Interview: HERstory's Creative Director, Steph O'Driscoll

Interview: HERstory's Creative Director, Steph O'Driscoll

    Bringing together inspiring true stories in a unique city-wide audio experience, HERstory uncovers the lives and work of Brighton-based women throughout the pandemic. Featured as part of the Brighton Festival the new aural production will breathe life into the work of talented writers, including Sabrina Mahfouz, Jade Anouka, Kate O’Donnell, Nessah Muthy, MonsayWhitney, Rachael Young and Yolanda Mercy, as they create a space in the city for women’s voices to be heard. The stories will be accessible across Brighton from Saturday 1st to Monday 31st May.

    These moving stories are available to listen to at different posts around Brighton, creating a walking trail of tales that celebrate the truth and power of everyday women. Using a unique QR code people can tune in to the stories and discover the portraits of the women involved.

    Ahead of the launch we had a chat with creative director Stef O’Driscoll to discuss the inspiration behind the project and what they’re hopes are for the run.

    For those who may be unfamiliar with your work, could you tell us a little about yourself?
    I am a proudly working class story-maker from South London that supports and works with humans to tell and share stories.

    I believe that by sharing narratives we create space to understand each other and ourselves more, to cultivate empathy, to connect, to challenge the status quo. 

    No matter who you are, theatre and stories should be a part of everyday life if you want it to be. I love telling urgent stories about now and what we are grappling with as humans and I have had the pleasure to work with some of the UK’s exceptional writers including Nathan Bryon, Sophie Ellerby, Daf James, Yasmin Joseph, Simon Longman, Nessah Muthy, Vinay Patel and Monsay Whitney.

    I love discovering, nurturing and championing the voices of this generation and their stories. Championing voices that are traditionally unheard or marginalised is important to my work as an artist. A story can be written and told by anyone. Whether you are a spoken word artist, a singer-songwriter, a young person, an old person, someone with experience of the criminal justice system – these stories all deserve a place in our performance environments. 

    My work often exists in a range of environments including music venues, festivals, theatres, community centres, pubs, clubs, parks, anywhere. –  creating spaces where you can have a good time and share our stories together. My work often pushes the boundaries of gigs and theatre performances working with spoken word artists and musicians including Kae Tempest, Benin City, Dizraeli and Sabrina Mahfouz, creating inclusive experiences with a narrative at the heart of it.  

    I have enjoyed collaborating with Arch 468 who are the producers of HERstory and helped bring this to life. Arch 468 is an arts production and development hub that exists to shape the cultural ecology of the future. Arch 468 have toured work nationally and internationally and have experience in creating theatre, digital, audio, TV, film and festivals. They seek to subvert the mainstream by telling revolutionary stories in popular accessible ways.

    I have to say this production sounds incredible!
    Where did the inspiration for HERstory initially come from?

    Thank you. That is kind of you to say. 

    In the first lockdown multiple channels of inspiration happened at the same time to form HERstory. It came from 1) Myself and Sofia who is the Executive Producer at Arch 468 and a long-timecollaborator were attending some WOW zoom calls which has been a forum for female creative artists and producers from across all genres to come together to share their experiences, concerns and resilience in the face of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. This forum highlighted the impact of the pandemic was having on specifically on women, how it was exacerbating pre-existing inequalities. 2) We wanted to find a way to be creative and support people to tell and experience stories in this challenging time. 3) We were seeing the devastating effect of the pandemic had on freelance artists and wanting to find a way to offer paid opportunities to freelancers. 4) We discovered a statistic that women only occupy about 0.5% of recorded history which Dr Bettany Hughes brilliantly unpacks in her article WHY WERE WOMEN WRITTEN OUT OF HISTORY and knew we had to do something to counteract this.

    So, we put our heads together and HERstory was born. We wanted to make something that writes women into History. That will document women’s experience during this global pandemic and celebrate women from all walks of life and their lived experience during this specific time.

    I just want to say that it’s so incredible to see a new production amplifying female voices and giving their stories a chance to be heard.

