A Call for Compassionate Creativity


We’re living in unprecedented times.  It has been said often during the past few months as we struggle to comprehend what the ‘new normal’ will look like.  But how can we re-emerge from this global crisis?

Here, Ali Franks, the lead lecturer for the BA Applied Drama argues that, in the wake of Coronavirus, society will need socially engaged artists and the transformational power of the arts to rebuild and reconnect the lives of individuals and communities . . .

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Ali Franks BA Applied Drama lecturer

Great times of difficulty, changing landscapes, political unrest, fear, depression and doubt often become the times we define history by.  We define it by the wars, the battles, the revolutions, times of famine and so on.  By their very nature these times are times of change, deep change, life shifting change, cultural and societal change.  In my lifetime these few weeks and months of Covid-19 will be recorded as one of history’s defining moments.  Interestingly the language surrounding the media and government discussion of Covid-19 has been of a military ilk: ‘we will beat the virus’ or ‘the war on Covid-19’.

The key word in all of this is ‘change’; a notion that can cause a spectrum of responses from human beings from excitement to deep fear.  Change is something we look for in dark times that gives us hope, but something we shy away from when we are comfortable and content, sometimes even when we are not comfortable and content but we are familiar.  Familiarity can create an illusion of safety, even when that familiarity is not safe: the ‘better the devil you know’ mentality.  However, we are in a time of change.  At the moment there is an unknown about the permanence of this change.  Are we just in a temporary situation? Covid-19 will retreat and we will return to ‘normal’? Or as many memes are telling us on our social media is this a time of transformational change where we have the opportunity to envision a new way of being in the world, a new relationship with planet earth, an opportunity to right past wrongs with our environment and even to examine the skewed value system that much of the world operates in that has indeed become normalised?  Have we been transported to a temporary world, a metaphorical waiting room, from which we will return to a relatively similar world to the one we left, or are we going through a huge transformation which we shall emerge from as a new and improved world of human beings living in peace with each other and the world around us?

Transformation is a word we use a lot in the socially engaged arts world.  As an applied drama practitioner and lecturer I discuss the notion of transformation regularly in my work and with students. One of the defining features of applied drama is the intentionality to positively transform the lives of individuals and communities.  So at the moment I find myself asking the question about how do we as socially engaged artists respond to this time of great change and great unknowing.  Of course whether there are huge societal transformations and a shifting of core values and paradigms as a result of this time remains to be seen, but what I can be certain of is that when we emerge from this liminal space, this waiting room, this chrysalis there will be a need to mend, rebuild, re-connect, recreate, feel, comfort, express and just find ways of being together.  And that is where we, as socially engaged artists will lead the way forward.

It would be fair to say that in that although we are unsure of what our collective future looks like right now, that Covid-19 has blasted through our lives and is leaving a pretty bloody trail of destruction in its wake.  On a more micro level this trail of devastation will for some go unseen in the wider spaces of society, this devastation will be in the aching loneliness of Joan at No. 46 who has not seen a soul in weeks other than the checkout attendant in Co-op, or in the depression of 22 year old James who is struggling to get out of bed every morning; in the anxiety of 15 year old Noah whose frightened to leave the house or the new mum whose baby hasn’t slept throughout lockdown; Edith in the care home who has not seen her family and has dementia;  for all the children who have not been to school or youth group, or down to the park with their friends, the list is endless and varied and this is without accounting for those who are dealing with unemployment and the onset of poverty or the grief of lost loved ones in a world that feels alien and empty.  At the heart of much of this aching emptiness is the need for social connectivity, for community and for just being together, that no matter how many Zoom/Facetime meetings you have had you still feel a hole inside.  Before the time of Covid we were talking about the rise in mental health issues and the increase in isolation and loneliness within our communities, more and more arts funding was being directed to arts in wellbeing settings.  I believe we will look back at that time and see the tip of the iceberg, and where the sea once was covering up the magnitude of this iceberg it is now gone and we will be left with the stark reality of a mental health crisis rising from the sea bed containing the lives of individuals and communities who need to rebuild, re-define and reconnect to their reality and their place in this world.

