Hearing Things is the latest play by Playing On which explores society’s perceptions of mental health. It is the result of a 3-year process of collaborating with psychiatrists, other staff and patients, drawing together the stories of those receiving and providing mental health care. Kate Lovell caught up with Playing On’s artistic director, Jim Pope as they prepare to show it at Wellcome Collection 20-21 October 2016.
“There’s lots of companies that specialise in one area of disenfranchisement: but our experience is that they all crossover,” says Jim Pope, director of Hearing Things. Though discussing the arts landscape, the observation perhaps unintentionally sums up the issues inherent in the way we view societal dysfunction; by treating each thing in isolation.
“If you go into a prison, a lot of people are there because of homelessness, or because of substance abuse, or because of mental health problems, so we didn’t really specialise in one.” Pope explains that Playing On is a company that aims to engage with disenfranchised voices, allowing the demographic that people come from to be secondary to the stories that emerge.
Established in 2010 by Pope and Philip Osment, the company began life with a play called Inside, which played at the Roundhouse. It was inspired by working with prisoners who’d been doing the Fathers Inside programme, which is a drama and life learning programme for young fathers delivered by Safe Ground, a charity that work in prisons.
It was through this work that Playing On became increasingly interested in mental health and its treatment. Pope found “a lot of ambiguity” in this area.
“There is a lot of conflict and conflicting approaches, and just a lot of good stories to be told in mental health. Inside was back in 2011, since then, we’ve been doing a combination of workshops and low-fi improvised performances in theatres, hospitals, arts centres, the community.”
Pope and Osment have been gathering stories for five years.
“We’ve been building up and developing material and engaging with local communities in and around mental health. The overriding aim has always been to create another scripted play, like we did with Inside.”
Hearing Things began life as improvisations on psychiatric inpatient wards. It was performed as part of the Albany’s Festival of Mental Wellbeing in April, and this week will be shown at the Wellcome Collection, bringing to life aspects of the Bedlam: the asylum and beyond exhibition. Its long genesis is important to its success, particularly when exploring such a complex area. The initial phases of the show’s development are revolutionary in form:
“We went into Homerton, which was our first experience of a locked-in psychiatric ward, and we improvised a drama over a period of about two months. They weren’t sure about it at first but fortunately it turned out to be a great success. We went in regularly and created a devised piece where the patients played staff, and some of the willing staff played patients, and we performed an improvised drama on the wards.”
“The effect was astounding because a lot of the nurses and staff saw patients in a new light, as people. And they realised that as well as being a revolving door patient that they’re sick of being abused by and shouted at, this person’s also got a PhD in physics, or this person’s a classical international violinist, or this person has a pilot’s license. They’re people with remarkable stories.”
“Also, some of the patients realised that this psychiatrist has a difficult job to do. They all started to play each other’s roles with a sensitivity and an awareness that I think bled into how they saw each other outside of the drama group, on the ward.”
Having personally witnessed the insides of locked-in wards as under-staffed, chaotic environments, this kind of arts engagement can help to bring a desperately needed paradigm shift within largely unenlightened, frightening spaces. Pope hopes to continue this work with a group called Recreate Psychiatry, which is a group of young psychiatrists who are open to exploring non-clinical approaches to mental health.
Alongside creating Hearing Things, Pope and Osment acknowledge the lack of safe spaces for those who experience mental distress in the community. They are able to signpost many young people the company work with onto youth theatre programmes, “but for a forty-year-old adult that’s isolated and wants to do something and loves to do drama, there’s not much”. They ran a number of workshops for people with lived experience at the Albany, but need more funding to continue this work.
Having worked so intensively with those with lived experience of mental distress, both as inpatients and in the community, are those professionals in the play also from a background of lived experience? Pope’s answer is astute.
“We find ourselves not able to answer that question because so many people are service users, what is a service user, what service? I don’t often find myself in a room with a group of more than six or seven adults, where you couldn’t qualify one of them as being a service user. So to those ends, yes, it’s service users and, yes, it’s professional actors.”
This chimes with Playing On’s aims for the company: to train disenfranchised people, to diversify the workforce, and in doing so, they also hope to have “a voice effecting policy change.”
“It sounds a bit grand but we’ve been involved in various symposiums and events where the issues are debated, because we feel that after working for five years, we’re quite uniquely placed to have an informed opinion that we can express in an interesting way with theatre.”
“Theatre gives us those tools. With Inside, when we were invited to an event discussing a white paper about education within prisons at the House of Lords, we got up on all the chairs and started doing a scene from one of our plays and everybody was quite gobsmacked and it made a big impact.”
Pope reminds us of the company’s final, but integral, objective: “The other aim is just to make quality theatre, because that’s important too. It’s not just community arts, although the participatory element is wonderful and life-changing. With writers like Phillip Osment and professional actors or those who we nurture to become professional actors, we think that the product stands alongside anything you’ll find at the Young Vic or the National Theatre by the time we make it.”