Developing a culture of radical care in our theatre and storytelling project, Motherhood in a Climate Crisis

By Jo McAndrews, Motherhood in a Climate Crisis

Image credit: Ibolya Feher

Motherhood In A Climate Crisis is an experimental partnership supported by Brigstow, which aimed to explore women’s thoughts, feelings and experiences around mothering in the climate crisis. Knowing that this was a topic which elicited very strong feelings, the project was explicitly designed with notions of care – for both participants and practitioners – as a central organising principle. Jo McAndrews was brought into the interdisciplinary team to lead on this work, and here she reflects on some of her thinking and learning from the delivery of the project. 

Radical care was built into the Motherhood in Climate Crisis project from the very beginning. Celia and Sophia, designing the project from scratch, knew that experimenting with theatre and storytelling to explore these two huge and emotive themes was a potentially dangerous undertaking. It was vital to hold with deep care the women who joined us in sharing their stories, their longings, grief, regrets, pain and love.

It was obvious to them, although radical in the culture of theatre work, that the team needed a psychotherapeutically trained care practitioner. I jumped at the opportunity to join a project that combined my therapeutic training with my experience in community theatre and performance. The plan was that I would bring the question of care to every part of the project, the communication, recruitment, and the design and practice of the workshops process that led to the performance of the stories we wanted to tell.

Although the need seems obvious, in practice it is very rare for any project to be this explicit about the need for the care and wellbeing in every part of the process. None of us had ever worked like this before and we were excited to see what we would learn.

The most basic expectation was that I would be there as a safety net, someone to go to for anyone who felt distress and in need of support. Knowing that a therapist was on the team would help everyone feel safer to go deep with their experiences of choosing whether or not to be a mother given what they know or didn’t know about the climate crisis. We could all feel confident that if anyone fell apart there would be someone to catch them. 

However, we had a much stronger goal than that, which was to provide such strong care in every part of the project that being part of it would be a nourishing, positive and inspiring experience. We wanted to tell the world the stories of how women are profoundly and intimately affected by the global emergency that is often portrayed as a scientific or political issue. We wanted to tell deeply human stories of the impact of knowing and caring about the state of the world in these urgent times. We wanted to create as much safety and care as possible to the women who joined the project and also for ourselves, the audience and anyone involved because we know that this is a powerful and often distressing topic to engage with. 

Of course we were concerned about the ethics of inviting people into a courageous and active conversation, but our motivation was way stronger than adhering to a research principle. We wanted to know how a radical approach to care would impact the project and to see what it could look like in practice.

We are using the word ‘radical’ to talk about the culture of care within our project because it is very rare to have a culture of meaningful care in any aspect of our culture in the UK. It is unusual and not widely understood. We are doing something unusual and unsupported by the wider world we live in. We also believe it is radical because we went back to the ‘roots’ of what people need to feel cared for in every aspect of the project. We learned during the project that we all had different assumptions and experiences about what a culture of care would look like and fell into understandable traps of forgetting to give enough time to establishing a shared understanding of care at the beginning and coming back to attend to it throughout. At the same time, we did create a culture that had more care embedded into it than anything any of us had worked with before. So, we succeeded in our ambition and we also wanted to go further. 

This learning has been hugely important in establishing the challenges and potential of centring care. Everyone who joined the wider project team stayed engaged and committed even though we were working intensely on very challenging subjects on a pretty tight deadline. We have stayed in touch since, having grown a strong sense of community and collaboration, and are keen to work on the next stage of the project. We know how we would do things differently next time and are writing in more depth on this in our project toolkit.

What are the ingredients of a culture of care in a team project? A strong part of our understanding of care is the basic human neurobiological and social need to belong. To belong means to be seen, heard, understood and welcomed. We placed a high value on thorough and warm communication about practical aspects of the programme. Everything was communicated clearly in strong detail so that people always knew what was happening. Whether we met in person or online, we welcomed every person as an individual and took a strong interest in their lives beyond their involvement in the project. This included standing at the door to welcome people as they arrived, having drinks and food available, being authentically interested and warm in our conversations. We had a strong culture of equality and inclusion, doing our best to meet childcare and travel needs and to be flexible around emerging needs.

Our design process included trauma sensitive awareness and embodied practices to enable regulation of stress and emotions, embedded during the development and rehearsal sessions so that the intense work was varied and well held. Each of us in the team brought a strong value of kindness and we prioritised relationship wellbeing as a primary goal of the work. 

Our creative director, Liz, is very experienced at bringing people together in community theatre, writing , music and storytelling. Her facilitation style is warmly human and humorous and her willingness to model authentic courageous sharing laid the ground for challenging conversations. The group created a culture where risk taking was enjoyed and supported. We acknowledged the many ways that shame can arise in group processes and invited support and openness around it. 

We found that having a team member specifically attending to care and wellbeing and present in all the group sessions, created a culture of expectation and experience of warmth and care. Simply acknowledging the vulnerability that comes from working together, and from talking about motherhood and the climate crisis, went a long way to making it much safer to be open and take risks, trusting in others’ support.

A radical culture of care needs to extend to everyone involved in the project. For example, at the end of the development and rehearsal process, we invited in some film makers to record the stories and performance we had created. I met with the film crew when they arrived and briefed them about the strongly emotional content of what they were about to witness. I invited them to ask any questions or share their own experience of the subjects we were exploring. I let them know that they may find themselves impacted by being part of the process and that they could come and debrief with me during or afterwards. As a result the film crew were able to step into the work with sensitivity and a feeling of being valued and included. They told me afterwards that they had never experienced such care before and were bowled over by it. They were very used to working in situations where no one even asked their names. 

We also took care to make good relationships with the people who ran and looked after the meeting venue we used, the audience at our final performance and the wider community of people who were interested in and supporting our work. 

Thanks to Brigstow, we have had a fantastic opportunity to learn and develop a culture of an unusual level of care in our project. We faced challenges and misunderstandings too along the way and were able to resolve and understand where problems happened. We are keen to learn more and to create further opportunities for developing our learning and practice.