Opinion

(Re)Composing the Self: A Collaborative Reflection

Killian Quigley, Danielle Celermajer and Christine Winter reflect on last month’s Composing Self Through Free Play workshop, lead by Michelle St Anne, Artistic Director of the Living Room Theatre and SEI Deputy Director. Their responses are interwoven below in an experimental collective reflection on the nature of creativity, imagination and collaboration.

Image by Andrei Lazarev, via Unsplash

There is something strange about the academic creation process.

Academics usually find our way to each other’s work and ideas through words. Words on the page, or sometimes spoken. Often we thrust them at each other and hope that they will catch in the middle somewhere to create a new thought, or a bigger thought.

And whilst everything builds on and from the work of others, writing — creating an article or book — is so often a solo event. Even collaboration involves back and forth from one computer in one room to another across the city, country or world. The creation happens while we sit (and stand) semi-stationary. This is how it is. This is the process. This is what works.

I wish I knew what it was to think and act without the span of relation, to shorten the chain to the point that it rendered not a linkage, but an identity, an equivalence. The workshop helps, not because I’m closer now to unity, but because it compels me to confront the oddness, and maybe the unreality, of some of these structures for saying, and for thinking.

The language I know leaves me wanting for ways to account for myself as my body, my: “of or belonging to me; of or relating to myself; which I have, hold, or possess” (Oxford English Dictionary). Though, what if we find each other not first in words, but in bodies and sound and breath and movement? And then we create common words from this embodied embreathed way of being together?

Seeing others, and being seen, as bodies, as body. This was off-putting and healthful; a knowing that I’m being seen, that I’m being seen with others, others with whom I’m involved, maybe following, maybe guiding, maybe opening space for, maybe hemming in. Working this way, so counter-intuitive for those whose medium is the word on the page, opened a way of finding each other not as separate beings who then negotiate agreement. I don’t reckon me, myself, or I a dualist. All the same, I recognise I do relate, or think through words that frame things as relationship.

My world is turned upside-down, moving side-by-side, moving around, across, behind and in from of each other speaking single words, phrases, sentences at random, in response, over and at odds with others can generate a coherent whole. A process totally contrary to the academic norm generated something that was rich, vibrant, resonant and powerful, something much larger than the individual parts.

We formed ourselves together, formed our words, our sentences and our thinking together. Embodied and together all the way down, uncovering a new possibility for the meaning and expanse of an inter-disciplinarily that might be the source of the authentically transformative.

The success of the process, this experiment, depended entirely on Michelle’s ability to create a safe environment and to establish an atmosphere of trust and respect. Without her skilful guidance it could have been a disaster. With it, we are changed.

There are fantasies of formlessness at work among intellectual and emotional inheritances, ones I am pleased to have disrupted, for all me, my sakes. It feels like the beginning of a huge new adventure.


Composing Self through Free Play was held on March 22 as part of the Developing the Field of Multispecies Justice FASS Research Project. In addition to her role as the Deputy Director of the Sydney Environment Institute, Michelle St Anne is the Artistic Director and founder of The Living Room Theatre and Honorary Associate of the Department of Theatre and Performance Studies. Michelle designed this masterclass to introduce researchers to her favourite actor-training exercises, in order to re-learn the processes of collaboration, creativity and imagination.


Danielle Celermajer is a Professor of Sociology and Social Policy at the University of Sydney. Her research stands at the interface of theories exploring the multi-dimensional nature of injustice and the practice of human rights.

Christine Winter is a lecturer in the Department of Government & International Relations at the University of Sydney. Her research focuses at the intersection of intergenerational, indigenous and environmental justice.

Killian Quigley researches the poetic, aesthetic, and broader cultural histories of environments and ecosystems. He is focused, especially, on marine – and above all submarine – contexts. With Margaret Cohen, of Stanford University, he is co-editor of The Aesthetics of the Undersea.