Andy Smith, musician and director of Made by Mortals, shares his journey in creating a powerful podcast series in collaboration with a theatre group of people who have experience of mental health illness.
Made by Mortals was launched in 2017, after Andy and theatre-maker Paul Hine could see there was a huge opportunity to use music and theatre, alongside co-production methodologies with community participants and health and social care organisations, to help affect social change and positive mental health and well-being.
Our interactive and immersive podcast series called Hidden, challenges the listener to walk in another person’s shoes. Each episode has a hard-hitting theme exploring the challenges and stigma faced by people living with mental health illness.
Hidden was originally created alongside a theatre group that we facilitate, the Johnny Barlow Theatre Company, based in Audenshaw. This group was set up 30 years ago by Johnny Barlow who was massively ahead of his time and realised that music and drama could be used therapeutically for people who lived with mental health illness.
We’ve worked with the current group members for quite a few years now and together we have all developed a real passion for ‘people-powered theatre’.
And while we work together on some pretty serious topics, overall the aim is for us all to have a lot of fun, make friendships and connections, and to continue using the therapeutic benefits of theatre and music for positive mental health.
So, what is Hidden?
Hidden is a collection of interactive audio experiences, which was conceived during lockdown back in 2020. It challenges people to walk in another person’s shoes and explore their hidden lives, through fictional stories inspired by the group’s imaginations and lived experiences.
This work has become a catalyst for numerous healthcare partnerships and projects over the past 18 months. Our co-produced and lived experience work has been helping health and social care professionals design, deliver and evaluate their services. This has included working with Oldham Safeguarding Adults Board, Tameside Hospital and Health Innovation Manchester.
Each immersive audio experience paints a vivid picture of someone’s life and the barriers they face, enabling the listener to better understand their lived experience. Hidden is participatory, which enables the listener to connect with the main character in a more meaningful and human way. Overall, it gives us a deeper understanding of the challenges being faced by people in our communities at this time.
This type of project enables health, social care and educational organisations the opportunity to fund a project that invests in the health and wellbeing of the people at its very core, while at the same time giving them the opportunity to gain much needed insight.
We have delivered in person and online workshops, using the various episodes as stimulus for discussion. These sessions gave both people with lived experience and health and social care services the opportunities to discuss the ways that each character could get additional help from various support networks (family, community, services) that surround them and how that experience could be improved upon.
We have previously created a project with Julie Farley, manager at Oldham Safeguarding Adults Board, and she explained why this person-centred approach works. “If you want to talk about how to improve services for people with alcohol dependence, for example, you can bring people from different organisations and agencies together and they will all have a completely different approach.
“However, if you bring together a group of people with lived experience of alcohol abuse or dependence, they can share stories to illustrate how and why they might not engage with a service. This real experience can help us design an intervention that can really help people, instead of us disengaging when they don’t turn up for appointments, for example.”
The connection with mental health benefits
Our weekly theatre group work, whether in an online meeting or in real life, offers the chance to take part in and work with professional musicians, actors and scriptwriters, to create a production that anyone would rightly be proud of. And this enables people with a history of mental health illness to make new friendships, build connections and gain confidence. All of these benefits are really important to us.
But the real story is that together we do much more than this. By working directly with health and social care partners, we give people the chance to use their own stories, inspiration, imaginations and experiences to shape a fictional story, which genuinely helps to shape policy and service change. These insights are highly valuable and can only come from people who have walked in those shoes. We offer them empowerment and the chance to be truly heard and seen.
To create the episodes, we create a fictional character with the theatre group, using their collective imaginations and lived experience. It is not one person’s story. This means that it is safe for the participants to put their own personal experience onto the character, and talk about any sensitive issues with confidence and from a place of strength. Creating characters in this way also allows us to move the character into new situations, which enables us to use the work in a number of settings.
Whatever we create, theatre, podcasts or films, everyone in the room is a part of the production, and their enjoyment, experience and mental well-being takes centre stage.
We celebrate the moments where something goes awry, or a performer does something unexpected. We welcome interaction from the audience. There is no pressure of perfection, and we want everyone to feel safe and comfortable in simply expressing themselves.
Why online audio/ podcasts?
This is a good question, with a simple answer…out of necessity! Up until March 2020, we had never created a podcast. Some of our theatre group had never used a digital device, and some did not have access to the internet at their home.
But even though we were all subjected to a lockdown for public health and safety, we knew it was important to keep in contact with our Johnny Barlow members, some who already were at risk of isolation without our regular meet ups.
It took us a while to get everyone connected and online with various devices, we even resourced a freephone number so participants without wifi could dial into the weekly workshops via their landlines. The first couple of weeks was about making sure everyone was ok and if they needed anything.
Then after that, we just allowed the creativity to fly around cyberspace!
Although we are now able to meet weekly at our theatre home again, our work will remain partly digital and online as it allows us much more flexibility and the chance to reach many more people.
Covid-19 and the resulting lockdown put a load of new challenges in our path to achieving this mission, but it has also presented us with some exciting new skills and opportunities.
Through this, we have seen people with experience of mental health illness overcome their fear of technology, make connections in new ways, extend their social networks, discover the joy of independent arts practice and find resilience to the challenging times we all face through participation in creativity with others.
You can find out more about Made by Mortals here: https://www.madebymortals.org/
Published on December 15, 2021 at 11:19 am