07 May 2018

The impossibility of ‘giving’ voice

Post written by: Erin Walcon

As a university lecturer, I love watching my Applied Theatre students start to sink their mind-teeth into some pretty complex ethical concepts. One of the juiciest and spiciest and most problematic of these is the subject of ‘voice’. This one is wonderfully, particularly, fraught.

It can be a difficult one for middle class, well-meaning, university students to tackle. It’s a difficult one for me to tackle.

Part of me is hesitant to write a blog post about something this cloudy and complex and un-settled in my mind.

I think that’s a sign I should do it anyway.

Confession: I keep a secret lottery (and a special red pen) for myself to track how many times I’ll catch the phrase ‘I gave them a voice’ in my university students’ final essays. The inner awooga-awooga alarm that this sets off for me now is immediate. They get warned by me throughout the term not to use this phrase… but they do it anyway. When I read it, there is usually a massive groan, a slam of head to desk and a determined and persistent thumping of frustration.

In my grumpier moments, I struggle to understand why this phrase is so regularly recycled in student essays.

Is it because it’s oh-so tempting to embrace the exciting mantle of well-meaning altruism as newbie facilitators? Or is that they are simply struggling to find the right words to explain a complex mediated process of co-exploration, negotiation and artistic shared ownership?

All I know is, they finish up their first project, they have a little cry and a group hug at the wonderfulness of the work – and then they sit down to write their first essay, and somewhere in their precious 2,000 word allocation, the phrase ‘I gave them a voice’ comes out, inevitably. In at least one essay out of 18, if not more.

Rather than ranting and waving my red pen around, gesticulating wildly, I now finish my head thumping on my desk, sigh in fatalistic acceptance, circle the phrase and write, ‘Really? Did they not have a voice before? What gives you the right to assume that they needed you to voice themselves?’ It’s a wee bit grumpy, but at least I’m not swearing. They are learning after all. And so am I.

The thing is, I’m pretty sure I used that exact same problematic phrase when I was 22. About the time I delivered my first socially-engaged project – working at a live-in centre for young adolescents with behavioural disorders. It terrified me – I was so far out of my comfort zone, I only remember the whole 6-week project as an out-of-body experience. I made more mistakes than I can count. I learned by doing. And, at the end of that project, if you’d asked me what kind of impact I’d had upon the participants, I probably would have rattled off some idealistic dewy-eyed phrases which included ‘it was so wonderful to give them a voice’.

At the root of this hugely problematic phrase are several assumptions. I would rank these as:

  • Assumption 1 – that the participants ‘need’ or at least benefit from the facilitator’s presence and interference in their lives.
  • Assumption 2 – that the facilitator has gifts to share, and that these gifts may help to amplify or expand or enhance the voices of the participants.
  • Assumption 3 – That the voice of the participants is not heard enough before the project.

Now, this 3rd assumption, I still generally believe to be true. But I would also argue that in 99% of the projects I’ve run in my career, those voices are still underrepresented and unheard at the end of the work. So the young people at the Pupil Referral Unit or the hospital or the local primary school are just as silent and ignored by the end of the project as they were at the beginning. Our interference is minimal and not long-lasting. We are not great changers of circumstance – merely witnesses and occasional visitors.


Assumption 2 is a sticky tricky one. I really love reading Grant Kestor and Miwon Kwon’s thoughts on the matter – go check them out if you haven’t before. The notion which Helen Nicholson explores of a well-meaning, altruistic facilitator who idealistically believes themselves to be necessary… yes, this is alive and well.

But the thing is this – I’m in the midst of a project which is really pushing me to live inside these assumptions,  plus another 26 more besides.

I’m working on a project with my friend, colleague and collaborator Hugh Malyon – and we are having to traipse around inside these questions really quite a lot this week.

No conclusions yet, but I think my clear-thinking is being wonderfully muddied by the joyful dissonance of experience.

I’ll come back to you on this one – hopefully together with Hugh in dialogue too. So it’s not just my voice. Because that would be ironic.