courage

Salt, a not-so-quiet trauma

My first step towards Salt, the compelling new solo show from Leeds-based artist Selina Thompson, is wrong-footed. Miscommunication has the friend I'm going to see it with thinking it's on at Tobacco Factory, so we decide to drive. But it's on at Arnolfini. In the centre of Bristol. At 6.30pm. On a sunny Friday.

Needless to say we arrive late.

As we stumble blindly through the stalls, Thompson is already on stage wearing safety goggles and a white colonial-era dress, smashing away at a lump of, what is presumably, salt.

I got a free ticket to review the show. As we sit down I can't help but think, Shit.

But then Thompson starts talking again and my fleeting panic about what we may have missed dissolves.

The woman is incredible. Only a month since the experience(s) upon which Salt is based, here she is bold as blue sky, on a stage, telling the world what happened to her. What has always happened to her.

So what did happen to her, exactly? Well, in partnership with another artist she retraced a well-sailed route of the Transatlantic Slave Triangle, from the UK to Ghana to Jamaica and back again.

She sets out to journey deep into the past in order to understand some things that are at once intangible and very, very real.

Racism. Diaspora. Grief. The unresolved shame of many nations. There are some pretty heavyweight themes running through this work. Thompson is nothing if not ambitious.

She begins to lay out the pieces from the once-whole lump of salt. Each piece is slightly bigger than the last and represents both the characters on the ship of the first leg of her journey (described by Thompson as a "quiet trauma") and a centuries-old chain of which she, a dark-skinned black woman, forms the weakest, smallest link. A chain in which she, a dark-skinned black woman born in another time and place, would have been tied and beaten and raped and drowned.

That may sound hyperbolic. It is not. Some of the stories Thompson carries back with her, the insults she endured, the way she was made to feel as a direct consequence of her blackness, may sound (if you are not black) like they're from another time. But, shamefully, that simply isn't true.

There is a rawness to the work, in every sense of the word. Over a post-show drink another friend says she felt it wasn't fully formed. More of a sapling than a tree. She certainly has a point.

As a piece of theatre is does feel a little raw, undercooked. Thompson's words are strong and firmly glue the piece together but the way those words manifest on stage does feel like a work in progress. It would be interesting to see again in six or so months time.

It is also, of course, emotionally raw. Thompson is at times breathless not just from the effort of repeatedly taking a sledgehammer to salt (there is more to the show than this by the way) but the weight of it all too. The sheer, physical weight of a lifetime of racism and a centuries-old system which is not gone but all too easily forgotten.

And ultimately it's the rawness of her emotion that makes this work so impressive. Her vulnerability is a weapon and a shield. She stands alone, boldly claiming a space in a world that would – as her journey at times brings into painfully sharp relief – have her disappear.

She peels back her skin and says, Here. Look. This is how my insides are.

That takes courage of the highest order. And what is art if not the junction at the crossroads of courage and vulnerability?

Despite any theatrical polish she may yet apply, Thompson's show is unforgettable.

Selina, we salute you. Keep doing what you're doing.

First published on theworldislistening.co.uk

What's in a voice?

Earlier this week I had the pleasure of delivering a workshop for Saffron Records, Bristol's first female-only record label, for young women aged 16 – 24.

Just before its launch in July 2015, I worked closely with Saffron's Creative Director, Laura Lewis-Paul, to develop the label's tone of voice. Over a year down the line, it's great to look back at all Laura has achieved, and see how established that voice has now become.

Just the two of us

Laura and I were the only two people in the room when we first got together for a tone of voice workshop. 12 or so months on and Saffron has recruited two fantastic apprentices (A&R and digital marketing) and signed three talented young artists.

The vision, values and personality that inform, as well as its tone of voice, everything the label is and does, have really taken root and become a culture. It's an absolute joy to see.

That said, when Laura asked me to do a voice workshop with Saffron's artists I was, initially, a little stumped.

What's in a voice?

Tone of voice guidelines are there to support people communicating on an organisation's behalf. While Saffron's artists are representing their label, they're not really communicating on its behalf in quite the same way as, for example, its digital marketing apprentice.

As artists they're largely in the business of communicating self-expression. With this in mind I asked myself what, for an artist as opposed to an organisation, is voice really made of?

Voice as art (vulnerability)

As Julia Cameron, best-selling author of The Artist's Way and The Right to Write so succinctly puts it, ‘True art requires true honesty, which means that for our art's sake, as much as our own, we must learn the skill of vulnerability.’

To be human is to be vulnerable. An uncomfortable truth, which is probably why vulnerability isn't so easy to sit with.

We often want to skip past it to a place where we feel less exposed, more secure. But acknowledging and drawing from vulnerability can bring real strength, particularly for artists who trade in communicating emotion.

Voice as womanhood (courage)

It may be 2016 but the playing field still isn’t level. That's why Saffron exists.

To be a woman in a male-dominated industry can take courage which, in her excellent TED talk on the power of vulnerability, researcher Brené Brown describes as ‘telling the story of who you are with your whole heart.’

Vulnerability and courage are two sides of the same coin. To tell the story of who you are with your whole heart, you have to be vulnerable. One hand feeds the other.

Standing on a stage sharing your innermost thoughts and feelings, you're inevitably demonstrating both. And (perhaps) for women raised in a society that accepts their right to feel and express vulnerability in a way it (sadly) does not for men, womanhood and courage have a notable dynamic.

Voice as story (connection)

Stories cut to the core of who we are. They connect us to ourselves and each other.

Singers and songwriters are, of course, storytellers, connectors. They connect with themselves to connect with their audience.

This storyteller / listener relationship is old as hills and a cornerstone of the human experience. Any consideration of the artist's voice must surely take story and connection into account.

Voice for communication

We all have values and vulnerabilities, stories and beliefs. The more we understand them the better we communicate.

I love working on tone of voice with people and their businesses, understanding and helping them share their passions with the world.

If you're interested in tone of voice and would like to find out more, please feel free to get in touch.