Open Words: The Nigredo
Below you can read the report submitted to the British Association of Dramatherapists Prompt newsletter, reporting on the progress of Open Words UK after being awarded funding from the Bruce Howard Bayley Award.
Open Words Cambridge applied for the Bruce Howard Bayley Award to explore therapeutic boundaries by looking closely at ways of incorporating playwriting techniques, practice and activities into Sesame dramatherapy sessions within Higher Education. The team, comprised of Jamie Rycroft and I, had worked together in the world of theatre whilst studying at Cambridge University and while I went on to study Drama and Movement Therapy (Sesame), Jamie pursued a career in theatre and playwriting. We then decided to reunite in the working world and, with myself as founder and Jamie as co-founder, we were eager to create a space for students to explore their own identity and consequently their own emotional, social and mental health, within Cambridge University. For this report, I was eager to reflect on the process of setting up Open Words Cambridge and the journey of forming our identity as a theatre and wellbeing group, reflecting on this alongside Jung’s study of alchemy and his analysis of the ‘magnum opus’ in relation to the search for individuation.
Carl Jung in Memories, Dreams, Reflections said that in his discovery of the “contents of the unconscious… my encounter with alchemy was decisive for me, as it provided me with the historical basis which I hiterhto lacked” (p.226). He studied the alchemical process of the ‘magnum opus’ which included the four stages of turning rough ‘prima materia’, primary material, in to precious materials such as gold and silver. Jung then compared this process in parallel to ones search for individuation. Storr (1983) refers to individuation from a Jungian perspective as “essentially a spiritual journey… by paying attention to the voice within, the individual achieves a new synthesis between conscious and unconscious” (p.19). On reflection, Open Words sought to consolidate the unconscious processes stirred by the start up process, and the conscious decisions that would help us form the basis of our identity as a mental health provision. This report will critically reflect on the search for our identity in parallel to the four stages of the magnum opus.
Understanding the identity of Open Words Cambridge began with deciding our name, aims, motivations, ethics, values, modes of practice, target audiences and how we would publicise ourselves. Slowly, we became a duo aiming for the sun and putting ourselves under self-inflicted pressure to spread across the mental health network within Cambridge without taking a moment to objectively understand the overbearing workload that we had thrown on ourselves. After three months we decided we could no longer proceed at this rate as it was damaging our mental health and the energy which we had to give the project was limited. This then led us to take a break and reform as what we privately referred to as ‘Open Words 2.0’. From a Jungian perspective we had reached the first stage of the magnum opus, the depths of ‘nigredo’, the blackening of the metal. The nigredo includes “the shadow’s mysterious purpose in dissolving old structures so that new ones can be created” (Nathan Schwartz-Salant, 1995, p.15). We had to dissolve our aims and ways of working in order to sprout new ones.
We later reflected that within the ‘nigredo’ we had been potentially mirroring the behaviours, mindset and experiences of some of our target participants; over-worked students unsure of their own identity. As Cambridge University alumni ourselves, we also acknowledged the potential unconscious regression we could have been experiencing. Not only were we working together once again but we recognised the presence of students with laptops surrounding all our discussions in cafes, which were themselves snuggled in between the buildings of the University itself. We felt that by mirroring our previous experiences as students and the current experiences of the students surrounding us, we were sharing their emotional states (Stern, 1985), allowing us to gain deeper insight into the lives of the participants we were aiming to support. We also believe we may have been experiencing a very broad form of transference. As the “transferential/countertransferential relationship is the experience of unconscious wishes and fears transferred onto or into the therapeutic partnership” (Clarkson, p.67), we had potentially unconsciously responded to the overbearing start up process in a way which a student may have. We had placed too much pressure on ourselves to achieve, we did not objectively or effectively assess the boundaries of our capability and we did not ask each other or other people for help.
Jamie and I used playwriting and dramatherapy activities in order to explore this transference, counter-transference and mirroring in the form of writing, movement and games, allowing us to move into what can be considered the ‘albedo’ phase, opening communication between the unconscious processes of the start up phase and our conscious actions. This was critical in the search for the identity of Open Words, as through this exploration we were able to identify and reaffirm some of the issues which students may have been facing: the pressures of an overbearing workload, a struggle with identity and the struggle in objectively assessing the boundaries of ones capability. These reflections helped us realise how important it was that the sessions not only explore identity and ones place in a high pressure educational environment, but also that it would be important to educate students. Open Words sessions now teach students how to recognise their own emotional states, be insightful and learn how to support themselves and/or others, whether that be by seeking support from other health care professionals, their institution or their peers.
Once we had a clearer idea of the aims, identity and session structure of Open Words we moved into assessing how to gain service users and present to Higher Education Institutions. This could be paralleled with the ‘citrinitas’ phase, the yellowing, associated in Jungian analysis with how your consciousness is presented to others. Due to our exploring the identity of Open Words so thoroughly, I was confidently able to present Open Words at a World Mental Health Day event in 2018. With my train fare funded by the BHB Award, a member of academic staff from a well-known Higher Education Institution heard me speak at the event and contacted us directly. We are now in the process of developing and piloting a mental health programme within their admissions and outreach process, allowing Open Words the chance to make dramatherapy and scriptwriting a prominent and accessible mental health provision within an already established Higher Education framework.
The journey of discovering who we are as Open Words UK strongly resembles the road to individuation as a small business and the Bruce Howard Bayley Award was integral in supporting us financially through our process. The funding helped with concrete purchases which allowed us to explore our identity in tangible, material and productive ways. We were able to subsidise supervision costs, the purchase of materials which suited our client base such as Blob Cards, travel funds and room hire costs for events to promote dramatherapy as a key mental health provision within Higher Education. The Award also supplied us with the means to purchase books and literature which helped us gain rooted theory and understanding to support this collaboration of script-writing and dramatherapy.
Now named Open Words UK, we will continue to work at the edge of dramatherapy to merge with script-writing and provide a therapeutic, psycho-educational space for students within Higher Education. We do not see the phase of ‘rubedo’, true individuation, anywhere on the horizon as Open Words will no doubt unconsciously move through the stages of the magnum opus and continue to reflect on the identity of our target participants and of our business so we can adapt and nestle ourselves in the mental health provisions of Higher Education Institutions. We will also continue to develop the relationship between dramatherapy and playwriting to create a space and framework where students can explore their own identity and how to support themselves and others.
We hope to play a part in the prevention of mental health decline amongst the student population and, just as we reassessed our overworked Open Words team, and just as Open Words UK began to flourish once it had ‘found its feet’, we hope to provide the same journey for others.
Clarkson, P (2003) The Therapeutic Relationship, Second Edition, Whurr Publishers
Stern, D (1985) The Interpersonal World of the Infant, Karnac
Bowlby, J (1988) A Secure Base: Clinical Applications of Attachment Theory, Routledge
Schwartz-Salant, N (1995) Encountering Jung in Alchemy, Routledge
Jung, C. G. (1953) Psychology and Alchemy, Taylor & Francis
Jung, C.G. (1961) Memories, Dreams, Reflections, Fontana Press
Storr, A. (1998) The Essential Jung: Selected Writings, Fontana Press
DeSalvo, L. (2000) Writing as a Way of Healing: How Telling our Stories Transforms our Lives, Beacon Press