At The Big Day of Belonging, telling stories in order to find the myth within...the myth of inner wisdom

At The Big Day of Belonging, telling stories in order to find the myth within…the myth of inner wisdom

Yesterday was a marvellously alive day. I spent it telling stories…rather I spent it listening to other people’s stories. I had many guests…they sat in the large red storytelling chair…and we began our chat with what we call in therapeutic circles ‘problem free chat”…”how are you enjoying the activities today?” “Aren’t we lucky the rain held out?”…simple warm things…

I had brought support materials as stimuli, just in case the stories did not come easily. It turned out I had very willing storytellers…from every generation: young girls (from 3 to 10), teenagers, young women, middle aged women and then elders. The stories were all different, yet there was something that sat across all of them. They were all stories of the heroine: women from every generation, interested in sharing. A journey across time and place. The stories were about being in relationship within community, whether the community was a community of imaginary animals or the actual community where the individual resided. My job was to invite the participants to move their story into personal mythology, moving from the ordinary world into the extraordinary and ending up in a world of belonging.

I re-learned a lot yesterday: the joy of deep listening, the excitement of growing stories together and the many things we have in common. And I also was reassured of the importance of this and how without growing our stories together we may just miss the opportunity to grow our sense of belonging, both within our community and even more importantly, within ourselves.

Nicholas Morton-Paine and Helen Stephens

Week 1 and 2
Playing with puppets this week has been extraordinary. At first. Ahhh. Confronting. My hands don’t work! The intricacies … The pieces of the puppet go one way and I seem to go the other.

My first job this week was to inhabit the pigeon…get down on my haunches…keep up the yoga…

The pigeons are a work of art. Intricate pieces welded together with many moving pieces. Each puppet has a cup with the puppets name on, because we are
‘working them in’ and so screws cannot be too tight…as a result we have little bolts etc. falling off every now and then. We collect them and they are ready for Sam to fix at the end of the day. By the time we open the puppets will be fine tuned and tightened: we will be used to the puppets and the puppets will be used to us.

The Dead Puppet Society

We add pigeon sounds (“not sure about this…can’t roll the tongue so well”)…practice makes perfect so I am rolling on a regular basis.

Then there is my squirrel. Delicious. Love her. “Squerl” is tiny, rambunctious, energetic and fast moving (typecast?). She is teaching me about detail. Every action needs to be precise. The move of the head, the flick of the tail, the tips of her paws…

This is ridiculously fun…more than fun…puppets make us focused yet fluid, joyful yet task driven.

We are nearly the end of our second week. I can feel the ensemble growing, led by a terrific team of artists: David (picture above) and Nick (picture below with the artistic associate of the company Helen Stephens).

Sam has multiple skills and one of them is fixing our puppets

Sam has multiple skills and one of them is fixing our puppets

We are all in the rehearsal room, encouraging, offering suggestions, thoroughly enjoying the process of collaborative practice[/caption]

Our ensemble consists of four male artists and three female artists, hardly avoidable when you consider the subject matter. I get to play many roles that are male, which is a delight…we are all sailors, then we have our Cameo roles that move the story forward. We operate puppets throughout the show at the same time, which is the beautiful brand of Dead Puppet Society: the puppets and puppeteers are both very visible, working together to create magic.

David in directing mode

David in directing mode

One way of creating new meaning is to indwell the titles of books that sit around you...we are meaning makers and everything around us can be used as data if we only let it.

One way of creating new meaning is to indwell the titles of books that sit around you…we are meaning makers and everything around us can be used as data if we only let it.

Whenever I feel what my mother used to call “wobbly”,  I reach for a stack of magazines, glue stick and paper, turn on some relaxing music, light a candle, make a cup of tea and then I begin. I find that new meaning emerges without too much effort. As storytellers we can create a new story, a new way forward, at least for today. 

Right now I am in Sydney awaiting the birth of my first grandchild: such a strange and wondrous event. I did not think I would be a mother, then had four children. Thirty two years later, in the same town, I am now about to be a grandmother. I did not realise, before this, that this momentous occasion means renegotiating who I am becoming.

