Our Space Podcast | Episode 2

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 Jade Campbell, who is a theatre practitioner and who delivers the morning drop-in sessions for Our Space.

Morning, it’s nice to see you. I think it would be really brilliant if you could give us a sense of you and your practice Jade.

Yeah, so I set up a company called Doorstep Arts back in 2012 with my colleague whilst I was doing my MA in Applied Theatre. I’ve always enjoyed working with communities and one of my main things was working with young people predominantly actually from vulnerable backgrounds, using theatre as a tool to explore how they are feeling. I set up a company before Doorstep Arts too called Juicy Theatre. I’ve got a lot of experience working with young people and then I started working in different community settings and doing different/wider age groups and then someone contacted me from the Theatre Royal and asked me if I would be available to try out doing some Our Space sessions and I thought “oh yeah, that sounds interesting” and that will be six years ago in September, so it’s been quite a long time.

My practice is grounded and rooted in very much being live in the space. Working with lots of different types of people from various different backgrounds and facilitating their creative processes. I don’t really call myself a Director, but I guess I have done lots of directing, but I think for me, it’s more about the process and the way that people engage with that process, that is more where my interest lies. Although, I do see the power of working towards something that is aesthetically brilliant and that people feel proud in the work that they create as well. So yeah, I’m interested in both. I know that when people have a good experience in the session, then ultimately the work that they create is going to be good as well because it shows whilst they perform.

It is a sort of process/product thing really, it’s not one or the other. Although, I think sometimes process is enough, I don’t think you always need a product. A good process will lead to a good product.

Given the nature of Our Space, how do you approach the sessions in the first few weeks of the year? (These are people who are brand new to working in theatre and often have very complex lives.)

So, in each term we have space for new people, so I approach each term in the same way, in the sense that… I think it starts right from the moment that someone has a phone conversation with the Our Space producer to say that they want to get involved. When they have a friendly conversation and they are told that it is going to be ok and that it’s going to be relaxed and then they get a taxi if they can make that, which I think is incredible because obviously transport is an issue for some people. Then they come to an incredible space at TR2, which I think is really exciting as well, I get excited about coming to use the space there and be in that studio. Then when they finally meet me, they’ve had these lovely experiences up to that point that reassure them that its going to be ok, and sometimes they come with support workers and I then I always just greet every single person as they walk through the door, check-in and make sure they are okay, just say “hello” and explain what the session involves, so that if they are feeling anxious they get an understanding of what is expected of them and also that they can take care of themselves and if they feel wobbly they are able to leave the room at any time and just take five minutes for themselves.

I have a structure for the session that I follow every week, I know that when you are making theatre that doesn’t really work, but when you are running a participatory process where a lot of these people come with varying different needs and support levels, having a set structure really helps with rhythms. We have a lot of people with mental health problems or people in recovery and when they come into the space, to be able to sit down and every morning we will do a check-in, so Frankie (project officer) will usually update them on what’s going on and what they can expect from the programme and then I will always just do a really simple check-in with them, just to see how they are. What I try to reiterate in that moment is that you come as you are and it doesn’t matter how you are feeling, like if you are not feeling good that’s ok, but if you are feeling great, that’s also ok and I won’t comment on that, it’s just like “yep, that’s where you are, that’s how you are feeling” and that’s how you arrive in the space. We also talk about the idea that involving yourself as much as possible will mean you get more out of it, and I think people realise that from quite early on, so the more that they put in, the more that they get out of it and enjoy the process.

I structure the 10 week term, so that there are different drama-based skills, so that we are not focussing on their personal lived experiences, we are actually focussing on the drama and theatre-making skills, and those skills, kind of offer a security blanket almost, it’s like we are not here to do a therapy session, I am not a therapist. We are going to be here to generate new work, work on skills and build your confidence and then we always talk on the bi-product of, well it’s actually one of the focusses, but you do build confidence by working in a group and talking in front of people. So, I think because there is an ongoing structure and they are part of a bigger ‘whole’, so that they become a member of Our Space and they get a free t-shirt and they get free tickets to see theatre and then they will come back and we will discuss what they have seen the week before. Then they will say “could we work on something, that guy did a really good job at moving in a certain way, could we work on that in the space” so I will then incorporate what they have seen at the theatre into the sessions, so they can play around with what they have seen and make it themselves and see that it is accessible to them as well and that anyone can make theatre, that it isn’t just for the elite. We will talk about, if someone hasn’t been to the theatre before, we will have a conversation about what you wear at the theatre as that can be an anxiety for some people “oh do I have to dress up?” and I am like “well you don’t have to, you can just go and wear what you like”. Those conversations happen, it’s so multi-layered, it’s about easing people’s anxieties about being in the space, being there, knowing that they are worth being there, that its not just for a set group of people, that they are all welcome.

It’s really interesting, what I am interested in looking at is that notion of co-creation and just from what you are saying is that at the very beginning, it is about debunking some myths almost really and welcoming them into the space as equals in a sense and we are all just in the same boat as it were. We are all just in this room doing these drama things and that holds it but it doesn’t depend on theatre knowledge, it depends on a sort of honesty and an integrity.

