Building resilience and overcoming adversity through dance & drama

This blog brings together Odd Arts and Company Chameleon to reflect on their own learning from one another, and on what Dance Drama can do to impact people experiencing incarceration, trauma and other barriers.

Artistic Director Kevin Turner contributes from Company Chameleon, and CEO Rebecca Friel from Odd Arts. This conversation follows the delivery and development of BROAD which has recently been evaluated by the University of Central Lancashire, UCLAN. Their research and evaluation report describes how innovation derives from the combination of theatre and dance, underpinned by training in non-violent communication, strengths-based and trauma-informed work within a restorative practice framework. Read it here.

Odd Arts have throughout 2020 partnered with us at GM i-THRIVE, Bolton CAMHS (Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services in Greater Manchester NHS Mental Health Foundation Trust) and Bolton Lads and Girls Club to deliver and evaluate ‘Wellbeing Theatre’ to children and young people open to CAMHS. This was one of a series of proof of concepts of arts-led options, in line with the aims of the THRIVE framework to broaden the offer to children, young people and families.

Rebecca: For those of you who don’t know what Odd Arts do, I’ll try to provide a quick-stop tour! In short, our theatre aims to provide people with new ways of understanding themselves and the world. We always aim to create theatre with the participants, responding to their own circumstances, experiences, feelings and usually unaddressed ‘needs.’ Some of the key opportunities theatre provides are its ability to tell stories and create characters, in a way that can truly reflect life, but with the safe knowledge that it is not life. This enables people to revisit similar events and develop characters they recognise, that they found painful or difficult to understand. Stepping back and watching or performing experiences that reflect their own allows people to ‘pretend’ and ‘practice’ within their own lives and hopefully find greater insight.

Kevin: Collaboratively creating BROAD was a brilliant learning experience for me and my team. It was a fantastic situation where both organisations with different but equally potent skills, approaches and methods to working with vulnerable people in challenging situations. Our company had done some limited work within the criminal justice system, secure mental health units and with vulnerable children with complex needs. Odd Arts by contrast had deep experience and insight in working in that context. This experience really helped frame the approach and bring a deeper understanding. Our teams are filled with extraordinarily talented and experienced practitioners who immediately connected, and in the time we spent working together developed an engaging and effective programme. This programme was the result of conversations, exchanges and new collaboratively created combined exercises that were explored and created within a 1-week development period.

Rebecca: The development and ‘test’ period was vital to finding a shared approach. Odd Arts is a team of ‘theatre makers/actors’ (and not dancers). Where we are confident in expression through replaying, improvising and often verbal communication, we were less confident with our own body movement! Our work within secure units, prisons, hospitals and also of course within the community has shown us that some things can feel too complicated for people to be able to replay in a linear way, or even through words. This is where working with Company Chameleon provided our staff with a new way of exploring how we feel or understand ourselves. Ordinarily, where Odd Arts may have used role play, scenes, and acting, we were able to work with professional dancers to find unique ways of exploring the concept of character, story and experience through movement, touch and space.

Kevin: I learned many things in the process, one of which was seeing that although outcomes and processes may be different in each company; the creative, emotive and reflective space we hoped to guide the participants towards was the same. It worked because both organisations had the same goal of using our art forms individually and combined to support restorative practise, personal reflection and a deeper understanding of ‘self’.

Rebecca: Exploring ‘self’ can be a troubling experience for many. Sadly, for some people, touch for them is associated with abuse, violence, shame, embarrassment or self-consciousness. Through ‘BROAD’ we slowly used dance to introduce touch as a way of expression, connection, understanding and trust, in a way we had not seen ‘acting’ alone achieve. We loved the additional opportunities dance brought to ‘space’, especially because many places we work in are designed to ‘lock up’ or prevent human expression, and the dancers we partnered with reminded us that walls, chairs, and doors can be leant on, pushed or our structure and support; enabling dance, expression and creativity. For me, dance incorporated with drama (dance drama as we coined it) provides an additional opportunity for increasing personal, and practical possibilities.

Kevin: I think that Dance/Physical Theatre is so effective in supporting mental health; it allows a creative outlet for one to find, identify and express their needs. With the combined approach you have access to multiple tools to express those needs: Word, body language, gesture, movement and dance. Through play and creative inquiry the participants develop tools and a safe structure to work through any needs or issues. Opening up the reflective space and giving power to their ability to make different choices. To see and explore the needs they have, works towards exploring how to meet those needs, and to see others as having needs too.