I believe (as do many other postmodern thinkers) that our identity is made up of multiple selves, multiple people, and we are different with whoever we are with and wherever we are at the time. Each time new roles (such as grandmother) are incorporated into our identity, everything shifts and changes. Because I am not in my working studio I do not have a pile of magazines to ask The Question (what I am wanting to understand), or wait for The Question to ask me. But I have devised other ways of accessing my unknown,the wise one, the one who guides me,  ways that do not require magazines. I pay attention to whatever draws my eye: I have a pile of books next to my bed and on the coffee table that I want to read, some are mine, some are borrowed, and I pay attention to the ones that attract my eye right now.

One of these books is called “The Soul of Place”, A creative writing workbook that I picked up recently in my constant exploration of the theme Belonging. Written by Linda Lappin (2015), it is a small book, an easy one to slip into a bag on the way to a coffee shop. Her first line mentions one of my favourite authors, D.H. Lawrence. He wrote that views are not only beautiful, but they have meaning. He believed in the soul of place… places have impact, places pull us back again and again. 

I love Brisbane: when I am there I feel I belong.  Yet at the same time, I have always been pulled back to Sydney, where I spent most of my impressionable years.  Sydney holds the memories of my younger artist, when I first decided to become an actor, where I created my first show, where I left the Catholic Church,  where I met my husband, where I was married, where I birthed my first and third child, where my mother and father died.

I moved to Brisbane, “kicking and screaming for the first ten years” (a line from my play HOME) but gently grew to love the place. It has become my “…manuscript [that some of us] have lost the skill to read” (John Montague in his poem “A Lost Tradition”, in Lappin, 2015,1). Reading the landscape of Brisbane can be difficult at times. We in Brisbane are a conservative, careful community, sometimes afraid to risk and push the boundaries. Perhaps we can become ‘self satisfied’ a dangerous thing to be.  But there is enormous beauty: the colour of the sky, the smell of the air, the wide fields around our home and multiple opportunities if we have eyes to see them.   The air in Sydney’s inner west is not as clean, but there are still beautiful blue skies and a vast harbour to walk along each day. The harbour  changes colour depending on the time of day but the boats continue to bob and the sun continues to shine, until it doesn’t.  

So the question arises: is Home wherever you find yourself? And is it the things we notice that makes our environment of belonging?  As I sit in my rented Sydney studio, I notice the sun coming through the window. I notice the Really Russian Caravan Tea on my kitchen bench. I notice my teapot, orange and green and blue. I notice the radio… Irish music playing (my dad was Irish).  I notice the books around me: there are three books on my table: “Composing a Life” by Mary Catherine Bateson, “The Snow Child” by Lowyn Ivey and “The Soul of Place”.

So I play with these titles and I realise that I am composing a new way of being as I wait for Sybella, my new grandchild, born in the first week of our Australian Winter.  I am composing a new life as I indwell the concept that  the soul of place beckons us to become something more than we thought we were. The soul of place continues to grow and enrich us if we let it. We belong where we choose to belong: we belong walking along the harbour shore, we belong sipping Really Russian Caravan Tea, we belong listening to the radio, we belong in a rented studio waiting for new life.  

We belong wherever we wish to belong.


I am trying to write a letter, a letter to my unfinished business. Tomorrow we have Women and Letters, a show at The Zoo in the Valley (3pm for 3.30pm) celebrating Mothers Day and also celebrating our own unfinished business: the audience has an opportunity to write a letter to their unfinished business while listening to seven writers read out theirs.

I have written so many practice letters and still have not found an end point, which makes perfect sense: even the act of writing is an unfinished act.

I wanted to write this post because a post is like a conversation, and a conversation helps shift things that you think cannot be shifted…

I have just come off the phone to an old friend where we interrogated the process of acting: how does an actor create and how does an actor survive that creation? Does the body know it is make believe
or does the body believe that what is happening is actually real… and if this is the case how do we decompress after a show?

