Our Space Podcast | Episode 4

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 [insert detail once recorded by Mandy].

So, here we are, we have with us a few people from the project, and I am going to ask each individual in turn, just to give me a little bit of information about their connection to Our Space, their current connection to Our Space and just to say their name, so that when you are listening you know who you are hearing from. And we will go first to Jason.

J: Hi, my name is Jason Dean Brownlee, I have been a member of Our Space and Project X for nearly 5 years now. I have been involved in a number of plays not only with Our Space, but with Project X and People’s Company and yeah, it was one of the best things that ever happened to me.

Thank you Jason, that’s brilliant, we will find out more about that in a while, we will then go to you Pete.

P: Hiya, my name is Pete Creed, I have been involved with Project X and Our Space for just over 4 years. Yeah, it’s been amazing. Currently, you know, its lockdown, so not a lot of like physical interaction going on, but we are keeping it all going with the zoom meetings once a week, so that’s really cool.

Brilliant, thanks very much and then finally, I would just like to introduce Tara, who is going to say a few words about herself.

T: Yes, hello, thank you. I’m Tara and I’ve been in Our Space for about a year and a half. I was new to Plymouth in 2016, although my grandfather comes from here and yes it has been a revelation and a great thing, to have become part of Our Space and other projects at the Theatre Royal.

Brilliant, thank you all for that, so hopefully, you’ve all got distinctive voices, hopefully everybody will know who is speaking when.

The second question is around giving people a flavour of Our Space, so obviously it welcomes people from all walks of life, could you individually, tell me what brought you personally to Our Space, how you found out about the project and what it was that attracted you to it? And the sort of “why did you stay?” question, is very much a Victoria Wood question, she always used to say at the end of her gigs “thank you for coming and staying.” I kind of extend that to all of you, “thank you for coming and staying”. So, those are the questions and we will ask that first of Pete, if that’s ok?

P: Yes, certainly, I came to Our Space in 2016 and that was an opportunity I was given because I was in rehab in Plymouth. I moved down from Leicester to stay in a residential rehab and there was an opportunity to get out of the house once a week and mess around in a studio and I jumped at the chance. In answer to your question of staying I mean, I kind of did carry it on shortly after leaving rehab, but then I kind of left for a little while. I just thought at the time, you know, I need to move on, life evolves, I just wanted to keep moving. But, it was a really difficult time for me, I had been a drug addict for 35 years, and I had kind of been hiding behind a number of masks and had some really weird and unhealthy coping mechanisms. And I found that what being at Our Space allowed me was to be authentic, you know, it was like a safe space, what it actually did was it kind of softened me, softened my heart and it allowed me to form healthy relationships with people. And I really need that, I mean I need that now, this is 4 years on, I really needed it at the time, I just wasn’t really aware of it, so I did kind of left for about 6 months, but then came back, thankfully. Thankfully the team, Sara and a few of the others, kept in touch with me and when I said I’d like to come back she was like “yeah, 100%, absolutely, you just come back”. So yeah, I am really really grateful for that and really grateful for that support that you received afterwards and I am forever grateful now.

Yeah, and I think it is great that you can go away and come back as well, sometimes when you get involved in something, you need to go away and see it from a distance, before you can reflect on whether it was any use to you.

Yeah, definitely, and it really was, it was noticeable, what it all gave me. And you know it was a way of making friends. Like I said, it was a really difficult time for me, I was stripping away all these coping mechanisms. So, you know, for me it was about rebuilding, rebuilding my life and Our Space has been a real integral part of that.

Brilliant, thanks Pete. Thank you very much. Tara if I can take that question to you, so what was it that brought you to Our Space?

