Boats on an Ocean: Collective Power Award

| Anna Eaton

We are delighted to be involved again this year with the Culture, Health and Wellbeing Alliance’s (CHWA) annual awards which focuses on collective power (partnership and co-production), practitioner support and climate. The awards ceremony took place online on Friday 23rd April celebrating an amazing collection of organisations and people supporting others to cope, create and grow.

We partnered with CHWA on their Collective Power Award. This award aims to recognise an inspiring project, consortium, collective or movement of people in which meaningful partnership and co-production has improved the health and wellbeing of individuals and communities through culture and creativity. CHWA were positively overwhelmed by the quality of applications for this award. We loved the different interpretations of “collective power” and we were blown away by how people and organisations worked together to respond and adapt during the pandemic. 

Boats on an Ocean

In order to celebrate this work, we are running a blog series on each of the projects shortlisted for the Collective Power Award and we’re delighted to feature this week – Boats on an Ocean.

Boats on an Ocean is an audio artwork representing the stories, experiences and emotions shared by eight healthcare workers from Coventry and across the UK gathered in June 2020 amid the first wave of the Covid-19 pandemic.

This project was a unique collaboration between researchers from Coventry University, producers at China Plate Theatre and a group of artists funded by Coventry Creates (Coventry/ Warwick University) conducted entirely online. It was instigated by Kerry Wykes, a Nurse, Researcher and Lecturer in Emergency Care with 15 years-experience in healthcare.

The aim of the project was to raise awareness of the real experiences and challenges healthcare workers are facing. Many described the experience of taking part as “cathartic” explaining that it helped them to feel that their voices were being heard and it was a way for the public to relate to their experience. Through the process of sharing stories, power was devolved to the healthcare workers. By taking part together, researchers, artists and healthcare workers learned from one another and developed a sense of commonality – coming to realise that although we are in ‘different boats’, we are all on the same ocean.

You can listen to the intimate, emotive result of this collaboration below:

China Plate · Boats On An Ocean

We talked to Kerry Wykes and to Andrea Pieri Gonzalez from China Plate Theatre to learn more about the project:

What has been your favourite thing about the project?

Kerry: My favourite thing about the project is the relationships it initiated (and is still initiating!) between healthcare worker participants from across the country and between all the team (researchers, theatre producers, artists) who collaborated to make the project a success.  

Many of the healthcare worker participants have stayed in contact with the team, via Twitter and email. One of the participants made contact over six months after the project took place and said she was still hearing the stories of the other participants and was so glad she had had an ‘outlet’ for her story. In the Boats on an Ocean script it goes, “Different boats, yes, but all of us are in the same ocean” – a reflection of the themes of community, commonality and peer support that were sparked within the workshop.  

This project was funded by a small grant from the Coventry Creates project (funded by Coventry and Warwick University), which aimed to bring together artists and researchers to create artwork for Coventry City of Culture 2021. It was so important to me that healthcare workers were represented as part of the City of Culture and to find a way to make their stories accessible to the general public. We had a very short timescale for the project (just 1-2 months) and so relationships were created in a very short period of time and our team were working together very intensely during this period. I think this will be the case for many projects and teams that were started during the pandemic and it’s important to capture this team energy and learning and take it forward for the next stage of the project. 

Andrea: My favourite thing about the project was planning and delivering the workshop with healthcare workers. Nick Walker, writer and director of Boats and an Ocean, and I were given some key findings from researchers (Dr Sally Pezaro and Professor Louise Moody) at Coventry University, related to themes of workplace compassion, particular things that help to create compassion within the workplace for healthcare workers. This was used as a starting point for us to explore creatively with healthcare workers what both self-compassion and workplace compassion looked like for them during the pandemic. We explored this through roles on the wall, creative writing and character development techniques. 

The way the workshop was developed with the themes from existing research and with feedback from Kerry and Sally was a new way of working for me, as the premise of the workshop was evidence-based. This collaboration was crucial to the workshops structure and development, as it combined the research/understanding of lived experience with our creative and facilitation skills in sensitively exploring this content.  

It was wonderful to see how willing the participants were to share their experiences with us through these activities, and the huge amounts of content, which it generated to inspire Nick’s script. I feel so honoured to have been in that space with the participants, to have heard their stories first hand. And to have seen how they supported and comforted one another and the trust they were openly willing to put in us to create something with their experiences. I can’t thank them enough for that. 

What have you learnt along the way? Have there been any ‘best mistakes’?

Kerry: The most important learning within this project has been around the process of co-creation and what it means. We as a team are still considering what co-creation means to us, coming from different disciplines (arts, research), and how this will influence the next phase of this project. We are using the definition of co-creation from ‘Co-creating welfare’ which is:

“Co-creation involves a transdisciplinary team which has to include end users and professionals who have a “formal responsibility” in the process. It is based on shared understanding of a situation, creation of a shared language, dialog, combination and mutualization of skills and interdependence and involves shared negotiation of goals. The underlying objective of the process is to initiate a process of change leading to a new prosperity” (Co-creating welfare 2019) 

My ‘best mistake’ within this project has been to worry less about the final output and learning to trust the process of co-creation. This means trusting the diverse experiences and skills of the team, which encourages different perspectives, creativity and innovation. 

Andrea: I agree with Kerry, we have been unpicking what it means to co-create and how we can involve the healthcare workers much more in the development of the piece of work beyond the initial workshop. Based on the feedback from participants, it feels important to me that in future iterations of the project we also encourage the participants to think about how they would direct the piece after they have provided feedback on the draft script – whose voice is telling the story? Is it one/two/more? Is it a male or female voice? Does this matter? What tones does the voice use? Are they matter of fact? Are they sad, choked up? Do they find certain things funny? What noises/sounds would be in the background? This would encourage more of a co-creative process and gain clarity on the emotions and atmosphere that the participants want to portray. 

Has anything surprised you during the project?

Kerry: I have been constantly surprised throughout the project! I was surprised by the enthusiasm shown by healthcare workers to take part in this initial pilot project during what was an exceptionally busy and stressful time in their professional and personal lives. I was surprised by the extent to which participants felt that sharing their experiences through the arts helped them to feel their voices were being heard. I was also surprised by how much participants appreciated this space to share their stories. Even those healthcare workers who had accessed other forms of support within their workplaces expressed benefits of being able to share their stories with others within this forum. This has led us to develop the second stage of the project which is to begin to consider the benefits of this intervention as a wellbeing tool.  

Andrea: I wasn’t expecting for the respect for each others professions to be mutual. Healthcare workers throughout this pandemic have responded and reacted so quickly to their patients’ and the country’s needs. Getting on with their job with dignity and grace. They have been on the frontline putting others first, with an evident risk to their own life, health, mental health and wellbeing. As a theatre organisation, we wanted to find a way to offer something back for all they were doing – a space and sometime for reflection that was outside of their working environment. 

It came as a surprise to me that the healthcare workers valued the role that creatives and artists play in finding ways to tell stories and sharing these with a wider audience. They felt strongly that there was a role for the arts in getting their stories and experiences out there – it was something we weren’t expecting to hear and completely not why we were involved in the process. But it was the loveliest gift to be given at a time when the arts were facing their own crisis. 

To find out more about Boats on an Ocean and those involved, visit Coventry Creates.

Photo by Ian Taylor

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