can watch Alice and Michele’s Women of Words video on You Tube.
The project was funded by the National Lottery Heritage Fund.
Art by Corrianna Clarke
Photography by www.richardbudd.co.uk(c) 2021.
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