Our Space is a creative programme that works with adults with multiple and complex needs. Members come from all walks of life and may have faced challenges involving homelessness, mental health issues, substance misuse, reoffending or they may feel isolated for other reasons.
The project began in 2008 in response to rough sleepers sleeping in the doorways of the Theatre and using drugs in the toilets. We set up conversations over a hot drink and through these identified some common challenges experienced. These included lacking in confidence, self-worth and resilience, unemployment, poor relationships with family members and dependency on drugs and/or alcohol. We brought a practitioner in to start gently introducing some drama games and exercises which were embraced by the group that had started to form. Through word of mouth more people started to join and as the group began to grow, so did our connections with support services in the city. Eleven years on, Our Space is a large-scale creative programme working out in the community, in the Theatre buildings and making public work with artists with lived experience in various locations across Plymouth and the surrounding areas. Our Space has worked with over 700 people and 44 referral partners. In 2018 it became a social prescription under the Wolseley Trust, working with 28 primary care services in Plymouth.
Like many, with the arrival of lockdown, Our Space activity moved online. We set up weekly creative sessions for members on Zoom, alongside fortnightly coffee catchups. We also set up ‘Basecamp’ as a platform for members to share creative work, exchange ideas and stay connected from week to week, in-between sessions. Naturally, engaging online wasn’t for everyone. Whilst we addressed some of the barriers to people accessing the online sessions, by using budget previously assigned to transporting people to and from workshops, to buy internet data for those who needed it. The wrap around offer and the social aspect that is so key to the project felt almost impossible to replicate digitally. We needed to think outside of the box and explore non-digital ways to engage, finding a sense of togetherness at a time when so many of the members felt distanced and apart.
Grow care packages
I found out about a small, local company called Little Green Window and contacted them about working with us to create some packages of seeds for participants to grow in their windows. Marie, who runs the business with her husband, was thrilled to work with us and support adults from the project to grow their own veg. We felt creating a sort of care package for members to receive in the post would feel special, giving them something to focus on and enjoying the rewards of their work by eating what they had grown (rather than performing what they had devised).
Here are some of the lovely messages we received from the members in response to the ‘Grow’ care packages:
“I have received my planting gift today and it was such a heart-warming surprise. I am truly thankful”.
“Thank you so much! I just received my parcel of seeds and trays. What a lovely surprise!”
“I’m so excited to start growing!”
When lockdown eased and whilst the weather was still good, we decided to do an in-person, socially distanced coffee catch up and workshop in a local park. It was glorious weather and such an amazing experience, bringing members of the group back together again. It gave us all a new lease of life, a re-discovered energy and interestingly, in the weeks that followed, we saw online engagement both on Basecamp and Zoom increase.
Unfortunately, shortly after our park meet-up, new restrictions were brought in, meaning that large group meetings outdoors would no longer be possible. So, it was back to the drawing board.
We were fortunate that throughout August we could offer an additional opportunity to members through a national collaboration for International Overdose Awareness Day with small performance adventures, Bristol Drugs Project, Outside Edge Theatre and We Are Not Saints. This was a project we had previously planned to do in-person with the aim of creating pop-up performances/flash mobs in remembrance of those affected by overdose. Again, we decided as a collective to move this online, with the group engaging in a number Zoom workshops that acted as a catalyst for them to meet in small groups and work together to film creative responses. This was a hugely positive experience for all those involved, giving them an opportunity to meet in-person and to connect with people with similar lived experience from across the country, who were all working towards the same thing. The film was released on all partner organisations social media platforms every hour from 11.11am on International Overdose Awareness Day (31st August), reaching over 5,500 views.
Rehearsals for Life
Another project that we have worked on during lockdown and feel particularly proud of is our Rehearsals for Life podcast, which launched on 5th October. Rehearsals for Life is a five-part podcast series interviewing practitioners and project members on the journey, process and impact of Our Space. It was a brilliant opportunity to bring together all the different elements of the programme, to examine our methodology and co-created approach, whilst taking the opportunity to share the stories of the project to a wider audience.
As we look ahead to what could be a very long winter back in lockdown, I have spent some time with the Our Space steering committee considering how we further develop our non-digital engagement with members, whilst also further supporting the talent and contributions of the longer standing members of the group. Two of our members, who have both trained as volunteer peer mentors and are currently furloughed employees at the Theatre were keen to find ways in which they could support members of the group who they knew were isolated and struggling with loneliness.
So, I decided to create two new paid Our Space Mentor roles that focus on pastoral support during digital sessions and connecting with the wider membership on a weekly basis. The two mentors, Ferri and Bernie, have been a fantastic addition, formalising their contributions to the project and giving them a sense of purpose at a time full of so much uncertainty. They came up with the brilliant idea of setting themselves up as ‘pen pals’ with members, sending postcards, arranging phone chats and coffee catch ups, focussing particularly on those who don’t engage online.
This has been hugely successful and again has made us think about how this can be embedded into the future of the programme as we begin to look ahead to a time when we can return to some form of normality.
To find out more about Our Space visit www.theatreroyal.com/ourspace
Sara Rhodes, Engagement Manager
Theatre Royal Plymouth