Q + A = Research + Collaboration + Creativity

Hey there, pull up a chair. Thanks for being here, and for reading this! My name is Colleen, Frog in Hand's Artistic Director. A few weeks ago, a colleague of ours - actor and fight director Patrick Howarth - sent me an email asking for my take on Frog in Hand as a place for Arts-Based Research. Then Patrick sent me an amazing series of pertinent and interesting questions. He inspired me to reflect on Frog in Hand's philosophies and values, so I asked Patrick if I could shape our conversation into a blog post. Below is the resulting conversation.

Patrick Howarth (PH): I see a few distinct but connected streams in how Frog in Hand is organized: education, creation, collaboration and research. You use mentors and also provide mentorship. Can you provide a few thoughts on this approach as it pertains to researching the topics you bring to life?

Colleen Snell (CS): This is a great question. To me, education, creation and research are closely interwoven through collaboration. I value the creative process for its inherent value, not as a means to an end. I aspire to build relationships and create from there. I begin with a question (or theme) and hold it out to the group so we can interrogate it together. This is a way for the performers to become active thinkers and contributors so we all express something personal and meaningful. To me, people are never "empty vessels," so I think my job is to create a scaffold and listen. Decisions will need to be made and leadership is needed (that's where my Artistic Director "hat" comes in)...

...But collaboration is at the heart of every creative process... collaboration that truly shapes the outcome of the work. It's not just, "here's the outline colour this in," but, "what picture can we make together?"

This approach is different from folks who prefer to be alone in the studio with their questioning, or choreographers who only make steps and teach them. When I work alone, mostly I read science fiction and experience diverse forms of storytelling. When I come up with a creative idea, I consult my team and mentors (folks like Frog in Hand's dramaturge, Daniel Levinson and CoFounder Noelle Hamlyn). Together we consider why our artistic themes are important, why they need to be shared right now. I like to ask those same questions when I mentor people, too. These conversations are essential.

Colleen at Frog in Hand's 2014 "Off the Wall"

PH: What does Research mean to you, and how does it manifest? Do you have a particular research paradigm or philosophy? CS: To me, research means expanding a third person perspective ("they") to include the complexity of a first person perspective ("I"). Human nature is what interests me - that's what I'm researching. To find true richness in that, I must access and pursue multiple sources of knowledge, multiple perspectives on what it means to be and feel human. My research is sprawling but it gets honed by the creative process. I am studying world building, narrativity, embodiment theory and diverse ways of knowing. I also like to work with non-dancers, designers, scientists, community members... even inorganic collaborators - like spaces and objects. I'm interested in the way humans render meaning from experience, creating and sharing stories. I also cherish practices I share with my mentors in England - a community of folks who are committed to practice-as-research, valuing subjective experience beside objectivity. These philosophies translate well from the page to the studio and back again. I highly value the lived knowledge of movers, their embodied awareness and sensations, and I learn by comparing this to my own experience. I have spent a great deal of time considering phenomenology as a way of doing philosophy. This emerged in my Masters thesis, which was both written and embodied. I have also practiced relational inquiry, but I'm less versed in the specifics of this methodology. PH: Can you say a few words about your interest in "trauma-informed practices", and how it intersects with creation? CS: First of all, I am not a dance therapist, nor do I engage directly in healing as an art, although I am ecstatic to know the arts have this capacity. A few years ago I had the privilege of collaborating with emerging and established Child and Youth Care (CYC) workers. I travelled to CYC conferences in Etobicoke, Vancouver and California to share a keynote speech called "Turn Out the Lights,"that was both spoken and danced (learn more about that project here). During "Turn Out the Lights," three dancers held the stories of three former youth in care. These were "lived" stories, they were raw, personal and direct, they were non-fiction and needed to be approached with great care. All three stories involved past trauma. I learned trauma-informed practice from these conferences and from CYC practitioners. Essentially it's the notion that best practises in this context need boundaries and trust to feel safe. I realized our process needed to have choice and consent at its core. For instance we needed to ask - do you think I could move like this as you say that? Does this image I'm proposing as a dancer support the way that memory feels for you? Is it ok for you to share this personal story with me? With an audience? We needed to understand if consent was given once, it wasn't granted forever, so we need to ask again at the start of next rehearsal - and be ok if consent was withdrawn. We needed to check in. We all needed to be empathetic and approach one another with care. 

