Welcome to our podcast Rehearsals for Life – a podcast series about Our Space, Theatre Royal Plymouth’s flagship engagement project. Our Space is a creative programme that works with adults with multiple and complex needs. Members come from all walks of life and may have faced challenges including homelessness, mental health issues, reoffending, substance misuse or they may feel isolated for other reasons.
I’m Mandy Precious, Director of Engagement and Learning at the Theatre Royal Plymouth and today I’ll be talking to Sara Rhodes, Engagement Manager at the Theatre who has been working on Our Space for 8 years in various capacities.
So, can you tell me about how Our Space started?
So, the project began towards the end of 2008 off the back of rough sleepers sleeping outside the Theatre in the doorways and using drugs in the toilets. The Front of House staff invited them in for a hot drink and through conversations with them we started to identify some of the challenges they were facing and why they were seeking refuge and seeing the Theatre as a safe space. Some of those challenges that came up were around lacking in self-confidence, lack of employability, poor social networks, lack of family support and lack of self-worth. Through those conversations we began to form an idea to have regular check-ins with these people and inviting them in to do some drama, knowing that drama and theatre can really aid with some of those things that they were experiencing and struggling with. That began in 2009, a group was established with those people we had been connecting with and they would come weekly to us and a practitioner would run some really simple, basic drama skills and games with them on the 3rd floor of the Theatre. That continued for a little while until we secured some funding, when it moved to TR2, the Theatre’s Production and Learning Centre. We also went out to deliver ‘tasters’ in services across the city such as homeless organisations like Shekinah Mission and Salvation Army and rehabilitation facilities such as Broadreach which had a detox centre and then two residential centres – one for men and one for women. Through those sessions we started to gain some more interest and some value through those partners and more people began coming to a regular session down at TR2. The producer at the time used to go and collect people in the Creative Learning vehicle (which was a people carrier) and bring them down to TR2 on a weekly basis to come and do those sessions and that’s where it all began really.
Tell me a bit more about the content of the project and what the immediate changes were for the people involved?
The project has grown and evolved over 11 years, but in its initial phase there was a morning group that happened on a Thursday morning. The members of the group named it My Space originally, and then it became Our Space as more people started to join and a safe environment was created for them to get creative each week. So that morning group still exists now and that was very much the heartbeat of the project. In order for more people to find out about the project we started working with partners in services that supported adults with multiple and complex needs to deliver taster sessions. The practitioner and a volunteer would go out, meet with the participants in their setting, do a taster session for an hour or so and if they got involved and enjoyed it then we would support them to then come to the sessions on a weekly basis down at TR2.
Then after a few years, I think around 2012, members who had been coming to the group for some time started to want to make work, they wanted to do more than just confidence building and simple exercises each week. They formed a Stage Right and a Stage Left group. The Stage Left group were the first phase of the project where you came and it was all about drama for confidence and attending weekly sessions and the Stage Right group was about people who wanted to develop those skills further and start to make work. They created small scale performances like 12 Steps to Christmas which was a Christmas show based on the ‘AA’ (Alcoholics Anonymous) concept of the ‘12 steps’ and they did performances out in community settings like the Devonport Guildhall and started to make more work from there. That group then formed a steering committee for the project. So, in 2013 when we were coming to the end of the funding, the group were meeting in that interim period to think about what we needed to do next, how we needed to shape the programme to develop the Stage Right and Stage Left concept and whether the taster sessions were still working and how we could formalise that a bit more.
So, that was when Project X came about, which was their self-title for Stage Right as a Theatre Company performance group. So, we then had the morning group strand which continued to run on a Thursday morning at TR2, we had these taster sessions going out to different services and we then had Project X who were meeting with the aim to make a piece of work each year. Initially, the idea was that they were being skilled up to form their own theatre company and being supported with the resource of the Theatre, but we very quickly realised through conversation with them that they really wanted to have a Director/facilitator supporting them through the generation of their creative process.
