Joe Brennan was Waterford Healing Arts Trust’s Artist in Residence for 2021 at University Hospital Waterford. The residency focused on staff engagement due to Covid restrictions, offering storytelling online and outdoors. Changing circumstances during the residency also enabled Joe to tell stories at the bedside on the Paediatric Ward.
Staff from all departments of University Hospital Waterford participated in the various aspects of the residency, including accessing recordings of stories online, attending weekly outdoor storytelling sessions and developing their own storytelling skills.
Patients and their parents on the Paediatric ward listened to stories at the bedside.
Storytelling is a very democratic art form and accessible to all. The focus was on participation and the process of storytelling. I wanted staff to engage, participate, enjoy and learn; from the stories and storytelling skills. These skills are readily transferable to life and to the workplace. I created opportunities for those who wanted to develop further to showcase their storytelling.
The residency offered staff at the hospital an opportunity to engage with stories and storytelling. For most that was as a listener; to enjoy the experience of listening, to enjoy the story and provide relief from the pressured environment of the hospital, particularly during Covid. Stories, however, offer so much more to the listener. They offer wisdom and truth about life. They provide a space to reflect on life and offer different ways to look at it. I always encourage people to share the stories I tell with others, thus inviting people to communicate directly with people and create space for dialogue. So often the sharing of a story leads to hearing a story in return.
The participants of Tell the Tale engaged in a 12 week programme. Over that time I shared stories with them and they retold the stories, learning about the structure of stories and the approaches to telling. They developed their own storytelling skills through observation and modelling. We explored using the voice, hands and body in storytelling. Participants also had the opportunity to work on a story from their own lives to share.
Over the 12 weeks they built up a fund of knowledge and experience of storytelling. This shone through at the final performance with each teller bringing their own individual style of telling, using the skills developed over the weeks.
My own process in creating the Curing Walk story lasted through the residency and beyond. It involved observing life in the hospital and the staff as they went about their days. It was engaging with staff, listening to their experiences and observations. It was tuning into the rhythm of life in the hospital. It was questioning and reflecting on life there, and the multitude of roles carried out by people. It was also reflecting on the patient experience. From this emerged the Curing Walk, a traditional style story for telling. It involved lots of walking for me, allowing images to emerge and a narrative to build.
As the residency progressed, I began weekly sessions on the Paediatric Ward, sharing stories with children and their parents. This programme continued after the residency.
The participants of the Tell the Tale strand performed their stories for the group members in a final event. It was important that the participants felt comfortable and confident, taking the step to perform to an audience. Thus the group made up the audience with the room set up for the event with blacks and lights.
Joe performed his story, The Curing Walk, a response to the residency, to the staff of Waterford Integrated Care of the Older Person, as part of Well Festival 2022. Joe will continue to share this story as part of his repertoire.
The residency was evaluated through a reflective journal and feedback from participants, which shaped the artist’s final report.
The biggest challenge to the residency was the Covid-19 pandemic. The programme was designed to be delivered online which was very challenging as storytelling very much needs a direct connection with the audience. Staff reported accessing the videos and enjoying them, giving them a welcome and uplifting pause in a busy day.
I have met young students in schools subsequently who told me that their parents who worked in the hospital had heard my stories.
Feedback from in-person staff activities (which were allowed to happen as Covid regulations relaxed) was very positive and people looked forwarded to the sessions each week.
Staff who participated in Tell the Tale had very positive experiences. They enjoyed the challenge of learning stories and performing them. All said how much they enjoyed and benefitted from engaging with a creative task. They hope to integrate that learning into their busy work environment.
Storytelling in Paediatrics
Feedback from telling stories on the Paediatric ward is instant. The smiles on faces, loud giggles, the rapt expressions and expressions of gratitude and praise at the end. It is wonderful to be able to offer this relief to both child and adult.
‘It’s a lovely hour where [the children] are distracted, they’re happy. As the nurses say, it transforms the ward for that hour into a play area.’ – Dr Julie Lucey, Consultant Paediatrician, Paediatric Ward, UHW
‘Children are a very perceptive audience you know. You have to work very hard at getting their attention. So he has a great skill at getting their attention and they all love him… It’s become part of our day and it’s very much welcomed.’ – Breda Whittle, Clinical Nurse Manager (CNM2), Paediatric Ward, UHW
Documentation and Dissemination
Project outcomes were documented in the final report of the residency by the artist which will be available on artsandhealth.ie in the near future.
Joe also shared his reflections on the residency as part of Checking In, an online gathering for the arts and health community in November 2021 organised by artsandhealth.ie / Waterford Healing Arts Trust.
A short film capturing a storytelling session for children on the Paediatric Ward with insights from Joe and Paediatrics staff was produced for The Art of Being Healthy & Well, a national symposium in June 2022 co-hosted by the Creative Ireland Programme, the Department of Health (Healthy Ireland), the Health Service Executive and the Arts Council.
Date of Publication
April - November 2021
Waterford Healing Arts Trust
Arts Council of Ireland
Acute Hospitals, Children, Paediatrics, Staff Health and Wellbeing
Nature of project