T: Well first of all I was struggling, I was living in Plymouth, I was quite isolated and I was struggling with mental health issues and I went to the Theatre Royal Plymouth’s World Mental Health Awareness Day and that presented the project along with a couple of charities and presented them in such a pleasant way that I thought it was approachable and I had the backing of a support worker who helped me to come along and contact the Our Space people and to have a conversation and luckily I was accepted into the Our Space project. Yeah, I thought it was very good, that there are people who are struggling for different reasons, it’s a whole range of reasons, whether it is particular mental health issues, or having experienced homelessness, or people coming through recovery from addiction, some people having had problems with the law and things like that, so I thought the range was very interesting. Also, one of the things was that it was a broad age range, there was people from the age of 18/19 all the way up to in their 60s, possibly older and all the way in-between. I think that that mixture of age ranges in a group, isn’t always so obvious to find in this day and age and I thought that was very good. I stayed, because, at first I was quite withdrawn, with the struggles I was having, found it difficult to mix with people and so on. But I stayed because the atmosphere was so nice and it was so well facilitated. Nobody in the group felt pushed or forced into participating in the exercises, they could sit out if they were feeling anxious and there was just such a nice and kind atmosphere. I would have to say the kindness, is something that really sticks with, the room of Our Space is a kind space, as well as being a safe space, it is well facilitated. I have a background in the Theatre so I could see how well they were managing the groups, being familiar with some of the exercises and that helped me to join in as well, it was familiar territory for me in particular.

Great, thank you Tara, that’s really helpful, that’s such a lovely, the idea of kindness has real currency, because if you open the space and it’s kind, then you can start where you are rather than having some kind of benchmark. Jason, can I take that question to you as well please?

J: My story is probably quite similar to Peter’s, I arrived in Plymouth, I think it was May 18th 2015, I had been through a terrible break up and I was alcohol dependent, suffering from chronic depression and unfortunately had a 23 year cocaine habit and everything that went with it. I was introduced through rehab to Our Space, we had an opportunity to do drama, my first thoughts were its for “Nancy boys”, but I thought “step out of my comfort zone, and do something different” and it was the best thing I have ever done. It allowed me to find myself as a person, and I dunno, gain trust and feel free to be who I, I suppose, who I was meant to be. Most of us put up so many different masks, because of the environments that we grow up in, and this was a safe space to grow. I couldn’t look people in the eyes when I first came to Our Space, I had no confidence, I had lost all self-worth. But over time, meeting people and with the fantastic staff, I started to gain the confidence and gradually I started to believe in myself. I stayed because, it gave me a strong support network, of people that I trusted. Because trust was a big issue for me, throughout my life, and the structure was amazing, there were free tickets to go to the theatre which was a privilege, we got to rehearse in a prestigious building and the workshops and opportunities that arose and people putting their trust in me as a person, helped me grow, so I recommend it to anyone, it’s an amazing project.

Wow, that’s amazing thank you for your honesty actually, it’s quite humbling actually to just be here and to listen to that, and to listen to all of that, all of you, and your integrity and your commitment to the project. I think, whilst we might frame it and might hold it, it is only what it is because of what you bring back to it.

So, can you tell me something about what you think the impact of being involved in Our Space has been for your personally?

P: Yeah sure, I mean I just can’t put it down to one thing. It has helped me in all aspects of my life, 100%, it’s about having so much more confidence and I’ve got a lot more self-esteem that has come about from doing live performances and in the workshops. You know, we’ve got this fantastic Director that just gives us this freedom you know, gives us this feeling that when we have completed a piece that it is our work, you know it is not “follow this script” he just gives us free reign and it’s very empowering to me and through that, that’s given me massive confidence and self-esteem. Of course, with performances it has given me a sense of community, a sense of belonging to a community, giving to a community, helping a community. In the workshops it’s encouraged that we can get vulnerable in a safe space and yeah it’s allowed me to be my authentic self and grow from that point. In the rest of my life, so I am in a rock and roll band, it has given me a tremendous amount of freedom and confidence when we have been performing live as well. Up until three years ago I had never performed on a stage sober, and I have been performing since I was thirteen and I am fifty-one now. It’s remarkable, so I have been able to, it’s something that I have never experienced before, this connecting with an audience. It just keeps giving. It, I would say it has affected me positively in all aspects of my life, that would be the easiest way.

Great, thank you so much. That’s really interesting, about how it has carried over, not only into performative things that you do, but also into just the general day to day things that you are doing, just going shopping or going out and interacting with people, its brilliant to hear that.

Tara can I move onto you with that question?