That was during 2014 – 2016 and then when the project started its next round of funding, which we are currently in, the model changed slightly through further consultation and we expanded the taster sessions to become ‘community hubs’. Spending more time in those different services and venues that were familiar to people, enabling people to engage with us and build relationships with us in a place that was familiar to them, before transitioning over to the morning group. Project X was established as a programme that worked on a project by project basis, they make and create within a project which allows people to transition more frequently and take those skills into everyday life. Rather than creating a co-dependency on the Theatre and not seeing an ending for them.
You talked about the ownership of the project and about how the group determined the different elements and what worked for them. How do you as the person who manages the project see the co-creation elements working within it?
The project has always responded to what is being presented to us and the need of that particular community. I think we always know how to evaluate that and assess that in its simplest form by asking the questions – “Are people still coming? Are new people signing up? Is this an offer that people clearly need and want?” The way we ensure we are measuring that and making sure it is responding to the needs of that community and what they want is by having a number of different systems in place to check-in. One is to do that on a weekly basis within the creative session itself, the practitioners do a check-in and a check-out with all the participants. We also do a baseline evaluation at the beginning and at the end of a term which helps us to monitor the impact and the success or the challenges or the failures of the project. We also hold evaluation sessions for the group to share and write and feedback in person their experience and any issues they may be having, or any things that they have enjoyed.
We also have an independent evaluator that is checking in with them as individuals through case studies throughout as well. There are lots of different layers to the evaluation of the project to ensure we are keeping on track. The idea of the steering committee really formalised following 2013 to ensure that the project was definitely doing what it needed to do. The steering committee is made up of people in the morning group – very new members to the group, it is made up of people in Project X, people who have graduated from the programme who are now maybe assistant practitioners or artists. It includes the evaluator and also services managers of some the partner services that we work with in the city. This ensures that the project is reaching the right people, that it is doing what people want it to do, that it is having the benefit and impact that it should have and that we are moulding it and changing it and keeping that open conversation about what’s possible and managing expectation about what the project can and can’t deliver.
You mention partners and I’m interested in how those have evolved over the years. Who is it that the project works with, which partners and why those partners and not others?
It’s very much evolved depending on who is coming to the group and what services and provisions they are accessing. We are very clear that the project is a theatre-based programme, that we are not a therapy, whilst there might be therapeutic qualities that come out of it, we are not a clinical or medical model, we are not a therapeutic setting, we are a Theatre. So, the only way to ensure that we are providing people with a rounded sense about what is going on and to signpost them to other things they might need, is to work in partnership. We are dealing with people with multiple and complex needs, people that are living complex lives that may have faced challenges around homelessness, mental health issues, substance misuse, reoffending, or feel socially isolated, they have potentially been out of work for a long period of time, are a long-term carer, have experienced domestic abuse. It is a real broad spectrum of people, so the only way we are able to make that theatre, that rehearsal space and studio space a neutral ground is to be really clear that we are a theatre programme. Having all the resources in place with our partnerships with mental health services, drug and alcohol services, psychiatrists, the probation service, is to be able to signpost and to offer support and gain support for ourselves as a project. As the project manager and the practitioners, those partnerships mean that we have a resource so we can ensure that we have done the right thing, that we can check in with other people, and that we are meeting the needs without stepping into a territory that we are not qualified in.
What do you consider to be the most important aspect of the programme?
This project is absolutely reliant on theatre and drama as a tool to unlock something in people so that they connect with others, so that they can rehearse other ways of being, and they can tap into a playful side that they have maybe not ever unlocked before. But for me, the thing that makes this project unique and special and the most important aspect is the wrap around offer that goes with it. The Theatre Royal is able to offer a framework and a structure that allows people to engage with the project in as many ways as they want and get as much out of it as they would like. They can, on the simplest level come and join in a drama session once a week. But because of the infrastructure of the theatre there is the option after three weeks of attending to become a member, which is free of charge. As a member you get a membership card and a pack which has a ‘code of conduct’ and lots of leaflets for support services that people can be signposted to, you get a t-shirt so that you start to feel part of something, you start to feel welcome and part of a family. It gets you discounted hot drinks and cheap tickets to the theatre to go and see shows alongside our arranged trips that happen on a fortnightly/weekly basis to go to the Drum Theatre. It’s that sense of community, that sense of building a positive social network and people feeling like the theatre is a space for them, that they are welcome in, that they are not going to be judged in and that they can start to build a new life for themselves around and outside of the drama sessions that is organic and not led by us. We are providing a space where they can build their confidence, where they can tap into something new and exciting for themselves and we are also providing them with open doors for them to come in and build those new relationships with other people and think about new ways of living outside of the drama session, I think that is the key part of the project that is most exciting.
