Our Space Podcast | Episode 5

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 Tiffany Strawson, a theatre practitioner, evaluator and independent academic who works on Our Space in a number of capacities.

First things first, it would be really lovely to find out a little bit about who you are, Tiff.

Hello, thank you Mandy, my name is Tiffany Strawson and I am a theatre practitioner with a long standing professional history, about 25 years experience of working professionally in the theatre and almost all of that work has been in community theatre and youth theatre. I have been involved in a variety of different capacities, as producer, director, facilitator and I am also an independent academic with a number of publications behind me all around theatre, performance, training, pedagogy and also intercultural community theatre with a specific focus on Indonesia of all places. So that’s my kind of background, that’s what sort of brings me and leads me to this Our Space project.

Brilliant, ok, so you were brought on board as the evaluator of the project, so I wonder if you could give a brief overview of the framework we use in that evaluation, so what is it we actually do in order to evaluate the project?

So, what we do, is we are gathering both quantitative and qualitative data basically, so both statistics and stories of different participants growth and development throughout the project. Whether they stay for a term or for many years and we use an evaluation wellbeing scale, Warwick and Edinburgh mental wellbeing scale, which has been developed to enable measuring of mental wellbeing and that works quite well in a number of integrated mental health practices, because it is very responsive to the changes that people might go through. What we have devised is an umbrella, a visual, what we call wellbeing umbrella and it’s a visual diagram that can chart how people are feeling, how they are emotionally responding, where they are at within the activity. It’s not a questionnaire, it’s a visual document, it’s a diagram, which we ask people to fill in at the beginning of the term and at the end of a term and that just sort of kick starts more of a conversation that it is developed through a number of different channels really. We find that that’s really a very useful way of going about asking people how they are feeling, because it is very difficult asking people how anxious they are when they are feeling anxious, so we found that to be quite a useful framework. 

You’ve used the wellbeing stuff and you get that piece of data, then what happens? So, do you select some people from that or is there some other mechanism?

We collate all the data and then what we try to differentiate is those people who are long term, longitudinal studies, and those people who have kind of dipped in and out. So, we’ve got a number of different ways that we measure the impact, we’ve got registers and attendance and those kind of questionnaires and then it is a question of analysing that data and trying to work out those people who are long standing and whether the impact of the project is greater for the more people participate and engage with the project. And it is really different for each participant, some people for example, they attend a hub session, and they do five weeks with a facilitator doing work in a familiar setting, maybe then they might come to the Our Space morning session and maybe only stay another five weeks, before they feel ready to go out into the community and maybe apply for a job or apply for a voluntary position or just get back into their lives or whatever they are up to. Some people choose to stay a lot longer and we measure, however long they are involved in the project, we are just sort of monitoring their engagement.  At the moment, for example, we are using a lot more anecdotal evidence, on the TR3 website, the Our Space group are creating a lot of stories, poems, literature, so we are just carefully monitoring that, seeing how much they are doing, seeing whether they are coming in every week, it’s a slightly different model at the moment, during this pandemic.

Sure, so I guess really what you are suggesting from what you have said, is that impact can be immediate, and who knows whether that is sustained or not, and some people just feel equipped having done a little bit of work in the room and built their confidence to kind of hit the world. And other people the project becomes really integral to who they are in the longer term.

Absolutely, and what is incredible about this project I think is that it is sort of an open door, unlike a therapeutic course, and a lot of the participants have had a lot of engagement with therapies and other services where there is a ten week course and maybe an expectation that after that “right, you’re fine, you’re out the door now, we’ve given you your allocated slot”. With this, it is an ongoing, rolling programme and I think people find that really refreshing, that there is the liberty to come or not come, and no one is going to chase them up. They may well be missed and they might get a phone call after several weeks to say” is everything ok?”, but it’s up to people whether they come or not and I think that is really refreshing for people who have been conditioned to think they should be places, and they’ve got something to do and it’s just one extra, additional stress that makes life more complicated.

I think that’s interesting, I know that a lot of the people that are in the programme, at all different levels, the hub, the drop in and the more regular Project X, have been in a recovery programme, so I guess they are familiar with that beginning, middle and end of things, whereas this is very open ended isn’t it?

It is very open ended, which means that people don’t have to feel like they have arrived, that they can just be themselves, they can be very very present. And I think some of the activities, they are so sort of physical and they develop the body-mind in a sense of here, now and being present. So, there is no sense of having to reach a destination point by a certain time or having to achieve something. So those things that we are measuring as outcomes of the project, things like self-esteem and confidence, being able to face the world, are in a way easier to track because they are very honest and responsive, well they are just honest responses rather than anything forced.

