In May 2018 Clinks Policy Officer Elaine Fischer attended one of a series of events to celebrate the 30th birthday of National Criminal Justice Arts Alliance member Geese Theatre Company; a team of theatre practitioners who facilitate drama-based group work to support people in contact with, or at risk of coming into contact with, the criminal justice system. The event included a performance by the Staging Recovery Ensemble, who work with Geese practitioners, as well as presentations from people working in the sector, question and answer sessions with the performers and a panel discussion.
A little bit of hope
The anticipation of the audience was tangible as we waited in hushed silence for Staging Recovery Ensemble’s performance of “A little bit of hope” to begin in a small intimate theatre in the Midlands Arts Centre in Birmingham. It was my first experience of seeing a Staging Recovery performance but the anticipation of many veteran-audience members was based on experience. Right from the off I was bowled over by what Steve, Shay, Mel, Angie, Liam, Michael, Gavin and Neil had achieved in a mere 36 hours of workshops. During 12 sessions they had used dance, poetry and theatre to explore their individual and collective recovery journeys and support each other, then shared the result with us. For some it was their first experience of performance.
The participants incorporated their own experiences into the performance, which gave an authentic and moving account of recovery, filled with truth, humour and inspiration. An exchange that stood out for me was when the protagonist is told by his probation worker that he only wants to recommend him a place in a rehabilitation centre if he is committed to staying. Neil later explained this scene was based on his own experiences of waiting two years to gain a place in a dry house which he took up after two attempts of abstinence in his own home which nearly killed him. This milestone was his first moment of hope.
Tackling causes not symptoms
The performance really demonstrated to me the non-linear nature of recovery: relapse is part of the process. It brought home how essential the arts are in giving people the emotional support and creative space needed to recover from and work through past experiences of trauma. As one participant said, it wasn’t drugs or alcohol she needed to recover from, it was the issues that had led her to using.
Carly Jones, Chief Executive of SIFA Fireside, a drop-in centre for homeless and vulnerably housed people, spoke about how effective the arts are at digging deeper and addressing people’s more complex needs. As an NCJAA research report, Re-imagining Futures: exploring arts interventions and the process of desistance, shows, arts projects are particularly effective at responding to individual needs. Carly said that, while it is important for the process of desistance from crime that people have a house and job, "only responding to the basics only gives us basic outcomes".
In a question and answer session with the performers, what really struck me was the sense of community and mutual support that Geese and Fallen Angels Dance Theatre (who also worked with the performers) had helped this group to achieve. This is also something which the Re-imagining Futures report has shown to be key in enabling desistance. The research found arts projects can have a positive impact on how people manage themselves, particularly on their ability to cooperate with others. The participants spoke about how comfortable they were with each other and how they were able to share their experiences openly without being judged. They spoke about a journey of self-discovery and described how the project had given them a better sense of self-worth.
Unlocking new identities and positive narratives
Carly’s presentation highlighted how the arts and creativity help us to embed new identities and act as a gateway to a new way of thinking. They offer an opportunity for people to explore a different more positive narrative of themselves, rather than one centred on their mistakes. The Re-imagining Futures report says research has found the arts help people to redefine themselves and provide a safe space for people to have positive experiences and make individual choices.
I saw this sentiment reflected when Michael gave a spontaneous poetry performance which generated a storm of clapping and laughter. He described how he planted a beer can, but nothing grew. He planted a line of cocaine, but nothing grew. Finally, he planted a positive seed into someone else’s mind and it grew into a beautiful tree.
Learning from the experts
The event brought home to me the importance of the arts in recovery and desistance. Desistance theory recognises the benefits of involving service users for the individuals themselves. It can offer a vision for change, improve people’s confidence and open up new opportunities, such as training and employment. Indeed, Shay shared with us that he himself had been talent spotted.
His involvement began when he attended a Staging Recovery performance as an audience member. You wouldn’t think it to see him now but at first he didn’t have the confidence to get involved. Once he had joined as an anxious participant he found he loved the process and has been involved in every performance since. He began volunteering for other arts organisations in the city, including the Midlands Arts Centre, where he helped at the Commonwealth Games Handover Ceremony and is now appearing in a professional community performance of Woyzek at the Rep (Birmingham Repertory Theatre).
The project gave the participants something they could take ownership of. As we hopefully move towards more diverse and inclusive arts and cultural commissioning, Andy Watson, Chief Executive of Geese Theatre Company and Vice Chair of NCJAA said, “We don’t want to share the stage with the performers, we want them to have the stage”.
For more information on the impact of arts in criminal justice settings you can find details in our Evidence Library. Clinks manages the National Criminal Justice Arts Alliance, to sign up for more details and to join the network click here