How long have you been involved in the project?
I joined the project as a volunteer in September 2011 whilst I was doing my Masters degree. I was a volunteer on the morning group and going out to the different services. Then I became a practitioner the following April, in 2012, I became the officer on the project in September 2013 and the producer in April 2016. So, a long time now!
Is there is anything else that you haven’t yet said that you would like to contribute?
In terms of co-creation, that’s become quite a buzz word I suppose over the past few years. For me, this project is a complete example of how you respond to the needs of a community. It’s not pretending to be something it isn’t, and we’ve not tried to change it or put ‘bells and whistles’ on it. We’ve always developed it in consultation with people and we have always kept true to what the purpose of it was, which was about bringing people together and connecting people and how drama and connection can really change people and support people to make different decisions in life. For me, that’s at the heart of the co-creation, it is very simple, it’s about having conversations, it’s about connecting with people, it’s about hearing them and managing expectation and sharing that power. I think this project really does that and it wasn’t trying to do that, it was born out of it, so it’s very authentic in that way.
I think the other thing, from my observation of it, is around acknowledging that, there is a sort of an equality within it, so yes, you have people who have a particular set of artistic skills who come into the room, but they are not prioritised over the stories of the people in the room. So, it is that marriage of those highly skilled practitioners who are very generous in their sharing of their knowledge with a group of people who they enable to share their stories. It’s that mix together where there isn’t a hierarchy of saying this is better than this, that brings something uniquely special really and tells the stories that I don’t see told anywhere else.
Yes, totally. People often, when they first join the group, I might give them a tour of the building, meet with them and their support worker before they make the step to come into the sessions are always like “how is it having so many different people, is there more people like me?’ I have never known anything like it and never experienced it quite the same with any other project. The sense of family and connection to the people in the room, that are coming from all walks of life, that are in completely different stages of recovery or trauma or whatever it is that is going on from them. Everyone is an equal in that space and even in this current situation where we are in a lockdown and we are transferring that online, which comes with its own challenges as not everyone has access to online and what that looks like and how we can support them to either access online or keep engaging with them in a non-digital way. We are all in these little tiles on a screen once a week, we are all in it together and we are all doing it and contributing and we are all responding to the creative prompts that are there and how we all feel on that day. That’s exactly the same as what happens in the room, everyone is going on a journey with it and it’s always responsive to what’s going on in the room and what’s brought on that day. Whether you are the practitioner or the producer or the participant attending for the first time, there is a real sense of that.
The only other thing I haven’t mentioned is that we have a Peer Mentoring Scheme, so we recognise that whilst I could talk about this project for England, actually what people are most interested in and what people benefit from most is the experience of others in the space. So, we run a Peer Mentoring programme for the longer standing members in Project X to get all the skills to then support new participants into the programme. So they meet and support with taxis and getting people to the sessions, they are a pastoral role, a role model within the sessions and I think that is really key as well because they are the heart of this programme, the people within it and they are the people that need to share their story and have the voice heard and are the interesting people. So where possible, it’s about having them at the heart of it.
Our assistant practitioner on the project currently, is someone that joined the programme back in 2015 and there is something quite magical about that and the kind of process we go through where people develop through the programme.
So, in a way, which is quite unusual in arts projects, the gatekeepers are in fact not professional people, they are people who have lived experience of the project.
Yes, absolutely, they are the people in the steering group, they are the people who are the peer mentors, they are the people who are saying what they want and need from the programme when we go out and consult before getting the next round of funding, they are the people who have said “Oi, I’ve not got into the project yet I didn’t know about this” and we find a way of making sure we are responding to that. So, everything is about putting them at the heart of it and making sure it’s meeting the needs of what people want from the programme and what they are experiencing at that time.
Great, thanks very much.
Thanks for listening to this podcast. Our Space has had an extraordinary impact on lots of people over the years. To find out more please go to www.theatreroyal.com/ourspace