How to run a workshop
Leading workshops alongside your creative practice is a great way to share your skills with others and earn a bit of money on the side. But facilitation is a fine art in itself. A photographer, poet and composer share their tips…
Don’t be a teacher
You’re not a teacher – you’re a facilitator. And, as such, your role isn’t to stand at the front of the room imparting knowledge according to a curriculum, it’s to “set up an enabling environment for people to learn through a process of discovery,” as Sean Gregory, composer and Director of Creative Learning at the Barbican and Guildhall School of Music and Drama, puts it.
Establish an informal, friendly atmosphere, while making it clear you know what the hell you’re doing. “No matter if you’re doing a workshop with young people or old people, you need to be in control,” says poet Talia Randall, who leads creative writing and spoken-word workshops. “That doesn’t mean you need to act like a disciplinarian or a kids’ TV presenter – just be genuine and comfortable in your skin.”
Know your audience
Tailor your method to the needs of your participants, being sensitive to how differences in age, experience, ability and cultural background among people in the group affect the way they engage with the workshop. This applies to web workshops too, as photographer Sara T’Rula found when she was facilitating Street Photography Now, an online photography project organised by The Photographers’ Gallery and Thames & Hudson in 2011. “We used Flickr and had a WordPress site,” she recalls. “About a third of the way through the year, we realised there was a big gap in Asia and particularly China. We were totally clueless to the fact that in China they don’t use Flickr – they use a social network called Douban – and WordPress is blocked.” Sara adapted her approach by enlisting grassroots photography organisations based in China to help with promotion and translation.
Break the ice
Unless you’re working with a pre-established group, chances are your workshop participants won’t know each other. To get the most out of the session they should feel relaxed and confident in each other’s company. Firstly, “Make sure the room you’re in is conducive to being able to sit or stand in a circle so you can see each other,” recommends Sean. “You want to create a non-threatening environment so [do some] warm-up exercises.”
From wink murder to human bingo, there are trillions of techniques to choose from. Use your imagination and find icebreakers that fit with your theme or creative discipline. Sean again: “If we’re talking from a music or theatre perspective, often [we do warm ups] using voice, body and rhythm. For example, there’s one where you really quickly pass a clap or sound around the circle – it just gets a bit of electricity around the group.”
First, ask yourself what you want the outcome to be for the people taking part. A short animation? A drawing? A new acting technique? “You need to make sure they feel like they’ve left with something, even if that something is just the start of an idea,” stresses Talia. Set out your aims at the beginning but don’t go overboard with the yabber. “Obviously there are times when you need to explain things but it wouldn’t be worth [the participants’] time if I was doing a two-hour workshop and an hour of it was me lecturing,” says Talia.
“Doing lots of short exercises keeps the energy up – but when you put them together they need to create a whole piece,” says Talia. For example, at a workshop at the Royal Academy of Arts about writing poems inspired by artworks, Talia broke the session into a series of practical creative activities. “One was called 10, 10, 10: you look at a painting for 10 seconds, shut your eyes for 10 seconds and then write the first 10 words that come into your head. Then one of those words might be the starting point for a piece of writing.”
…but be ready to adapt
“Have a structure in mind but if an interesting idea comes up 10 minutes or two hours into the workshop, don’t ignore it just because it’s not what you had planned,” says Sean. “There will be points where you are facilitating and giving space for others to explore ideas and you need to be skilled at knowing when to intervene and when not to.”
Go out with a smile
Take a few minutes at the end of the session to summarise and congratulate people for what they have achieved. As Talia says, “I might be getting them to write about their experiences and read it out loud in front of a room full of strangers. That’s not easy for people to do – so you need to make them leave feeling good about it!”
A sourcebook of activities you can use in different worskshop settings.
This cult book by the founder of the Theatre of the Oppressed contains loads of practical drama games and exercises.
Twenty-four ideas for icebreakers.