T: Yes, similar to Pete, I find it has really had an impact on me in my whole life and wellbeing. Focussed on the theatre, although what we do at Our Space, isn’t therapy of any kind, it’s art work that we do, but it has therapeutic or a positive effect on general wellbeing. I would say that I was very withdraw to begin with, unable to mix with people and that sort of thing, so with very withdrawn beginnings, taking baby steps, I was able to become more communicative, part of a group, start to feel part of the community as a larger thing and then I started to make friends in the group, it gave me a routine you know at the beginning when I was quite unwell, it gave me just that weekly routine to go to, you know at the time I was quite adverse to being in a group, but I thought I will try it. So, from taking those baby steps I went on to build confidence. What was great about being in the Our Space project, is that it gave us other opportunities as we progressed as well. We’ve had workshops with professional theatre companies like Frantic Assembly, Graeae and one that was close to my heart was the Cardboard Citizens Forum Theatre. So, it went on from building those baby steps, to actual furthering one’s personal and professional development. So, those are the impacts that I would say it has had on me, my general wellbeing across times in my life when I wasn’t at the Theatre or in that particular group, it really did help to improve my general wellbeing.

Great, I mean again, you are very like Pete, you have identified the personal and then gone into the structural parts of your life into the other things that it gives you. But it is sort of that core, joining in, that makes the difference initially.

Jason?

J: Gosh, where do I start? It has had a huge impact on my life, I can’t thank the Theatre enough for this project. I would say I am 20% of the person I used to be, I kept the good bits and all the bad bits have completely gone. I’m a completely different person going to this project, I think just the experiences that the Theatre gives to people, seeing behind the scenes, working with the Young People’s Company, helping them design their sets has just impacted me and unleashed creativity that I must have always maybe had in me from a child and now I have chosen a direction in life that I would have never even had dreamt of contemplating. Writing poetry, that people seem to think there is something in it, to creating art, as you know, I am now at university doing my second year Fine Art degree. My dream was to become an established artist in my own right and it’s becoming true, it’s becoming a reality. I think what the Theatre has really given me is self-belief, before I always needed some kind of reassurance from people that I was doing ok, or affirmation, now I have an overwhelming feeling, because I can see my journey. I have sold over 80 paintings, I have sold 20 paintings in the last week, it’s phenomenal, it’s humbling that somebody actually appreciates my art, and I am starting to get recognised https://jdsbrownlee1969.wixsite.com/voodoomonkey-2.

The impact of the Theatre giving me the opportunity of becoming a Lab Associate, was just overwhelming as well, yeah, so it has had a 100% impact on my life. I am no longer an untrustworthy hooligan, criminal, with mental health problems, I am on no medication, it’s kept me clean. I tell you something, one of the biggest things, is just my acceptance of other people, before I was quite narrow minded, I think a lot of it was to do with my upbringing, I could be very judgemental of people, and maybe judge them by the way they looked or who they were. But now I am an open book, everyone’s welcome to my table, obviously if they don’t have anything positive to bring, they can go, I am very tolerant of people, even though I am a bit of a misanthropic loner and I probably always will be, the Theatre has taught me how to integrate back into a so-called normal society. Which I had no time for, for most of my life, so yeah 100% impact and change here.

What is really brilliant, actually, from all of you, from all the things you have said, is that you all have an artistic practice, you all have an artistic drive, you know Pete is a musician, Tara is an actor predominantly, Jason has got his writing and his visual arts as well as performing. But, you had those within you long perform you came anywhere close to this project. I think one of the great things about Our Space, is that it very much supports that development of individuals and the group as artists, especially when you get to Project X actually, there is a real kind of commitment to people as individuals who can express themselves and have something to say. So, we see participants really as artists.

Can you tell me how your lived experience of mental health issues, or homelessness, addiction, and or the criminal justice system has shaped you as an artist? We will start that question with Tara.

