When Women Are the Storytellers, What Narratives are Told?

A Multi-form new writing project facilitated by Valise Noire,  working with women who have experienced domestic abuse to create new work inspired by the heritage of women of Dorset's past and female experiences.

About Women of Words, Dorset

In 2021 Valise Noire Storytelling Theatre received £10,000 from the National Lottery Heritage Fund for their new project, ‘Women of Words, Dorset’ which amplifies women’s voices past and present. 

The project has multiple strands: 

·      A creative writing group for local women who have experienced male violence against women. These sessions included research into the women of Dorset’s past. 

·      An illustrated exhibition of the group’s writing and heritage information.

·      A family-friendly feminist performance, based on the Women of Words writing, performed as commissioned work for BEAF 2021 (Bournemouth Emerging Arts Fringe Festival).

·      An artistic and informative video, documenting the project and its processes, sharing both the heritage of inspiring women from the past and also the powerful poetry and prose of the women writers of today.

·      Community sessions – sharing heritage, creative writing and the Women of Words writing group’s work – in schools and with elders.

Empowering Women’s Voices – Sharing Female Narratives

Valise Noire worked in partnership with arts organisations including Bournemouth Emerging Arts Festival (BEAF), The Russell Cotes Museum, Dorset History Centre, charitable housing association BCHA and a local school for the project, the reach of which has been made possible by the National Lottery players.

‘Women of Words, Dorset’ has been a project of celebration and empowerment, valuing Dorset women and their unique voices and experiences. By working with women in refuge, and knowing the powerful benefits of community, reflection, engagement and the arts, we are excited for these women’s voices and words to be shared and by the legacy that continues from the past, through these women now, and onwards into the future.

Women of Words Writing Group: Creative voices and Embodied Voicework

Over eight weeks during summer 2021 Valise Noire met regularly with the group, who wrote in response to archive materials about women from Dorset’s past, as well as sharing their own personal stories and experiences as women.

The group honed their skills in the craft of poetry, the structure of story, as well practical vocal sessions - all tools in expressing their unique voices. 

They researched a diverse range of women from regional history. These included: Minnie Baldock, a leading suffragette in the movement to gain votes for women who resided in Poole in the latter part of her life; Lady Annie Russell-Cotes, a privileged philanthropist and the second woman to become a fellow of The Royal Society of Literature as a result of her travel writings, who lived locally. 

The archive materials also included illiterate local women such as ‘Granny Cousins’ a characterful resident of Poole, as well as the records of female patients at Dorset’s Herrison Hospital asylum. This last group of women particularly interested the writers and became central to the family friendly performance.

Importantly, the writing work was supported by an embodied approach to expression, with the group experiencing voicework sessions as well – you can learn more about this in the video, documenting the project.

Women of Words Exhibition

Working in collaboration with local illustrator and animator Corrianna Clarke, the women’s creative writing was turned into an illustrated exhibition piece, displayed publicly at Boscombe Library for a month, as part of the BEAF festival. Cora drew her inspiration from the women’s writing, the journey of women’s expression from the past to today and the Dorset location. 

Family-Friendly Feminist Performance

Valise Noire created a performance piece based on the prose and poetry created by the group.

In amongst the trees (and sometimes up one!) we told the tale of Elizabeth, an in-patient at Herrison Hospital asylum, as an archetypal woman, whose wild self was one with the animals she voiced and the nature she stood within. Elizabeth met with the Lady of Letters, a woman more bound by convention and outmoded narratives. Together, they found the freedom to be themselves, to create new stories, that they both wanted to tell.

We loved seeing how engaged the children in the audience were with the discourse of the piece, with adults and children alike, both joining in on the action (and sometimes changing it!)

Artistic Video Documentation of Process and Purpose

Over the course of just two weeks, we filmed and edited a video that showcases some of the women writers’ poetry and prose, shares the rich heritage of the women of Dorset’s past and reflections on their connection to female voices and narratives today. 

We feel it really captures some of the journey of the project, the way we worked and it speaks to some of the questions and themes we explored with the local women writers. 

You can view the video below:

Women of Words, Dorset: Artistic Documentation of the Project for BEAF, 2021.

Future Evolution...

We look forward to seeing how this work evolves. As a female-led theatre company we felt an instant inner yes, when Anna McLaughlin, BCHA’s Domestic Abuse Course Facilitator, first approached us to create a space where local women’s “voices could be heard & creativity explored […] women whose voices have previously been ignored”. With the multi-form expressions, this project has flourished, as have ‘Women of Words’ voices and sense of aliveness and empowerment. We’re very much looking forward to the next evolution and expansion of this project. More soon!

A huge thank you to all involved in this project, particularly the brilliant women writers we worked with and the women of Dorset’s past and the path you paved for us. Thank you to our audiences and all who have engaged with this vital work.

This piece has been made possible by the National Lottery Heritage Fund, funded by National Lottery players. It has been created in partnership with BEAF, as commissioned artists, the charitable housing association BCHA, the Dorset History Centre and The Russell-Cotes Museum.

Thank you to Laura Joyner at the NLHF, Carol Maund and the incredible team at BEAF, Anna McLaughlin and all at BCHA, Elissa Noon and the staff at The Russel-Cotes Museum, Maria Gayton and all at The Dorset History Centre, Janet Westcott and BCP Libraries, Tailoresque and costumier Gill Marais, Richard Budd, Paula Langton and Yvonne Harcus at the Kristin Linklater Voice Centre, Recreate Dorset and Corrianna Clarke. Thank you to Colin Phillimore and the Flynn family.


Image credit: Top two: Richardbudd.co.uk ©2021

Next: DHC archive imagery and Valise Noire film still

Illustration by Corrianna Clarke with Women of Words, Dorset writing.


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