Jen Barrkman: Oral Historian: Psychologist and Playback Theatre Practitioner
Creating inclusive spaces for people to share and listen to story has been at the heart of my work for many years. I do this in many ways and for many different purposes such as facilitated story workshops, oral history interviews, counselling sessions, and Playback Theatre performances.
My interest in story began with a curiosity about listening to others. My Mum is a storyteller, sharing stories about her childhood in country Victoria. My father rarely told stories. He was Jewish, adopted after living in a Jewish orphanage in Melbourne. I wanted to find out more about his family both adopted and biological. As a young person I found it difficult to speak up. I often didn’t feel well heard. Later I came out as a lesbian at a time when this was not so well accepted. I became curious to understand myself and others and where I belonged. All these experiences sparked my interest in creating spaces for people to be heard.
My initial study and work began in a completely different direction. I studied business and human resource management and worked in the early 80’s in Human Resource Management in Myer Stories and then Queensland Government. I then studied psychology and became much more aware of individual and groups and power imbalances. My love of working in circles, not rows began. I increasingly found it difficult to be in hierarchies and organisations where the power and expertise was always at the front of the room. I left government to work as the Director of a small community organisation. This was a time when community organisations were not the large services and organisations they are now.
By the 90’s I became a casual lecturer at Griffith University working with psychology students learning about group processes. I also began my work as a consultant working in the community sector with organisations and groups of people who were vulnerable and marginalised. I focused on finding better ways to include and engage people in groups and their community. Around this time, I started my journey with Playback Theatre, a form of community theatre where we invite audience member to share their stories which are then enacted or improvised “on the spot” by our performers and musicians. Find out more about Playback here Red Thread Stories
The first time I became interested specifically in oral history was over twenty years ago. I had been invited by a disability advocacy organisation to collect the stories of people with disability who had lived in Maryborough Disabled Persons Ward. Many of these people were not verbal and couldn’t tell their stories directly. Rather, their stories were told by the few people who still knew them after many years in an institution. Many of their stories were lost. In the process of doing this project a number of ethical issues emerged. I decided to study oral history. Oral history is after all about enabling the stories of those who are less powerful to be told. So I took myself to University of New England where I studied family and applied history including oral history. I joined the Oral History Association of Queensland, attended my first oral history conference and interviewed my reluctant father.
Since then I have applied my oral history skills in many arenas. I spoke about the Maryborough Disabled Ward project at international and national oral history conferences. I undertook diverse oral history projects such as National Library Forgotten Australians project, Stories of Life for Benarrawa Community Development Association; Stories of Rocklea for those affected by floods, conducted oral histories for Queensland State Library and for many families and small community groups. I also trained communities in how to engage their community and collect stories. Being someone who enjoys many different interests I explored the intersection between oral history and Playback Theatre, between creative community engagement and stories; between organisational structures and story, and between psychology and oral history. A recent venture, pre COVID, was a My Ancestral Story workshop in Bendigo which explored how our family stories impact our lives now.
This last year has been for me, as for many others, a time of questioning and reflection. Stepping out of this difficult time I am embarking on two creative projects. A Playback colleague and I decided to host online workshops to creatively share stories and experiences of women ageing “Celebrating Crone Wisdom.” I am also offering an online workshop “The Power of Being Heard… Learning to Listen Creatively” to assist everyday people to develop creative approaches to listen deeply to the heart of stories. In the midst of this, a project to collect the stories of people with severe disability, has come my way. People with disability are still being subjected to systemic and institutional practices that limit their ability to have any real choice or control in their life. Collecting and sharing their stories remains a key to ensure their experiences are heard. Giving voice to the voiceless is at the heart of oral history.