What do you think is special about what those people bring into the room?

What always blows my mind and amazes me is that you are working with people with lived experience of mental health problems that come into the room sometimes physically shaking because they are anxious and afraid, they have hit rock bottom in their lives, some of them, and they give it 100%, there is no filter, they just go for it. I will play silly games with them, and I always explain to them “don’t think I haven’t done this myself, I wouldn’t ask you to do anything that I haven’t done myself and we are all in this together”. I will always go first to show an example, these guys just throw themselves into it and just love it, and you see immediate growth and change in people. I think it’s because they have made a choice at some point that they know that this will help them in some way and they have all this lived experience and then they come into the space and they realise that they can use that lived experience to help them through the drama and create really interesting and wonderful ideas. We will always devise and make new work and they just love the opportunity and realise that those lived experiences can inform what they are doing, so they are celebrated as humans and their life story rather than told that they are not welcome.

I wonder what part ‘fun’ plays in the sessions and how that impacts on all of us who take part in those kind of sessions, but specifically with that group of people?

So, I obviously speak to a lot people in the breaktime, we always have a break which is a massive part of it, as well, being able to sit and socialise for 15/20 minutes in the middle of the session and often at the end whilst they are waiting for their taxis. But, talking to people about that, they just say “I am able to just escape my life for a bit”, especially when we have people coming from the recovery centres, they would be like “I can just get away, from the house” that they have been living in intensely with ten people for the last few months and they can get away and can just be playful. There is something about going back into that childhood play and not having those barriers and not feeling like you have to, I don’t know, we live in a world where we have to achieve all the time and have to prove ourselves and I think it’s not about that it’s about being really present, I guess it’s a bit like mindfulness, being in the space, being present, playing, I feel really honoured that I get to be in a space with them every week. 

In relation to that then, how do you go about creating that safe space? I mean, we all carry stuff and things come out when we don’t expect them to, and we can be overwhelmed by our own experiences occasionally, I just wonder how you ensure that everyone is nice and safe?

So, when I did my Masters in Applied Theatre, I did a workshop with a guy called Clark Baim, who set up Geese Theatre many years ago and he talks about the Drama Spiral and he talks about the centre of the spiral being kind of pyscho-drama and the outside of the spiral being games and activities, like light-touch games and activities. As you go closer to the spiral you get close to personal narrative and I feel as a facilitator I have a responsibility to make sure that everyone feels safe in the room. Sometimes when you do a check-in, what I’ve done actually, is I get them to say one word, a sound or a gesture to explain how they are feeling, so we don’t delve too deeply into what is going on for them at that moment. I don’t think that that morning group is right for that, but sometimes you have no control over what someone brings into the room in many ways, so I can’t stand there and put my hand over someone’s mouth and say “no don’t say that”,  they are going to bring what they bring, so if we are in a check-in and someone says you know “I’ve had this really shit time”, “my so and so has died” or “something really bad will happen”, because we have two workers in the session, one of us can take that person out of the room to sit with them and talk to them if they need to and then it is just an acknowledgement that they have offered and a thank you. They sometimes take themselves to the centre of the spiral I guess is what I am saying and obviously that might trigger other people, so we sit with that for a bit and say “how is everyone feeling?” and then we kind of jump into a game or exercise that is different to that. So, there is an acknowledgment that someone has shared, there is someone else that can talk with them for a bit and then there is just checking in with everyone to see how they are all doing, but not dwelling on it. So, people know that they can share, they know that they can do it, and often what they will do now is wait until the end of the session to talk to be about it, if something has come up for them. We are there for 15 minutes at the end, we are always there at the end until they leave, so they know they can always check-in with us as well.

There is a dynamic around being in the moment, but also it not being therapy and there is something in that to explore a bit and how that impacts on the space.

I think I am always really clear that I don’t have training in therapy, I am not a therapist, I have read a lot about it and I’m interested in it and I’m interested in the therapeutic outcomes that come from participating in a creative process with a group of people and building that sense of community as you go, and that can be very therapeutic. But, I think when I use Clark Baim’s Drama Spiral, I always come back to that. So, when we devise something for example, and it might be “a moment that changed your life” and so we might be devising a theme from something like that. That obviously brings something up for someone, what I would then try and do is go “right thank you for sharing, we’ve got your story, now we are going get into groups and create a new story and we are going to base that off of all your lived experiences, but it is a different one”. So that is one step removed from everyone, we talk about it being one or two steps removed from the original source of the story, so that you are not necessarily performing lived trauma in front of everyone. I am very aware to try and avoid that in my sessions and I think that’s what helps make it safe for people because they know they aren’t going to be exposed.

So it is important though that people’s lived experience is at the centre of it, because people bring what they are to a session, they don’t bring their brother do they or their mother’s experience, they bring their experience and whether or not that’s at the centre of it or not, that is still in the room isn’t it?

