Behind the Scenes: Our Space, Theatre Royal Plymouth. Blog 1 – Sara Baldwin
A behind the scenes look at Theatre Royal Plymouth's Our Space project from three different perspectives: Engagement Manager, practitioner, participant. In the first of three blogs Sara Baldwin, Engagement Manager for the theatre takes us through how the programme started, how it's evolving to meet the needs of the community and the impact its having on both the participants and the theatre itself.
Inviting people in
Our Space began life with a simple invitation. In 2009, we invited people sleeping rough outside the theatre and using drugs in the toilets to come in and have a chat with us over a hot drink.
Now it its tenth year, it has developed into a creative programme for adults with multiple and complex needs. Its members come from all walks of life and may have faced challenges involving homelessness, mental health issues, re-offending, substance misuse; or they may feel isolated for other reasons. The project continues to evolve and respond to the needs of the community.
Three levels of engagement
Our Space offers three levels of engagement: community hub drama workshops held in partnership with local services and organisations; weekly workshops in drama held at Theatre Royal Plymouth’s Production and Learning centre at TR2; and Project X – a bespoke training programme for longer standing members to make work together and gain further skills that are transferable to everyday life.
- Community Hubs across the city
The project starts beyond the theatre, in ‘hubs’ across selected venues and services in the city that are working with adults with multiple and complex needs. Taking the Our Space offer out into these venues provides potential participants with the opportunity to try it out in the space that’s familiar to them. This is usually, but not always a person’s first encounter with the project.
- Regular, weekly drama workshops
Participants are invited to engage in the weekly morning workshop; simply referred to as ‘Our Space’. For some who haven’t attended a community hub, the weekly morning workshop is their first experience of the programme. ‘Graduates’ of the morning group move up to ‘Project X’ which takes place in the afternoon at the Theatre. The two groups are very similar in method and principle, Project X just offers participants a next step on for those who are ready and a slightly different challenge, if they want it.
There is a taxi service provision open to all participants, which collects and returns people who require transport from the city centre to the TRP’s Production and Learning Centre, TR2 where the morning group workshops take place.
When and where appropriate, each group create a bespoke ‘show and share’ style performance. This could be a low-key event in a studio at the end of a term, out in the community or a more sophisticated production in either a site-specific location or theatre with the full resources available from TRP. The outcome is led by the group. Usually the performances are devised; which means they are created and developed by the performers in the group and often draw on life experiences and personal untold stories. These ideas are then shaped by the professional facilitators and directors who work with the groups; they give these stories dramatic shape which ensuring everyone is happy and feeling confident.
Once a participant has attended an Our Space session three times, they become a member. As a member of the project, each person is provided with a pack that includes an Our Space t-shirt, membership card and project policy. The membership card entitles the individual to discounted hot drinks at both theatre venues, along with signing members up to receiving standby ticket offers to see shows such as the pantomime, the opera and musicals that tour to the Theatre Royal Plymouth.
As well as the offers attached to being a member, the project regularly offers free theatre tickets in The Drum Theatre, so that participants can not only see lots of different shows, but also have an opportunity to socialise with others from the project outside of the weekly drama sessions. Opportunities for one-off workshops with touring companies, team building trips to National Parks, coffee meet-ups during holidays and volunteering on other community events are all offered to members throughout the year.
Our Space offers members a place to go where they feel welcome. It provides regularity and routine with people they become familiar with and get to know. It offers the opportunity to build positive social networks, with genuine and on-going support. This framework enables people to build trust, they start feeling valued, start to regain and rebuild their self-worth and through this are able to recognise who they are and what they can contribute. As Jason Brownlee, who has been through Our Space and Project X says,
“we’re all together in a safe environment where we can create something amazing.”
The peer support at Our Space is really something quite special. The welcoming, non-judgemental environment created by the people in the room is often the thing that new participants find most surprising and the most rewarding. I think that’s because of the real mix of people that the project engages with, there is strength in that diversity. People from all walks of life, coming together, getting to know one another, discovering things they maybe didn’t know about themselves and having some fun.
Person-centred and co-created
Our Space is funded by the National Lottery Community Fund. We are currently in year two of four in this iteration of funding. The project has gone from strength to strength over the course of 10 years because it continues to be rooted in a person-centred and co-created approach that relies on building meaningful relationships with partners as well as participants. This way of working takes time, as you need to gain trust and allow time for change to happen; the journey is different for each person.
Across 10 years we’ve worked with 41 partner services to provide 544 individuals with opportunities as part of the Our Space programme. In April 2018 Our Space became a social prescription through the Wolesley Trust, working with 28 primary care providers across Plymouth. We couldn’t run the programme without building and maintaining strong partnerships with local organisations and services.
The next stage
We have become experts in working with multiple and complex needs and socially-engaged practice is at the heart of what we do in the Engagement and Learning department at TRP. So for me, over the next two years and beyond, it’s about sharing our learning and developing a blue print of the project that can then potentially be taken as a framework and used by others.
The project speaks for itself through the voices of the participants (one of them, Clive, will share his experience with you in our third blog).
They have not only become part of our theatre community, but they are also our colleagues, artists on our stages, and our practitioners connecting local communities through the arts.
It’s powerful stuff.
Sara Baldwin, Engagement Manager, Theatre Royal Plymouth.