Research Contexts for The Verbatim Formula

Maggie Inchley, June 2017

Young people who enter social care have had severely disrupted lives. In 2015, a House of Commons Briefing Paper reported that in 61% of cases, social services had first engaged with looked-after children because of abuse or neglect. Mental Health and Well-being of Looked-after Children (2016) found that half of children in care have a diagnosable mental health disorder. Once in care, children are often moved several times, a practice which intensifies emotional instability, and severely exacerbates their difficulties in planning for the future. In response to recent safeguarding failures a bureaucratic system has developed, in which there is little time for overstretched social workers to develop the trusting relationships that are necessary for children to feel secure enough to articulate their experiences. Painting a bleak picture of the mechanical and rigid treatment of children by its ‘administrative machinery’, applied theatre practitioner MacNeill sees social workers under pressure to maintain a system ‘defunct and devoid of human emotion and opportunities for natural connection’ (MacNeill, 2015).

Following the 1989 UN Conventions on the Rights of the Child and the UK’s 1989 Children’s Act, local authorities have been required to give ‘due regard’ to children’s wishes and feelings in matters affecting them. Statutory Guidance on promoting the health and wellbeing of looked-after children states that local authorities should ensure that the voices of children are at the heart of commissioning, planning, delivery and evaluation of the services they use (National Children’s Bureau, 2013). It is however difficult to calibrate how much a young person’s own wishes, desires and needs are listened to in the planning for their future, and difficult to ensure, as OFSTED has stated, that children are able to express themselves in ways they prefer (OFSTED, 2014). Academic research points to the importance of listening in the context of child protection and safeguarding, and to uncertainty amongst social workers regarding how to act upon what they hear (Motzkau, 2015). Feedback from young people themselves continually emphasises the feeling of being unheard. A 2015 survey by the Children’s Commissioner, legally obliged by the 2014 Children and Families Act to solicit and publicise children’s views, found that ‘being listened to’ is the primary value identified by children that makes their care ‘good’ (Children’s Commissioner, 2015).

Verbatim Theatre-making methodologies pay minute attention to the words and voices of individuals, and to honouring their experiences and emotions. By interviewing and/or recording people’s words, verbatim performance is able to relay the exact words of the interviewees – especially those who may otherwise be withdrawn or unforthcoming – in spaces and to people who would otherwise be unlikely to hear them. In common with other types of documentary theatre its methods have been used with the intention of bringing attention to individuals and communities who have been marginalised (Prendergast and Saxton, 2016). Although the benefits of arts learning to disadvantaged young people is well documented, there is a lack of detailed exploration of the strengths and pitfalls of using verbatim practice can support the voices of young people and support cultures of listening in services that are responsible for their wellbeing, care and education (AHRC, 2016; ACE, 2014; Concha and Jovchelovitch, 2013). Having already carried out three residential workshops at QMUL the research team has developed a verbatim practice with care-experienced children that emphasises dialogue with adults and heightens listening practices. It has also accrued a bank of over 150 testimonies from looked after children, care leavers, and care professionals, which have been performed as a ‘living archive’ that stimulates affect, discussion and desire for change amongst professionals involved in care contexts. This research will enable the project team to further develop performative uses for this archive, and also to assess the outcomes of the practice. Findings will build on the tradition of thinking that stresses the ability of applied practice to empower participants to reflect on their habitus and change it, and will provide evidence on the recent argument by Helen Nicholson that the embodied and affective relations generated by applied theatre projects allows a relational ontology that can support social, political and cultural change (Thompson, 2009; Prendergast and Saxton, 2016; Nicholson, 2016). By combining approaches from applied theatre, psychiatry, social science and phenomenology, TVF offers new understandings of verbatim practice by framing it within scholarship that discusses the heightening of attention through creative and aesthetic practices of articulation, embodiment and listening (Soans, 2008; Welton, 2010; INCHLEY, 2016).

This project furthers the research team’s exploration of the use of the arts to enable democratic participatory evaluation, and to help develop services that are responsive to the needs of their users. Following the AHRC Cultural Value Project (2016) argument that there is a need to step back from an established hierarchy of evidence means for conducting evaluation and measuring impact, TVF explores and make the case for the use of evaluative techniques that enhance its pedagogical aim to support the voices of young people, by giving them opportunities to respond creatively both to the usefulness of the workshops, and to care and education providers (AHRC, 2016). The research also develops AHRC research, Performing Impact (Thomson et al, 2012), which highlighted the tendency for evaluation to be used as a means to justify the existence of applied arts projects rather than use artistic and aesthetic perspectives to examine the impact of projects on communities. In TVF, participatory and creative evaluative practice aims to make and assess such impact on communities of service users and providers. Recent debates in the Accounting, Auditing & Accountability Journal highlight this need for research that looks at the juncture between accounting cultures and participatory methods for managing projects. O’Dwyer and Boomsma’s (2015) research for example on NGOs argues that more attention must be paid to the co-constructed nature of reporting practices and the significance of ‘felt’ or experiential forms of project evaluation as fundamental to securing sustainable and trusting relations with stakeholders. TVF contributes empirical data to understand the specific contexts in which young people in care can participate in democratic evaluation, and facilitate an interdisciplinary approach that acknowledges the role of aesthetics in making impact on communities and service providers. The project findings help conceptualise how performative evaluation can inform evaluations that facilitate participation of the most marginalised communities in assessing local authority services and university structures (see also, Oakes and Oakes, 2016)