And once again the world will need socially engaged artists to step into some of these more problematic spaces and be the catalysts for the creative magic to happen.  They will be the facilitators of empowerment and visioning among the people who are struggling to step into this new normal, bringing creativity, compassion and collaboration. 

As an educator who trains drama practitioners to work in education, community and wellbeing settings I strongly believe that there are some core qualities that we need to be focussing on right now in order to equip our practitioners to enter into this new normal and not only survive but flourish and grow with strength, vitality and positivity.  At the heart of these qualities I would suggest we go back to the humanistic psychologist, Carl Rogers, and focus on his ‘core conditions’ for growth: empathy, congruence and unconditional positive regard.  This is at the core of Rogers’ ‘Person-Centred’ Approach to interpersonal relationships and I believe at the centre of best practice for all socially engaged arts practitioners who believe in the transformational power of the arts in the lives of individuals and communities. 

These core conditions make way for many other qualities that we are going to need going forward into this time of unknowns, namely resilience and compassion.  We need to foster a climate of compassionate creativity in order to find ways of being together again. I would advocate for finding new ways of rebuilding, valuing inclusivity, redefining democracy, ecological compassion and social connectedness. Our practitioners need to be resilient and grounded, with skills in deep listening, reflection and self-awareness in order to hold the space for their participants where self-expression, creative collaboration and deep connection can occur and develop with compassion.  In our BA Applied Drama we assert that you cannot learn to be a socially engaged practitioner by numbers, through a formulaic learning of skills and methods, but that to really encompass an ethos of transformation and positive change within our practice we need to examine our relationship with ourselves and the world around us to find new and creative ways of being together, provoking dialogue and activating transformational experiences.  We need radical curiosity and to irradiate any fear of failure. 

In my role as Chair of the Board for the social arts and wellbeing organisation People Speak Up in Llanelli, Carmarthenshire, I have watched the creative director prove her flexibility, resilience and creativity in this challenging and testing time.  From the initial grief and upset for the many participants they work with in care homes or with dementia, to the amazing intergenerational work with the people of Llanelli I have seen a truly dedicated and resilient socially engaged arts and wellbeing organisation rise to, and surpass the current trail of destruction being caused by Covid-19 through innovative and person-centred approaches to keeping the creative connections alive.  The main concern now is how we will deal with the aftermath in the new normal and will we have the compassionate and resilient artists ready to go when the work of re-building or new-building community and social connection is able to start again?  My conversations with other drama practitioners across South Wales have been similar with the increasingly growing concern for the individuals and communities they have served for many years.  The arts and culture will always play a central role in bringing our communities together and bringing hope and joy into lives, and it will always form the backbone of building up and empowering people and communities who are the most battle worn and weary; what we need now are the artists and practitioners to take this forward and lead the way with compassion, vulnerability and resilience.

Ali Franks

Applied Drama Practitioner

Lead lecturer for BA Applied Drama: Education, Wellbeing, Community

Chair of the Board for People Speak Up

More About Ali

Ali Franks is the lead lecturer of UWTSD’s BA Applied Drama: Education, Wellbeing, Community.  She has over twenty years’ experience as an Applied Drama Practitioner working with a wide range of groups including schools, community and youth groups, homeless hostels, women’s refuge, secure units, and with asylum seekers and refugees. She specialises in using drama as a tool for personal development and emotional health with young people and vulnerable or marginalised adults. 

Ali has recently been working with Inside Out Cymru on a Forum Theatre project for adults who access mental health services.  Before that Ali directed and facilitated #noblurredlines a participatory theatre project aimed at 16-24 year olds addressing the issue is sexual consent and compliance, as well as work commissioned by Barnardos Cymru, Healthy Schools, and a number of local and national agencies across South Wales during her time at Valley and Vale Community Arts.  She is the Chair of the Board of People Speak Up, a social arts and wellbeing enterprise, connecting communities through storytelling, spoken word, creative writing and participatory arts.