Storytelling in the Urban Forest
On Wednesday 15th February 2023 the second of two storytelling workshops took place in The Urban Forest, an exhibition space run by Loughborough-based arts organisation Charnwood Arts as part of the Charnwood Forest Landscape Partnership Scheme.
The workshops were a collaborative activity between Charnwood Arts and Loughborough University’s Storytelling Academy. Sessions were led by students studying on the Applied Storytelling and Theatre Masters course and funded by the E-SHAHRAZAD project, an Erasmus-plus European initiative to encourage inter-generational learning activities in community settings.
Located in a large unit in The Rushes shopping centre in Loughborough, the Urban Forest contains displays, exhibitions and art installations, and hosts nature and forest-themed talks, workshops and performances, all aimed at raising public awareness of the natural landscape and geology of the local area.
It proved to be a perfect space to hold community storytelling workshops designed to bring two diverse components of the Loughborough community together – local residents and students.
The theme of the workshops was ‘Our Loughborough’, with participants prompted to tell each other stories of how they came to be in Loughborough, of their experiences living in the town and to name their favourite places within it.
It was hoped each participant would learn something about their partner from the opposite group, find common experiences and shared interests, and come to a better understanding of each other beyond the common stereotypes of residents and students, town and gown.
And the idea seems to have worked.
‘I was quite anxious because it was my first time doing an activity with the local community, especially the elderly,’ said one student. ‘But I feel more confident now, and as an international student, I felt I was accepted by sharing my stories.’
A Loughborough resident echoed the feeling of anxiety. ‘I wasn’t sure what to expect and whether young people would be interested in what I had to say. But we swapped stories of our backgrounds and we’d realise we had similar or parallel childhood experiences, experiences in a similar professional field and so on.’
‘It was refreshing to speak to the young people.’
Other residents felt the activity ‘opened their eyes’ to the lives of the students including the issues they face living in the town and away from their families. Loneliness was one emotion both groups were surprised to hear about from the other.
‘Regardless of nationality, location or ages, we are the same as a human being, having stuff to manage, caring for what we love.’
After the paired story-sharing activities lead by the masters’ students, participants carried on chatting with their partners as they decorated leaf shapes to represent their stories. Each pair then re-told their partner’s story to the rest of the group before hanging their leaf on a ‘tree’ – a branch pruned from a large tree that stands on campus.
The positive impact the workshop had on the storytellers looks set to expand, with local residents agreeing to help one student out with an artwork project and another student since signing up as a volunteer in the town. ‘I always feared I’d do or say something wrong and this experience taught me otherwise.’
You can see the storytelling tree and the stories displayed on it at the Urban Forest in The Rushes shopping centre until March 25th.