THE ROSE AND THORN: A Participatory Theatre Project

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In this blog I will describe the development of a participatory theatre project called ‘The Rose and Thorn’ which wasn’t always welcomed by staff, but made a big difference to service users’ lives.   

Early in 2007 I was unemployed and anxious, I have been a low level service user for decades so I joined a mental health day centre in Reading called Yourway because they had a job search team. The job search team was not much help and anyway my gardening business took off in the spring. The centre was a bit daunting and not very welcoming. However they had a great art project led by a lovely community artist called Lisa so I hung around a bit. I had a poem published in a book called This is Madness, a collection of work by survivors and their allies, so I asked Lisa if I could sell it at the centre. No one was interested but Lisa suggested I put on a poetry event for members of the centre and read the poems there. So I did and it went down well, with about twenty people attending. I hung around the centre a bit more on my days off gardening work, made a few friends, made a bit of art.

In the spring I went on a free playwriting course put on at our local arts centre. They often used to put on free courses on dance, improvisation and such like. I had been involved in a few theatre groups so I thought it might be useful. After searching for a theme for a playI came up with the idea of setting it in a mental health day centre. I knew a lot about the topic having supported a friend through crisis and psychiatric abuse a decade or so before and having read around on the subject. The tuition we received was excellent, and over a couple of months I wrote Mental’, a fastpaced sketch show with lots of physical humour for three characters who are all members of the day centre. The characters needle each other constantly, not unlike my experience of teenage boys at school. The actors also take on other roles such as a teacher, children in school, a psychiatric nurse, a psychiatrist, a GP, a characters mother and the Prime Minister. The play is set as the day centre is facing cuts in funds. It tackles the lack of validity of psychiatric diagnosis, the dangers and benefits of psychiatric drugs, the dangers of electroconvulsive therapy, the benefits and risks of therapy, the way capitalism causes misery, the patronising nature of so much that passes for help in the psychiatric system and the risks of psychiatry to its clients, all done in a slightly bitter knockabout humorous style. 

At the end of the course the tutors paid professional actors to put on a rehearsed reading of the plays the students had written. Mental’ was well received. So I decided to ask if I could put it on in the day centre. Lisa the artist was very encouraging so I found two people to take part. They played two of the characters and I played the other. We did another rehearsed reading. Each scene has a title which was shown to the audience. The titles are

  • LIFE IN THE DAY CENTRE
  • MISERY IN THE DAY CENTRE 
  • SO WHY ARE YOU ANXIOUS ALL THE TIME ANYWAY? 
  • AND WHAT HELP IS THERE? 
  • PSYCHIATRY IS EVERYWHERE! 
  • CAPITALISM MAKES YOU SICK 
  • FINALE

‘Mental’ starts with Suzannah and Mark sitting in the day centre discussing the drugs they are on, the snooker tournament at the centre, and cuts to the centre’s budget. John enters holding up a banner protesting about psychiatry, Suzannah and Mark ask what the banner is about and from the ensuing conversation psychiatry is deconstructed and the rest of the play evolves.

The play moves between different places. A lot of it is based on my own experiences and those of people I know, but hyped up into tragicomedy with a lot of clowning thrown in for good measure. In one scene the characters are in a school. John plays a teacher and Suzannah and Mark play children. This scene deconstructs ‘ADHD’. Here is part of the dialogue: 

 

John:  And what do doctors do with naughty boys? 

Suzannah scowls at John. 

John: And girls.  Give them drugs.  In this case Ritalin. 

Mark and Suzannah speak in a speedy way. 

Mark:  I’ve got ADHD me. 

Suzannah: I’ve got ABCD me. 

Mark: I’ve got HIJK me. 

Suzannah: I’ve got ICUP me. 

They giggle, John gives them a dirty look. 

John: Is there something you two would like to share with the rest of the class? 

They calm down, lean over the table and get on with work. 