Rather than they have to be no longer an alcoholic, the outcomes are softer in that sense, and we were very clear in the application actually, way back, for this particular round, that the project isn’t about therapy actually, it sits for a lot of people as a freer space where they are not under any pressure to reach any particular goal or any particular outcome. So yes, those other outcomes that you’ve mentioned are sometimes overt and sometimes incidental, but if everybody doesn’t get there, that’s not an issue, there still manages to be some impact for them in participating.

Yes, and one of the things that we try and collate data, for want of a better word, but responses and ideas around that, is that we have now started to ask family and friends. It’s quite hard sometimes talking about anxiety and talking about how well we are coping. If you are on medication, sometimes it is very negligible to honestly respond to how you are feeling and thinking. But, what we also do is ask family and friends, how much more confident or has there been an improvement in communication or the way they have related, or are they leaving the house to go shopping or are they still asking you to do that for them? So, asking family and friends we get a little bit more objectivity, because it can be a very subjective, tunnel vision, narrow view if we just look at participant responses.

People in recovery sometimes, they feel quite euphoric initially and then as they get better they feel less euphoric.

Yes, in fact one of the funny things is, that we do, at the beginning of term when we are capturing the baseline data, because of the way the session works, we nearly always do the questioning and the umbrella forms at the end of the first session. At the end, everyone is feeling so joyful and so happy because they have walked in the door as a brand new participant. They’ve walked in feeling anxious and worried and concerned and feeling a bit stupid and they have had an hour and a half of lovely bonding times with people, so they fill in that they are feeling great, they are feeling wonderful, they are 5/5 on feeling confident and happy and then of course they go back to their flat or their warden controlled place and they might slump and not feel so good again.

Yeah and within 10 weeks, their recovery might have progressed brilliantly, but they might have a more honest appraisal of where they are at.

Absolutely, yes.

So, it’s interesting what you are saying, so the key impacts are around confidence and other things, which you have mentioned and I am sure there are others that you can draw out now. But I did want to also just look at whether there are some specific people, anonymised if needs be, where the impacts have been really demonstrated well.

Yes, there are very long-standing members of the group, whose rise through the project has been quite meteoric really and I know some of those people you have interviewed on previous podcasts. And those individuals are now artists in their own right, their studying degrees, they are working actually for the Theatre Royal in the finance department amongst other things, they’re being trained, they’ve been exposed to such a wealth of experience theatrically, that some of them are now being employed by the Theatre as assistant facilitators. So, there are all sorts of people who have been involved in the project for a long time, who are now really able to give something back to their community and the theatre specifically. But I’d like to focus on some of the more recent participants, perhaps whose stories are less well documented, and I am thinking of some women particularly, who were new participants to the hub, and they were recruited through the Plymouth MIND sessions and that was a five week course of drama workshops that were facilitated by a member of staff who went there to a pre-selected group, who all knew each other already. But there were a few individuals particularly, one of whom had been a professional care worker, and she’d had an emotional, nervous breakdown and it had affected her mental health and her confidence and she was quite mute. She couldn’t speak and she had a nervous anxiety twitch which manifested in her hand constantly shaking, she couldn’t leave the house, it was a huge deal for her just to be in the room. But, week on week, she started to make more and more eye contact, she had the confidence to say her name. These sound really small achievements, but these building blocks for this individual are really quite massive. Over a five week period, this individual went from being mute and being unable to speak and look people in the eye, to laughing and being able to contribute her ideas. She felt listened to, she felt valued, she felt as though she had a right to be in the room. And she agreed to go into the morning Our Space project, which was a big thing for her as she didn’t like leaving the house. It really helped her that the project provided a taxi to pick her up and take her there. She was there with a couple of other people from this community hub, and together they went there, there had been quite of a break in between them seeing each other. They were all feeling anxious. It was like the first day of school, they didn’t quite know what to expect, they didn’t know if they would enjoy it, they were in an unfamiliar building. All of these things are really quite massive when you suffer from severe anxiety and depression. And now, the transformation is incredible. For example, not only is this women attending regularly, every week and is a real ambassador for the work, she also is now able to take full advantage of the loyalty card, and the coffee shop and she comes regularly to the coffee shop and she hangs out in the foyer and drinks coffee with her friends. And importantly, visits the Theatre in the evening, which is incredible, she makes her way over to the Theatre on the bus, and she is really confident and comfortable in using public transport. These are things that nine months ago would not have been possible.

I think I might have met her in the foyer of the theatre, at a show, she’d picked up some leaflets and she was asking somebody about them, and then I ended up, just by happenstance really, just being in the same space and being able to give her some information. And then she went into what was quite a radical piece of theatre in the Drum, and the guy who was delivering it had done a workshop with Our Space in the morning, and they had a conversation, which was unbelievable.

Yes, it really is truly amazing to think that theatre can touch people in these extraordinary ways. Both by doing it, being involved in it, and playing and making theatre. Then going to see it and watching other professional actors do it and then being able to talk articulately and eloquently about your experience of what you have seen. I think that’s a lovely example, but there are plenty, this is just one small example, there are plenty of others.