Shadan Hyder and Colleen in "Turn out the Lights"

Suddenly I thought - oh my God, why aren't we engaging with a trauma-informed lens in every process? What if performers were always approached for their consent to use a personal experience or memory in the creative process, rather than this being an expectation? What if consent could be withdrawn - at any point? What if the leader of the creative process was empathetic and careful, building trust, making sure everyone felt safe and heard? What if we didn't need to go into dark places to mine them for a "product?" I think if we are creating something personal, the performer should control where we go and how far we go, what they do/do not share. Everyone should be offered support along the way to avoid triggering or re-triggering past trauma. Doesn't that sound like a good way of working? It also needs to be explicit, rather than implicit because we can't make assumptions, folks need to be directly asked. This is why I became interested in bringing a trauma-informed lens to my practise, and although it's new, I'm excited to share it with others. I'm learning about this practice from CYC colleagues such as my mom Heather Snell and her colleagues. PH: Regarding your statement: "We create site-specific experiences as platforms for artistic exchange, collaboration and social change,"can you speak about how those elements work together for social change? Is there a particular kind of social change you are most passionate about? CS: What an amazing question. Frog in Hand is the only organization of its kind in Mississauga - to our knowledge we are the only people creating site-specific, contemporary dance-theatre. So we are a bit (or a lot) different, but we aim to be accessible in terms of our themes, content, prices and physically accessible as far as possible (sometimes challenging in site-specific locations). Frequently our activities bring communities together in spaces where folks would not venture if not for our projects, creating exchange and building new networks. As an example, "Stories in the Woods" brought more than 40 artists through a sawmill that aims to reclaim wood sustainably. Our story was about the future of Mississauga and climate change. "Turn out the Lights" brought dancers to a Child and Youth Care world conference, where someone told us, "I didn't know dance could be so expressive." Our "Off the Wall" project brought around 30 or so artists to a local Canada Day celebration that had never before integrated site-specific, contemporary professional arts performances (most families were understandably there for the face painting, crafts and gorgeous cake). By creating work outside of "normal" theatre environments, we create a new normal. We aspire to reach new audiences this way. If we can imagine together, we can empathize - we can connect, grow together and share unique experiences. I think this builds community, a shared identity and connects people to places in our city; some people call this "placemaking." As a company we aspire to meet communities and spaces where they are at, creating work where diverse folks can see themselves represented in, by and through the kinds of stories we tell.

Jeremy Pearson. Photo: Tamara Romanchuk

I could go on and on about this because I think it's more important than ever that artists work from a place of service, considering public value during and after this pandemic. I am passionate about supporting the ongoing social justice movement, and generating awareness as well as hope around the climate crisis. I am passionate about advocating for the arts and artists in Canada - for living wages, living conditions and better awareness about what the arts are and do... they have the power to connect us all, transcending barriers at a time when folks need to come together to heal and rebuild.

PH: Finally, do you have a creation/performance that most exemplifies the connection between research and final artistic product? CS: Perhaps the most recent production of "Stories in the Woods." It involved reading science fiction, learning about climate change, dreaming about possible futures, and researching weird fiction as a genre. It also invested in the physical research of creating characters, building creatures and a lot of trial and error with regards to the technique of an outdoor, travelling performance. 

Clarke Blair in Stories in the Woods

More about Patrick! Last month, Patrick participated in one of the Grand Acts of Theatre commissions for the National Arts Centre, called until the next breath, with Catalyst Theatre. It will soon premiere on the NAC site here. About the project, Patrick says "it was fun to do a big environmental piece with a bunch of other folks!"

Thanks again Patrick for your interest in Frog in Hand, and for inviting us to reflect!