A member of Out of Character's 'A Fresh Vision for Mental Health in York' project

“It has been therapeutic for me to present this subject matter through my character, knowing that audience members might relate to what we are trying to say” – Project Member

‘A Fresh Vision for Mental Health in York’ is a project run by Out of Character, a professional theatre group and charity whose members are individuals from York who have faced mental health issues.

The project aims to bring people with experiences of mental health services together and engage the audience in a discussion about best practice. Project members are involved with devising, writing and performing a series of three plays that present their ideas for the approach to care of a new mental health hospital, which is due to open in York by the end of 2019.

Performances of the second instalment of the series, ‘In/Significant’, took place at York St John University’s Temple Hall last month, as part of York’s Festival of Ideas. It was well received by audience members, who joined the characters through a range of thought-provoking scenes and interactions.

Out of Character’s Trustee, Nick Rowe, said: “In/Significant contains many of the same characters, locations and scenes of previous show, ‘In/Hospitable’. However, it seeks to reflect other perspectives, drawing on information gathered over the past year from interviews and workshops with project members, service users, carers and healthcare professionals.”

At the end of each show there is a reverse Q&A session, which involves the cast members asking audience members questions such as: ‘What was the most striking moment in the play?’, ‘Who do you think should see the play?’ and ‘How would you like to be treated as a service user?’

Nick added: “The feedback from viewers and members of the wider community is important for us, as it will contribute to the development of the final production.”

Whilst this play is based on many life experiences, is not a piece of documentary theatre. Paul Birch, who directed and helped write the play, explained: “The performance has been partly inspired by the holistic healthcare developments in Trieste, Italy (Mezzina, 2014). Since 1980, the city of Trieste has closed all mental health hospitals and set up a network of 24-hour community centres capable of supporting service users in their daily life. This model focusses on recovery through social inclusion as people experiencing mental health issues are encouraged to take an active part in the local community.”

“We wanted to include both values and criticisms of different social models to demonstrate that healthcare is a lot more challenging and contradictory than we might think. Science fiction was a useful genre to work with. We were able to explore how different health systems might affect the characters and what the social cost might be through the device of parallel universes.”

Members have developed strong social ties from taking part in the project, not only with each other and people directly involved in the mental health services, but also local people through the workshops and performances. One project member said: “When people watch one of our performances and interact with the characters, the meaning behind the story goes on and makes change over time. The dialogue that comes from the play about important and complex issues in society is just as important as the play itself.”

Project members have also gained new creative skills from taking an active part in the workshops and monthly steering group meetings. This has encouraged them to undertake additional roles within the group such as publicity and web designer, choreographer and outreach facilitator.

Partnerships with universities and similar organisations like ‘Converge’, have provided the group with numerous other opportunities to perform in York, Huddersfield and London. The final instalment of the series will take place sometime in spring 2020, at the prestigious Theatre Royale in York.

The project is funded by People’s Health Trust with money raised through The Health Lottery in Yorkshire and the Humber.

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‘Community Mental Health Care in Trieste and Beyond’, Mezzina. 2014. http://www.wales.nhs.uk/sitesplus/documents/862/TMHCommunityMentalHealthCareInTrieste.pdf