The Bognor Institute of Laughter

07 June 2018

In this piece, we hear from Hilary Strong, from Making Theatre Gaining Skills CIC, about their project – The Bognor Institute of Laughter – which helps to give members a louder voice and supports them to make new social connections and develop a range of creative skills.

It's been six months since we embarked on our journey of creating The Bognor Institute of Laughter and the brave pioneers have already achieved a lot.

The idea was to create a comedy club located in an area of Bognor Regis that doesn't have a lot going on and where local people often feel isolated.

Based in a community centre, our first members formed a steering group and began to think about what comedy is all about. In addition to one of the most common forms of comedy, stand-up, the group wanted to explore radio comedy, cartoon drawing, comedy for children and a whole other range of laughter-inducing activities.

Having a completely blank page can be daunting, especially for people who are affected by mental health issues and might not always have the confidence to suggest ideas in a group. It helped that we could invite visiting comedy experts to lead sessions with sensitivity and humour, enabling the steering group to gradually develop their own confidence and ideas.

Since last November we've run six workshops, attracting people of all ages who have pitched in with enthusiasm. Harry Venning (writer of Radio 4's Clare in the Community) led a brilliant cartoon-drawing session and Grumpy Old Man, Arthur Smith, participated in a Q&A session exploring how comedians deal with mental health problems in their work and home life. It may seem odd, but even people in great mental distress can gain hugely from participating in comedy activities and begin to feel less lonely.

Already, being involved in the project has proved invaluable for some members. We have started to see members grow in confidence and really start to lead the project.

One of our steering group members wrote:

“Three years ago I was a mess. I was exhausted mentally, feeling worthless and always needing to justify my existence. Then came the anxiety, crippling, gut-wrenching head-spinning anxiety. I simply lurched from day to day, sleeping my life away. 

“Then I found Making Theatre Gaining Skills. I was cajoled into attending, I was terrified. So bad I didn’t go the first day, I couldn’t get out of bed. But somehow I made the second day, and I’m so very glad I did. 

“There was no pressure but plenty of opportunities to try new things. I was reluctant, but agreed to give script writing a go. Then I was voice recording the script and I suddenly realised I was laughing with the other members on the course. They were, of course, perfectly nice people, all with similar issues but most importantly they had somehow accepted me, as I was. I’d become part of something, and achieved more than I thought possible - and I was having fun! Honestly, the difference it made to me. It was like being stuck in a dark hole, feeling like there’s no hope of getting out and then being thrown a rope. I was being given the support I didn’t know I needed to find myself again. “

The next step is to develop a sketch idea into a short comedy play that we will tour to local day centres for older people and those affected by dementia. Our members will write the script, build the set, organise the sound effects and film the finished show for everyone to enjoy. We're also in the early stages of developing a radio sit-com in partnership with Radio Respect, a community radio station run by people with mental health issues.

The funding from People's Health Trust has enabled us to create something very unique in Bognor and we're looking forward to working with members and bringing laughter and joy to the town.

Hilary Strong

Making Theatre Gaining Skills


Anyone interested in joining the project should get in touch by visiting their website, visiting their Facebook page  or on Twitter

To read more news from the Trust, click here

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