T: Yes, I had to think about this one, I think the opportunity that Our Space gave me to join in with a project for people who have experience of homelessness, called Cardboard Citizens and Forum Theatre, really has come out of my work that led up to there from Our Space. I think it has given me a much better understanding of people with mental health issues and who have experienced homelessness as I have myself. That wider understanding and finding a place artistically to put it, mainly this Forum Theatre, is something that has come to me through involvement of Theatre Royal Plymouth and Our Space. So, I would look forward to further enjoyment and exploration of those worlds meeting if you like, in that project, which I know is planned for Plymouth in the future, touch wood, given the lockdown scenario and so on. I think what is nice about Our Space is the inclusiveness and there is a general compassion towards the artists who are there, and not being labelled only as your difficulty, or only as your struggle, but being recognised and being seen and being recognised as an artist in your own right, who may have had some struggles. As I said it is a very kind atmosphere to let you work and focus on the work. I think another thing about it is, that in Our Space no one is obliged to say what their personal struggle is in the group, they can come in and keep their own private lives private, and we focus on the group work and on the themes we work on. In that way it is a level playing field and everybody can contribute and although I have mostly been mostly in Our Space I have been in one Project X production. That does give one a sort of belief that yes, there sort of is a pathway back to the Theatre, to what I used to do, which is installations with performance element, in museums and galleries. There is a pathway back and the issues or struggles, that we have can be lived with and we can integrate and be part of the community at large and it also gives you a sense of achievement to be involved in a Project X Production.

Great, thank you. Am I right in thinking you are part of a smaller theatre company?

Well, I got involved in another workshop at the Theatre Royal, the great thing about Our Space is it opens all these other opportunities, which you don’t realise at the beginning, but all these other opportunities and branches of the tree that is Our Space begin to grow and open up. I joined another set of workshops at the Theatre Royal, and in a small showback that we did, the group I was in, the group was picked up and offered a performance in the Lab, for a presentation over 20 minutes, a sort of scratch night, so that was a separate development. So, we set up ourselves as We Three, to present 20 minutes of work, which we would look from there to extend into a full performance if that became possible.

Great, thank you Tara, Jason we are going to move on to you now on this question.

I carry the Theatre Royal with me and what they have done for me everywhere I go. Every person that I meet and have a sensible conversation, I am quite honest about who I used to be, and I have to tell people about my journey and how it has changed me. Sometimes I feel like I can be an inspiration to people and make them believe that what I have they can have to, but they have to help themselves. In my art, I think in the first year, I dealt with addiction, so a lot my art was about addiction. I think for most people who are addicts, the problem we have is, I hate the word addict, is a compulsive behaviour, we have a compulsion to do things obsessively, so for me to be able to channel my compulsive behaviour into two things that give me, that fill that empty void inside of me. One being art, which is quite cathartic and therapeutic, that allows me a down time almost like in a meditative state to create and then to have the acting or going on stage, is that living on the edge, that rush, a natural high, rather than looking for substance to substitute that high. I don’t know what else to say, I am just so grateful and I just spread the word. Because anything is possible in life, we just have to believe in ourselves, and once we believe in ourselves and set ourselves goals and aim for those goals, the opportunities just seem to arise, and before you know it you are on a journey, success is a journey, and it is incredibly amazing, when these opportunities and things happen to you that you could never dream that would happen.

If I had still been the person I was, it wouldn’t be long before I was dead or in prison. That’s the truth. Everybody I know that I grew up with in my life, are criminals, their either dead or in prison or doing the same thing. I had to leave all that behind, I left everything. And it’s the best thing I ever did, I am a completely changed person with ambition for once in life. I have ambition to make something of myself, I have made something of myself, I am something.

Yeah, look, I am staring at pictures all those behind you.

I know, see I am prolific, I can paint twelve pictures in a morning.

That’s brilliant, gosh I wish I could!

So, we are going to move on to you Pete, that’s question 4, about how your lived experience has shaped you as an artist?

Well, I mean, how it shaped me, I mean during my addiction, I’ve been an alcoholic, drug addict for most of my life, so in that sort of state, in that realm, I was at the mercy of the elements really, I was just floating round without any direction really. I guess it was just potluck, the good things that happened. You know, my life in addiction, I wouldn’t write it off and just say it was all bad, you know, I did manage to do certain things which I am kind of proud of, you know. I recorded some albums, did some touring, this is all musical really. I don’t know if my mental health or addiction really shaped that, or if it hindered me, I don’t know, not really, I don’t really dwell on it or anything.

And do you still play now Pete, do you still tour and play and record?