 

Another scene is set in 10 Downing Street. The prime minister, who at the time was Gordon Brown, had been put on a Community Treatment Order as the governments climate change policies meant Gordon was a danger to himself and others. Here is part of the dialogue:

 

John: Hi Gordy, how’s the new job? Good, good, early days though. Yes, yes, I can see that must be difficult, but you can’t blame everything on Tony now can you Gordy? Still, nice speech you made at conference. A bit grandiose in parts but OK, I liked it. Did you remember to take the yellow pill I gave you half an hour before? Good good. Anyway, about this community treatment order we’ve got you on. Now, I understand you haven’t been taking your pills, naughty Gordy. So we’re going to switch to injections. All right? No Gordy, if you can’t take your medication unsupervised you’ll have to have the injections. We’ll start tomorrow. I’ve arranged for Sally, a really nice CPN, to come round at 10am. What’s that Gordy? Uh huh. You have a cabinet meeting then? When’s the tea break? Uh huh 11:30 then. It’ll only take a couple of minutes. 

Suzannah puts on her glasses to become Sally. Mark bends over the table, Suzannah mimes injecting him (taking down trousers or not depending on how daring the production is). 

John: It’s an injection in the backside. You might find it a bit hard to sit down for a little while, but you can always walk around for a bit, till the throbbing subsides. 

Mark and Suzannah can ham it up a lot here, sore bottoms, gleeful nurse etc. 

John: Now the drug we’re putting you on, it’s mixed with sesame oil, so when Sally injects you, it disperses slowly over a period about a month. That’s right Gordy, sesame oil; no you can’t put it on your salad. It’s a major tranquilliser, not salad dressing. 

O.K. Gordy got to go. I’ve got a drugs review with Angela Merkel at three. She claims she’s gone toxic on the Lithium and wants a reduction in the dose, but I’m not so sure. Not after the way she handled the European Carbon Trading negotiations. 

 

Towards the end of the show the actors offer psychiatric drugs to the audience as if thewere party drugs and the actors were dealers. They explain the downside of the drugs while trying to act as if they were selling fabulous intoxicants.

The play ends with John asking the audience to come to a demonstration outside the Royal College of Psychiatrists, Suzannah says the centre would lose their grant if she went and Mark says he has an incapacity benefit review coming up and doesn’t want to rock the boat, so they all play dominoes instead.

After the play there was a brief question and answer session. One cheeky young man said when he was on certain drug he couldn’t get a stiffy for nine months – I acknowledged that this could indeed be a problem with some of the drugs and swiftly moved on. I then led a discussion. I started by splitting people into pairs and asking them to talk about people who they knew who were distressed. The cheeky young man talked to me, and told me some of the things that in his childhood that partly explained why he had a breakdown. Then I asked them to find someone else to talk to and to think about what helps people who are distressed. Finally I asked them to swop round again and talk about what makes distress worse. The room was buzzing at this point. I then split the group in two, one half wrote on small bits of paper what helps people who are distressed, the other wrote what makes them worse. The staff helped lead this part of the discussion. We asked people to call out the responses and stuck the answers on the wall. I remember looking at what was written on the walls and thinking, These people could design a mental health system.

The day centre staff said the event was one of the best things they had done at the centre. The conversations carried on for ages afterwards. Lisa said I should turn it into a project. One of my friends knew a social worker who worked in out of hours sectioning, and asked us to put together a training session for her and her colleagues. We jumped at the chance, especially as we would be paid.

We interviewed service users and carers about their experiences of being sectioned, what hospital was like and what happened afterwards. We wrote plays about two people’s experiences based on these storiesrehearsed and performed them in the day centre and ran a discussion afterwards. The starting point was asking people, who had mainly been sectioned, to stand in a line, one end being psychiatry is really bad, the other psychiatry is brilliant. I then asked people to talk to their neighbour about why they were standing where they were, which led to a lively few minutes. I then asked a few people to share their stories with the whole group, and from there we moved onto a general discussion about people’s experiences of psychiatry. The best anyone said was that sometimes it had to be done – this was from a young man who cut himself to the point where his life could be a risk and for him being restrained, locked up and supervised for a while was a way of keeping him safe as there was nothing else on offer that might help him. Once again the room was buzzing and conversations carried on long after we had stopped the main exercise.

We took the play to a training day for the out of hours social workers, along with some of the day centre members to join in the discussion. Using the same format, we found that the social workers’ views ranged from psychiatry is mediocre to brilliant, the complete opposite of the service users. It was once again a very lively discussion which the service users joined in with gusto. The service users had a hearty lunch provided by the social workers as well as payment, which is always nice if you are living on benefits, as well as feeling listened to.