I’m thinking of another participant who attended that group who had underlying mental health problems since she was a teenager. Had been in and out of so many different therapies and institutions and hospitals, and all sorts of problems with her mental health. Also had many children with both health and behaviour problems and she found that she had no space, no time in her life for her to just explore her own world if you like. So, she came along and she has just gone from strength to strength to strength. She’s found better ways of dealing with her relationships, she’s found help for her children, she’s been able to go for a job interview and started part time employment. I mean success is different for different people, for some people just being able to get on a bus and being able to get across town is a real achievement and then for others it is about employability or relationships or… everyone’s success story is completely different. But these are very typical journeys that people make. They come, when they arrive, they are broken, completely broken and feel like they have nothing left to lose so they may as well give it a try. And they are with people who are also, who have also been broken, but seem to be, there was another participant, she said she didn’t want to be in the room, she didn’t want to be involved, she didn’t want to do anything, she was completely resistant to all of the activities that were being offered or invited. But she noticed that everyone else in the room seemed to be having quite a good time and they were smiling and they were laughing and she was so desperate to find and reconnect with herself, that part of her that she had lost, that she thought “arrrrg” in spite of herself and gave it a go. She is also somebody who is really really connected to the project, and to herself and to the people. The people who come to the project are incredibly, I mean the phrase is “diverse and complex needs” but incredibly diverse backgrounds and experiences and the most wonderful people actually. I think one of the things that really connects people is just the fact that they make genuine friendships and friendships that are really healthy. So that they don’t have to be surrounded by their peers or colleagues or friends who are going to negatively impact their world with their addictions or their problems. And that they are surrounded by healthy choices and they become better at recognising positive opportunities. I think they are some of the key impacts of the project as well, which are all of the stuff that we are looking at and working out and measuring.

Brilliant, just to finish off then really. We have the evaluation framework, and we are refining it all the time I guess, whilst it’s in process and these things often do. And I am sure that you have lots of supplementary questions for individuals that are relevant to them. Do you think that there is some learning that others could take from our experience of delivering this evaluation?

Yes, definitely, I think to pick up on the key phrase that you used just now, is that we are refining something. I don’t necessarily think with evaluation you ever arrive at a model that is perfect, because the perfect model is always responsive and adapting and changing very organically to the people who are needing it and the place and the circumstances. So, whilst we have developed this framework, I think the theories of this framework are very transferable, ones of being able to listen, be adaptive, being an integral part of the planning and future forward thinking through of projects. But it’s a way, not the way, I think if there were, if the theories of our framework were adopted, the practice, how they would be worked through in practice would be different and appropriate to each group and to each project. Because I think the nature of change is very important with evaluation, things are always moving on and changing. Being flexible and listening and having lots of different strategies in place. For example, one of the reasons why our evaluation framework is so successful is because there are lots of different strands and layers of communication and it is almost as though there is a lot of participant observation going on all the time within our workshops. Because we’ve got peer mentors, we’ve got members of staff who are sort of helicoptering in to sort of watch and view and look at things objectively, to see where change is necessary. It’s almost as though as soon as you arrive at something and it starts working, it needs to evolve and change. So how things work in theory and how things work in practice are quite different, but there are certainly key principles of our work and how we have evaluated that I think could absolutely be worked into, for other groups and other organisations. And that’s what creates sort of a Theory of Change, for each policy and for each new term. And those ideas can certainly be lifted. But at the end of the day I think a lot of it is to do with good communication between all levels of the staff, and the participants so that there is this really symbiotic feedback loop as to what is happening and what people want and what’s possible.

Interesting, it is almost as though, the participants are so integral to the evaluation, that they create it too.

Oh absolutely. I think there are two good reasons why an organisation would want to evaluate a project. One is obvious, the funders need to know how you are spending the money and you need to justify how you are meeting your targets. That’s one good reason to evaluate a project. But ultimately, and the thing that I am more interested in and passion about, is the reason you evaluate is to make the project better so that it can be better service for the people who need it. So I think over the ten years, well and longer now, this project has been running, I think that is one of the ways we have built upon and gone from strength to strength, because we have been continually been thinking “hmmm, that was good, how could it be even better?” I mean in a way, this starts right in the first, it starts at a very sort of baseline, in the workshops, when we do improvisation and afterwards there is a bit of reflection, “well what worked in that scene you just saw, and what didn’t work?” Some of the languages and approaches and methodologies of evaluation are not dissimilar to how you might devise a piece of theatre. We are always working with the participants in the room. We are always working on their stories, their needs, their ideas. So, if one person has got a better idea of how we can do something, or what project might best serve that particular bunch of people, there is usually a way that we can work that and create those changes.

Brilliant, thank you very much for that.

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