By Terri Halpin
I have struggled for a long time with how best to approach this article since I was asked to put into words the essence of our public speaking and drama workshops, with particular emphasis on how they work to combat loneliness.
I use the term ‘workshop’ deliberately although we don’t advertise them as such. I do understand the value of, what it is to partake rather than be lectured to, to learn through doing – experiential learning. This is a process through which I have frequently had sudden shifts in perception and moments of personal clarity whether working through the medium of drama, or art, or creative writing or even impromptu speech making.
When we allow ourselves to be spontaneous it can be truly amazing what emerges. As someone once said ‘how do I know how I feel until I hear what I have to say!’
I now realise that this has been part of my struggle with this piece of writing. I’m not used to carefully paraphrasing and analysing and getting things grammatically correct as I write – in any medium. I am more comfortable with spontaneity.
But of course in order to be truly spontaneous we have to eradicate our judges. In this case I have to rid myself of the preconceived notion of who, you, the reader, may be; you who sit on my shoulder as I write – in this case the articulate learned degree toting professional, for some reason smoking a pipe. You’ve been here since I started writing and it is now 4.30 a.m. on a Monday morning and I’m on my third attempt.
Treat it like an impromptu speech in the speaker’s workshops, I tell myself, just let the ideas flow – edit later.
Of course if I were in the speaker’s workshop of New Directions, I would be launching these thoughts onto a sea of affirmation; the body of the group leaning toward me – smiling, supportive, nodding in agreement – I would have the immediate experience of being affirmed, understood, respected, applauded.
True empathy doing much to dispel those internal judges, those echoes of childhood when I dared step into the limelight, dared to voice an independent opinion… ‘stop showing off’…’Excuse me, who asked you?’…I can only quote from the chapters of my own story. But the experiences, though totally individual, are also universal.
Daniel Goleman in his book ‘Emotional Intelligence’ made much of the art of empathy.
How the absence of empathy in childhood can stunt our emotional growth, and how potentially healing an experience it can be to receive it in later life, most commonly in the counselling situation.
Although there are no counsellors or therapists in New Directions and indeed we feel the need to underline this point to new members, there is no doubt that the experience of the speaking and drama workshops are in themselves potentially therapeutic.
Often when I spoke with enthusiasm about our organisation, I would then imagine people subsequently attending their first meeting; picture their response to the drab little partitioned off room in which, until quite recently, we used to meet. But in truth what I remember clearly of my first visit are the faces of the participants – lively, warm, supportive – the animation of the speakers, the affirmation I received after I’d been pressed to the podium to make an ‘icebreaker’ speech. The surge of energy I felt as I was leaving.
I keep coming back to this word affirmation, but lately I am repeatedly struck by our need for it, and the positive effect of it. Sometimes I have thought the need is more prevalent among performers but lately I seem to see it reflected on all levels.
I was speaking recently to a woman at a local centre for alternative therapies who had just completed a four-day residential retreat. An essential requirement of the programme was that the participants maintain a strict silence throughout; the leader himself only speaking briefly at the commencement of morning and afternoon meditation.
One of the instructions they were given caused problems for this particular participant. They were asked if and when it came up, to simply acknowledge their anger – much like the sky would acknowledge the passing of the clouds.
My client had spent a considerable amount of time and money during the previous two years in a counselling process, which had put great emphasis on seeking out and working through her anger.
She was now experiencing a great deal of difficulty with this total shift of concept and felt a pressing need for clarification, and indeed to explain her reasons for her difficulty.
Eventually after many false starts, on the morning of the third day, she could hold back no longer, and spoke into the silence; a silence which by then must have been truly palpable. The leader with a minimum of words simply reiterated what he had previously stated making no reference to her own experience. Her fellow participants had remained eyes cast down and immobile during the interaction. Silence resumed. Indeed silence resumed for another two days.
The woman spoke of the mental torture she endured for the remainder of the retreat - the embarrassment, the self doubt, indeed the self loathing, until the silence was finally over, and people were encouraged to share their experiences.
Another participant sought her out, one would wish quickly, and said, ‘I was so glad you asked that question, I was having difficulty with that too’.
The relief she experienced was immense. But to wait two days – unthinkable!
I imagine it takes a great deal of self-sufficiency to live alone with our thoughts. Though I understand the more we are affirmed the easier it is to return to them.
Perhaps this is the essence of loneliness, which we combat.
Offering a listening ear, and understanding, an opportunity to share our perception of the world – however it is tilted – and a genuine interest and respect for the uniqueness of that experience.
Shortly after I started participating in the speaker s workshops in 1993, I attended a social function organised by the group in a local hotel. A man who still attends occasionally, and like so many others, has found a place in my heart, opened a prepared speech by stating “this is the only group to which I have ever belonged where people didn’t ridicule me.”
I was the only one who laughed – believing this was an introduction to a clever commentary reminiscent of the style of Groucho Marx. I didn’t realise that the man was speaking from the heart. In truth the man in question is somewhat eccentric of dress and opinion, but it is also true that in these surroundings he is valued for that uniqueness.
The core of the drama workshop when I began facilitating it in January 1995 was made up of a group of men from the speaker’s workshops who had been experiencing and offering this positive affirmation for over a year. Through the creative drama then, many moved from prepared speech to improvisation, from structure to spontaneity, from verbal to physical confidence.
The aim of the drama workshop is to build trust and confidence, to break down inhibition, to create a safe environment where people can express themselves freely without fear of being judged stupid or unoriginal or inappropriate or mad. Most of all the workshops are about having fun together, where adults are given permission to play. I look back over the workshops remembering much shared laughter; even on occasion shared tears.
The workshop always begins in a circle, symbolic for me of the equality, of the sharing; though over the years the faces have changed, the original core of the group still serve to strengthen the experience of those who join today.
Stepping into a space of shared experience is at least momentarily to step out of loneliness.