We did two more projects under the name of Rose and Thorn before we ran out of steam. The first was Good Worker, Bad Worker. I asked the day centre members about what good workers were like and what bad workers were like. I drew life size people on large bits of paper, stuck them up on the walls of the day centre, and stuck the answers on the drawings labelled Good Worker and Bad Worker. After lunch my friend Ali, an ex service user and therapist, who worked in theatre and social care, joined us for a role play. She had made some nurseshats; one said GOOD, the other BAD. We put the hats on and asked the day centre members to ask us questions and answered in role. One question was about asking for a drug reduction; the GOOD worker gave a good answer, the BAD worker looked at the GOOD worker and said, You’re fresh out of college aren’t you?and then said, You do realise she is manipulative and attention seeking?’ which caused a giggle from the day centre members as many of them are familiar with those insulting and demeaning terms. The audience was small, but it got people to share their stories of good and bad workers and we hoped it led them to feeling more confident in dealing with them and the system.

Our final piece of work was when the day centre was downsizing and changing the way it worked to have a lot more peer supporters running the place. The area manager said he had tried asking people what they thought and got no real answers, so we asked and paid at a fairly low rate to do some consultancy. We interviewed members about what they thought, sat around and observed what was going on, wrote a play about it all and booked an afternoon to perform it and lead a discussion. The play had four scenes:
 

1 As it is 

2 Fears for Reading Your Way 

3 Hopes for Reading Your Way 

4 The Magic Wand – Have It Your Way
 

On the day of the consultation we invited the staff to see the play. It went well. We showed people having a crisis and no one knowing what to do or brushing them aside, peer supporters out of their depth and consulting staff who ignored them, and how cuts were impacting on provision of support. In the discussion people who usually sat and said very little got angry about the changes being made and the cuts. We ended with an ideal of how the centre could be run:

 

Suzannah: Maybe we’ll get more Art! 

Jenny: It might mean there’s more going on. 

John: It would be good to play snooker somewhere else sometimes – maybe we could join a league. 

Suzannah: Hopefully it will stop people sitting around staring into space. 

John: We could get the Irish Club involved in the snooker tournaments. 

Jenny: It’d be great if the centre opened in the evenings. I could come down and have a cup of tea when things get a bit much at home. 

Suzannah: That peer support training will really help. 

Jenny: If there are peer supporters who hear voices like me, they’ll understand better.  I could talk to them about it.  

Suzannah: I’ll get supervision and support, so I can use my experiences to help others. 

Jenny: Peer Supporters could get specialised training. 

John: There’ll be more stuff going on in the community. 

Jenny: We could get help with forms and benefits and meetings. 

John: Maybe someone from Your Way could support me with my sessions at the Alcohol Service. 

Jenny: Maybe we could have a crèche…. 

Suzannah: …a relaxation group 

John: ….a support group for people with personality disorders 

Jenny: …..a campaigning group for people labelled with personality disorders  

John: …a campaigning group for people with a list of diagnoses as long as your arm…. 

Jenny: Enough diagnoses to fill a wheelbarrow! 

Suzannah: We can have discussions on what people have found helpful. 

Jenny: We can have discussions on what people have found unhelpful. 

John: We can be consulted! 

Suzannah: We could join User Groups! 

Jenny: We could hold User Groups! 

John: We could have a say! 

Suzannah: We could run Self-help Groups… 

Jenny: Parenting Groups…. 

Suzannah: A decent Crisis Service! 

John puts on a furry tiara and picks up a large wand. 

John: You shall have it…. Your Way!
 

We wrote up what the service users were worried about and what they wanted and sent it off to the area manager. He said maybe we could come back in six months time to see what the members thought of the changes but we didn’t hear anything, and from what we could see they ignored all the feedback we gave them. However all our interventions resulted in day centre members developing and deepening their relationships with each other, new friends were made and we hope they felt more able to stand up for themselves against what is often a heartless and damaging system. 

Participatory theatre like Rose and Thorn can make big differences in people’s lives and in systems, but it has to be well funded and persistent for long term changes to come about. We had fun and hopefully enriched a few peoples lives. It certainly enriched mine.