Absolutely yes, it is, and I think that is something to be celebrated as well. It’s like a dance between supporting what people want to share in the space but also not dwelling or being re-traumatised, I don’t delve into that, I’m not a therapist. I don’t say “well let’s unpack that, let’s all act out Johnny’s experience of living as a heroin addict on the streets of Plymouth”. I don’t do that, I say no “let’s step away from that, let’s talk about an imaginative character that we can maybe put some of Johnny’s stories on, but we can also some of Sally’s on and so on, so that it becomes a collective story. So that stories are honoured and these lived experiences are honoured, but its not acting out someone’s lived experience in its entirety. If that makes sense?

Yes, totally, it does make sense. So, there is almost like there is a safety valve in there really and also this notion of the difference between drama and therapy. We are not seeking solutions to those stories are we?

No, and as we have said before and I’ve spoken to Sara about it, the Theatre can offer so much for those people to be engaged in, whether that is through volunteering opportunities, free theatre, being involved in a creative process themselves. I am mind-blown by the amount the Theatre Royal offers to individuals in the community, I think it is incredible. But they can’t fix everything. We can’t get someone’s house if they are homeless, we can’t provide them with mental health support, we can signpost to things, but we can’t actually do that as well. I think it is knowing really clearly what you can offer in that environment. It reminds me from working in youth work, that team around the child meeting, where you have different organisations that all input, it is kind of similar to that, it’s about the team around that person and all those different elements that can help support someone in their life.

It’s a sort of safeguarding model almost, where you deliver one piece of the pie and you think your bit of the pie doesn’t really contribute much, but actually if people don’t know about that bit of the pie or they haven’t experienced that bit, then they don’t get a whole pie. And also there is something really important I think, and Sara and I have talked about this a lot as well, around only doing what you can do, because if you over promise as a theatre practitioner or a Theatre, you will under-deliver and then you will then do to very vulnerable people or people with very complex lives, what’s already been done to them, so those of rules of engagement are really important I think.

And just being really clear with them, you know, I will often get someone say “can I volunteer, in there”, and I’m like “well there is a whole process you have to go through and this is the best person to speak to, not everyone gets the opportunity, but sometimes there are the opportunities”. It’s just being clear about who they go to and managing expectations. I mean a lot of them can see when we have peer mentors in the session, they can see the other opportunities that other people have had and how that has impacted them. It’s really lovely having those peer mentors I think, with lived experience. Or having a practitioner, like Ferri for example, you know he is quite happy to talk about how he came through Our Space as a participant, then did Project X and then just started developing his career really and his experience. It’s incredible, it’s amazing, it’s an amazing provision.

So, is there anything you think we might have missed in our conversation? I suppose, the only thing we really haven’t spoken about is around the theatre practice. I mean yes, theatre cannot solve the world’s ills, but there is something about what theatre does that’s very special and so I wonder if you can reflect on that?

I think there is a few elements of what theatre does, it’s almost a rehearsal for everyday life, so being able to, sometimes bring elements of Forum Theatre in, but not often, but sometimes we will explore “oh what could that character have done differently to be able to navigate that situation in a different way?” What I do is with each session, I focus on a different element of theatre making. So, it might be sound, or it might be physical theatre or it might be image theatre and we go through each section and then by the tenth week they have a little sharing that they’ll share. Some of the group, sometimes are really up for it and they want to do a big thing and other groups can be a bit like “oh I don’t know about that” and it’s always a small audience, so we invite the staff down from the Engagement and Learning department, so they come down and they may have four people, they might have ten people in the audience, but they get the opportunity to practice what they have seen in the theatre space, if they haven’t been exposed to that before. Some people come to Our Space with a history of theatre making experience, it’s quite remarkable sometimes and it’s really wonderful having those guys in the room because they will micro-facilitate in a group, so it’s really lovely to see. Because they have all that knowledge and experience. Rehearsal for everyday life, there is something about knowing that, I always talk about this. When you share at the end of each session, we will give them space to make something and then share to each group, and they are getting that opportunity to stand in front of another group of people, I guess they are quite exposed because you’re performing. It builds confidence and an ability to public speak and it might mean that so-and-so might feel more confident to apply for a job, which I have seen may times, or go and volunteer somewhere. Because they suddenly feel a bit more confident in themselves to be able to go “oh actually I can do that, I can talk in front of a room full of people because I have done that in a rehearsal space with Jade”. But, there is also the joy of creating, so I will give them little devising tasks and they just get into it and create themselves, I don’t over-direct them, I give them freedom and I give them boundaries and give them provocations I guess I would say, and then they run with it and create themselves. I think the joy of a creative process and feeling part of an ensemble and part of a group is really powerful and feeling like they are artists in their own right. Often, they will be inspired to write at home, or make something at home. I’ve had people come in and have been so invested in the process that they go home and they make props or bring costumes in, I haven’t asked them to, but they come in like “Jade I’ve made this whole set of props for my group out of paper maché”, or puppets or they will just come in with it and I am just like “wow” they are just so invested in it. It is incredible. I think it is understanding that they are artists in their own right as well and that everyone can be.

Well thank you very much, that’s been brilliant, I’ve really enjoyed having the conversations, because we don’t often get the opportunity to talk about those nuts and bolts really, we just live it and we just do it and it’s nice to reflect on that process and the impact that work has.

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