    Why do you feel it is so important for women to tell their stories as we begin to move towards a post-pandemic world?
    It’s important to do something about that statistic, right? To ensure that women have a platform to say ‘this is my experience’ or ‘this has been experienced’ at such a monumental time. That this does not become another moment in History where women are not centred. As a human all I want is to be seen and heard and to know I am not alone in this. 

    For me it comes back to the immense power that comes from telling and experiencing stories, the connection between story and the listener can be transformative. In a time where connection has been challenged we need connection more than ever and through stories we may gain an understanding of one another on a deeper level, we may discover comfort in familiarity and feel less alone or empathy in the difference as we start to move into this next chapter.

    The production includes work from a range of incredibly talented writers, but what kind topics can audiences expect be covered?
    Finding love, loss and grief, mental health, how to adapt, survival and making money, motherhood, sisterhood, family, friendship, finding your community, addiction, domestic violence, education, care and finding faith are just a few.

    HERstory is a brand-new aural production which is available to listen to at different posts around Brighton. For anybody who’s never experienced a production like this, could you possibly explain how this will work?
    We have 18 locations around Brighton where audiences will be able to find a listening post in Hangleton, Moulsecoomb, Whitehawk and Central Brighton to discover the stories and portraits of women from Brighton. Each listening post will have a portrait of the storyteller or a representation of the story as some storytellers have asked to remain anonymous. There will be some information about the individual stories and instructions on how to scan a unique QR code at each listening post to listen to these stories during the festival. 

    These will then link to a unique page on our HERstory website www.herstorytrail.com where audiences will be able to listen to the story. For those who can’t make it down to the festival in person, they will be able to access the stories online which will be made available until May 2022.

    With theatres still sitting dark, producers and content creators have had to find new and innovative ways to keep audiences engaged with the arts. As we head out of our (hopefully) final lockdown, why do you think the industry should continue embracing the new methods of producing content?
    Great question. So that more people can experience the arts. These new forms allow people who may never have experienced the arts to engage with them. However, a digital hybrid production may engage a younger audience, it will break down some of the financial and geographical barriers preventing people from accessing the arts but not everyone has access to the internet and are digitally poor so we have to be careful as an industry that we are not further alienating people with already limited access to the arts. That we are not solely relying on digital ways to engage people. I hope organisations continue to meet people in their environments and communities in a collaborative and non-invasive way. For some arts buildings they became civic spaces supporting their local community in this time. How can this continue alongside your arts programme? Ultimately you are creating a place where your community feels like they belong and before you know it they may be experiencing one of the best nights out of their lives in the same space. Wouldn’t that be AMAZING?!

    It’s so frustrating to see the glass ceiling still resting over so many female heads, but more and more women are thankfully speaking up and challenging the “limitations” set upon them. Are there any particular comments or rejections which help to keep you motivated along your journey?
    As a white, able bodied, working class cis woman I have faced fewer limitations to others navigating the glass ceiling from a different intersectional experience. Being the first in my family to go to university was HUGE. It felt like anything was possible after that. I am very lucky to be supported and mentored by incredible humans whose belief in me and encouragement is what helps to stay motivated when navigating moments of fear and self-doubt.   

    I also often think about this Rupi Kaur poem as a source of motivation. 

    “I stand on the sacrifices of a million women before me thinking what can I do to make this mountain taller so the women after me can see farther – legacy”.

    We know the arts industry still have so far to go in terms of closing the gender gap, but productions like this are leading the way towards a truly positive change. Every time a woman stands up and makes her voice heard, we take a step forward so I would really like to say thank you to you and the team for creating such an empowering production.

    I know there’s probably so many, but what do you hope HERstory will achieve while being part of the Brighton Festival?
    A celebration and documentation of Brighton based women’s experiences amongst your every day. 

    An experience of discovery. 

    A connection to the joys and power of the storytelling artform. 

    A cultivation of understanding and empathy. 

    I just want to say a huge thank you to Stef for her time. HERstory will be available at various points around Brighton between Saturday 1st and Monday 31st May. For more information head to the Brighton Festival website or click here.

    This interview was originally published on CentreStage.

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