I have been trying to figure this out for decades. We think we have the solution and then it slips from our fingers and we add another process to RIC (FORCE OF CIRCUMSTANCE and nest ensemble’s rehearsal process, called “Relational Impulse Cultural Training”, where processes are put in place to keep the actor safe while they risk big time and create what sometimes seem like magic).

And what I am realising is that my Belonging Trilogy, a trilogy of plays created by a team of artists over the last five years, embraces not just the stories of people’s lives, but the shadow of those stories. And is that what unfinished business is: the shadow of the act?

In April next year FOCC will produce another development of He Dreamed A Train and a new development of EVE: He Dreamed a Train had a brief season in 2014 as part of the first ever SWEET program at Brisbane Powerhouse. EVE had its first outing as part of the Metro Arts Independent season in 2012, followed by a re-worked season in Perth at Blue Room. Still it is not done, still unfinished business, so another version of EVE will be created for 2017. We are working with stories and their shadows…and as a performer my question, my constant question, is: “How do we work with the shadow and remain safe?”

I love this question (“learn to love the questions”) because it keeps me refining RIC, adding new processes with every provocation. And it makes me realise that nothing is ever finished. But one chooses to finish it.

I am aware that Anywhere Festival is on right now and I am thinking of all the artists who are investing in their emotional lives right now, giving freely to their audience with generous spirit. I wish you all fabulous seasons and may you also have rituals in place to keep you safe.

iceland, picturesque, creative

iceland, picturesque, creative

Iceland, a place of beauty and literature, art and food. A place where the Muse sits close. Coffee shops, hot chocolate, fish, more fish, bookshops, art galleries, waterfalls, lava rocks, hot tubs, chocolate, museums, parks, lakes, ducks, swans, birds, bulbs of daffodils and barest of trees. A place where one wants to write.

We have just finished the Iceland Writers Retreat, a week of readings, workshops, talks, dinners and bus tours. Here are the writers we worked with:

1. GEROUR KRISTNY won the Icelandic Literature Award 2010 for her book of poetry Blóðhófnir. Gerður has published collections of poetry and short stories, novels, books for children and a biography, for which she received the Icelandic Journalism Award in 2005.
Workshop: Mythologies

2. ELINA HIRVONEN is a Helsinki-based author, journalist and documentary filmmaker. Her first novel, When I Forgot (2005) was a Finlandia Fiction Prize nominee and has been translated into seven languages. Farthest from Death (2010), her second novel, was born in Lusaka, Zambia, where Hirvonen and her husband spent two years.
Workshop: Writing the World

3. VINCENT LAM, did his medical training at the University of Toronto, and works as a physician in Toronto. Dr. Lam’s first book, Bloodletting and Miraculous Cures, won the 2006 Scotiabank Giller Prize, and was adapted for television. The Headmaster’s Wager, Dr. Lam’s first novel, about a Chinese compulsive gambler and headmaster of an English school in Saigon during the Vietnam War, was a finalist for the 2012 Governor General’s Prize, and was shortlisted for the 2013 Commonwealth Book Prize.
Workshop: The Magic of the Inside Story

4. MIRIAM TOEWS is an internationally acclaimed writer whose work has been translated into over twenty languages. She is the author of six bestselling novels and one work of non-fiction. She has won many literary prizes including the Governer General’s Award for Fiction, the Writers’ Trust Engel/Findley Award for body of work, and the CBA Libris Award for Fiction Book of the Year. Her third novel, A Complicated Kindness, was the first book by a female writer to win CBC’s Canada Reads competition. All My Puny Sorrows, her most recent novel, spent over a year on the Canadian bestseller lists and won the Rogers Writers’ Trust Fiction Prize.
Workshops: The Life of a Writer