Yeah, yeah, I am still trying to get my head around the technical side of recording, that’s something I have always kind of shied away from. Whenever I was in the studio and the technical stuff was happening, I would be off doing something else. But it’s something I would very much like to get into, which there are opportunities in Plymouth, you know DBS, I am seriously considering doing that.

And those are very creative elements, although they have a technical aspect, and there is a right and a wrong way, there’s a creativity that is driving that technical aspect really.

Yeah, we had a tour booked in August this year, but it’s been cancelled, pretty much like all live performances, so obviously, I don’t know what is going to happen with that, but that’s ok, that’s ok, I am really really ok, and that’s been the biggest change that’s happened to me, just being present with everything, not dwelling on the past, not worrying about the future, just trying to do the next best thing, just trying to stick to that primary purpose, which at this moment in time is speaking with you.

Great, great, that’s brilliant, thank you. So, we’ve managed to get ourselves to the final question, which is in part me saying thank you for your incredible contributions so far. But just to ask you a relatively, I’m hopeful, simple question, in asking you what your ambitions as an artist or as a creative person are moving forward and we will start that question with Jason please?

J: I think I have said it already, I would like to be a known artist in my own right with my paintings, and I think I’m achieving that already. But I would also like to teach. I’ve been very fortunate, that I did a placement at KARST gallery and Dawn Melville basically offered me a free space to create, she also offered me to apply for a three-year living wage bursary, to be part of the KARST gallery. I was in the process before the pandemic of creating two workshops, one for children, one would have been a theatre workshop, they get these large military crates and they didn’t know what to do with them. So, one was an idea to make them into puppet theatres where children would decorate it, create this almost Punch and Judy, I know it’s not politically correct Punch and Judy, but like Punch and Judy Theatre. They would make a hand puppet out of a wooden spoon, in likeness to a role model or somebody that inspires them and they would tell their story through the puppets. Another workshop was working with vulnerable adults, it was about to go ahead, to do with Amanda Sheriff, I think you know Amanda Sheriff, it was an abstract workshop for vulnerable people and that was all going to go through, but due to the pandemic, I don’t know what’s going to happen at the moment,  but yeah.

I can tell you, I don’t know whether it is embargoed, but I can tell you that KARST have got their emergency funding, so who knows, I am on the Board for KARST, did you know that? Nobody knows that, but I am. Anyway. So yeah, they got their emergency funding, so maybe there might be a version of some of that stuff for you to be able to participate in. I mean, this will end, at some point, this bloody pandemic, I am certain of it.

But I would also like to write a musical for the Theatre and one day hopefully, I don’t know, write and act in a play that I’ve written.

Well, we have sort of rolled over the Lab Associates, so that’s something.

I know, yeah, if it’s not meant to be it’s not meant to be.

Well, no no, it will happen next year, it will happen in some form or another.

So, Pete, I think you are the next person for that question if you wouldn’t mind?

Yeah, I would be happy to. I am also very fortunate at the moment that I’m working for Shekinah, which is a homeless charity in Plymouth. I would really love to be able to incorporate some kind of music therapy, a way of just getting people to express themselves through music. I don’t know how, but I would like to do that. And yeah, I would just like carry on writing and making music myself. But, yeah I would really love to do some, I don’t know if it is called music therapy, but just like to get people properly involved, you know, get them playing instruments, writing their own songs and recording them and sort of empowering them the same way that I’ve been empowered through being involved in Our Space.

Interesting, just as a note to Sara, that might be another replication or extension, within a potential funding bid that we can put together. Thank you very much for that and finally, last, but by no means least Tara?

Yes, thank you, I suppose I am looking forward to being involved in more community projects and community arts that are going on. I am looking forward to expanding my artistic activity to new works, that I am hoping to develop with somebody else that I met with at the Theatre Royal, that’s in plays and installations with a performance element. And apart from Cardboard Citizens, which I am really motivated to be a part of, I’d like to develop being a part of something called Invisible Cities, which pairs homeless people, with some performance techniques for being walking tours of Plymouth and that’s a project called Invisible Cities and in our case it would be called Invisible Plymouth, so I am looking into possibly developing running that as a project.

Brilliant, great, wow. Well I must say, thank you very very much for your contributions today. I must say I feel quite privileged to have been partied to it and to have listened.

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