All the world’s a stage

The arts can play a vital and powerful role in recovery, says Katrina Lahmann

 That we all have our roles in the theatre of life is not a new concept. The Bard himself tells us that ‘one man in his time plays many parts’.  If you like, it’s fundamental to the concept of recovery – nobody has to live in only one role. We know recovery is possible. Given the opportunity, we’re all capable of expanding our repertoire of roles and adjusting the lens through which we view the world. We are multi-dynamic individuals with the ability to connect with under-used aspects of our multi-layered selves. 

We all organically step in and out of many roles every day – mother, daughter, sister, aunt, friend, lover, peer, consumer, survivor, and inner-self. In each scenario there are a host of complex boundaries to negotiate but sometimes, as life unfolds, we find ourselves stuck in very restrictive roles.

With this concept at its centre, Barnet, Enfield and Haringey NHS Mental Health Trust’s dual diagnosis network embarked on a journey to create a therapeutic theatre project as part of Haringey’s ‘Recovery Pride’ event (DDN, May, page 16), a creative partnership generously supported by Haringey’s DAAT and recovery champions and open for pan-borough drug and alcohol service referral. 

The dual diagnosis network is – despite the public sector spending cuts – an expanding team and recognised as a vital component in the delivery of recovery- consistent, risk-aware substance misuse interventions across Haringey and Enfield. The network operates a ‘hub and spoke’ model, with specialists embedded at each stage of the client’s mental health treatment journey, and in December last year the call went out to ‘try something new in 2012’. The remit was for potential cast members to script a self-generated narrative and ultimately produce a performance piece in the context of ‘stigma’. 

The wider aims of the project were to improve confidence, deepen understanding of recovery and the implications of stigma, develop team-working skills and demonstrate improved health and wellbeing. Arguably a tall order, but the subsequent project evaluation unarguably identified that all required boxes had been positively ticked.  

The initial driving force came from myself – a drama therapist within the dual diagnosis network who sits on Haringey’s recovery champions steering group – and Sarah Hart, DAAT joint commissioner and recovery champion. The ensuing energy was soon revved up by each brave new member who ventured out of their comfort zone to sign up to getting the show on the road. Eight potential performers and a photographer stepped up to the proverbial plate and committed to the process. 

What evolved between 10 January and 30 March was a genuine privilege to witness, as a narrative emerged in the empty space allocated to us in the former arts therapies department of St Ann’s hospital. The project inspired impressive levels of commitment, with a diverse group of women and men aged between 26 and 62 devising a therapeutic theatre performance that explored the perspectives and inner dialogues of 24 hours in recovery. 

The final performance was witnessed by an audience of more than 200 family members, friends, industry professionals, local politicians and many, many peers, and before the final curtain viewers were invited to have dialogue with the artists. There was a tangible and genuine sense of community and appreciation for the honesty of the work that had been shared. As a result there are now plans to offer clients a therapeutic theatre intervention as part of Haringey’s drug and alcohol treatment pathways, aimed particularly at those transitioning from problematic to stabilised drug and alcohol use or abstinence.

The project has reinforced the value of arts in mental health and the power of the arts and arts therapies as a means of overcoming the stigma experienced by many clients on either side of recovery. It’s perhaps best summed up by Yaz, one of the performers, who wrote this letter after the project ended:

‘I believe that the theatre project has a future for being a tool to build confidence, self-esteem, trust and relationships. My story is with a background of domestic violence, single parenthood, addiction and homelessness, and without the support and help of the theatre project I wouldn’t be where I am today. I wouldn’t have gained confidence to re-connect with the outside world.

I came to the project whilst on my rehab programme with no intention or focus at all initially – I just wanted something to do. My first day was feelings of fear, dread and excitement but all I wanted to do was run, as this was totally out of my comfort zone. Even though I recognised most people there, I didn’t know them but I stuck with it and now here I am studying for a diploma and also volunteering and hoping to continue with the theatre project.

My peers and I had produced initially, with difficulty, a number of sketches related to “stigma” and we then performed in front of over 200 people during the recovery event held on 30 March. We have laughed, cried, been frustrated but all in all we have gained.

The project has definitely bought me out of my shell, where I was totally lost and couldn’t find a way to come out.’

Katrina Lahmann is a dual diagnosis specialist