5. ANDREW WESTOLL is an award-winning author, journalist and teacher based in Toronto. A former primatologist-in-training, his first book, The Riverbones, is a travelogue set in the remote jungles of Suriname, where he once spent a year studying wild troops of capuchin monkeys. Westoll’s second book, the national bestselling The Chimps of Fauna Sanctuary, is the biography of a family of chimpanzees who were rescued from a research laboratory and retired to an animal sanctuary near Montreal. The Chimps won the 2012 RBC-Taylor Prize for Literary Non-Fiction and was a finalist for several other major book awards.
Workshop: Writing Your Life

This is the park where the Elves live...the thin veil between this world and the other world is thinnest here

This is the park where the Elves live…the thin veil between this world and the other world is thinnest here

One of the things that has fascinated me about Iceland are the stories of the elves. There are many stories about elves actually being real. In fact, more believably, they could be seen as morality tales. In the delightful book The Little Book of the Hidden People by Alda Sigmundsdottir (Twenty Stories of Elves from Icelandic Folklore (2015) she writes:

Elf stories were like morality tales. yet on a deeper level they might also have reflected people’s yearning to have some control over their lives-something that was cruelly denied them otherwise, in almost every respect. as a peasant in Iceland of old , you had the legal standing of a child. you were required by law to have a fixed place at a farm where you were completely subservient to your employer/master.


To the Icelanders stories of elves and hidden people are an integral part of the cutlural and psychological fabric of our nation. They are a part of our identity, reflection of the struggles, hopes, resilience and endurance of our people. As such, they are very dear to us.

Margi wanted this troll hat, or she devil hat in keeping with the mythology of Iceland

Margi wanted this troll hat, or she devil hat in keeping with the mythology of Iceland

The visual art here is unforgettable with brilliant exhibitions of some of Icelands most famous painters. Reykjavik is the hub. Reykjavik Art Museum- Kjarvalsstadir is an impressive museum dedicated to modern art with a permanent exhibition of Johannes S. Kjarval’s work, one of Iceland’s most beloved painters.

KjKarval's stunning work

What has stayed with me is the way this painter hides people and creatures within his paintings:IMG_0701

and this motivates me to incorporate all sorts of levels within my writing. I am thinking this is why I am so attracted to mythology as the ground zero of my writing…the myth is there and then the story comes. the myth that is sitting close to me today, and has done so for the last week is the myth of the Seal Woman. A famous myth, here it is from

The Seal’s Skin. Icelandic Folktale

Once in the east of Mýrdalur a man went along the cliffs on the seashore early in the morning. He came to a mouth of a cave and heard the sound of merrymaking and dancing inside. Nearby he saw many seals’ skins. He took one of the skins, brought it home and locked it in a chest.
In the daytime he came again to the cave. There sat a young and pretty woman who was naked and cried desperately. She was the seal whose skin the man had taken. He let her dress herself, comforted her and brought her home with him. She has become attached to him, but did not get on with others. She often sat and looked at the sea.
Some time later the man married her. They lived in harmony and had children. The farmer kept the seal’s skin locked up in the chest and had the key with him wherever he went. Many years later he once went outdoors and left the key at home, under his pillow. Others say that the farmer went to celebrate Christmas with his men, but his wife was ill and could not go with them. While he changed his clothes, he left the key in a pocket of his everyday wear. When he came back home, the chest was open, and both the woman and the skin disappeared.
She had taken the key, looked into the chest out of curiosity and found the skin there. She could not resist the temptation, bade farewell to her children, put on the skin and plunged into the sea. And before she plunged into the sea, they say, she whispered:

Where have I to flee?
I’ve seven kids in the sea
And seven kids on dry land.

They say the man grieved much for that. Afterwards, when he went fishing, a seal often swam round his boat, and it seemed that tears ran from her eyes. Ever since that man always had good catch and was lucky.
When their children went to the shore for a walk, people often saw a seal that swam in the sea not far from them, both when they were on land and near water, and threw motley fish and nice sea shells to them. But their mother never came back.

© 2008 The Viking Rune, translation from Icelandic

It is a beautiful story and probably resonates with many of you. It certainly resonated with me: the pull between the world of the arts (the ocean) and the natural world (the land). The task always at hand is how do we balance both?