In all our sanctuaries we sit at risk

And what is Art for, then ?


For the first time on this blog, on this New Year’s Day, I want simply to report on something I did recently. I’m proud of it, but am also still absorbing what it meant.

Half way through December, I ran a “Mental Health Arts” evening in a church assembly room, part of an inner-city church badly damaged during the Second World War . The event was funded by the local NHS under the heading of “Mental Health Promotion”

It was an evening full of world premieres and massive personal transition and risk. Several pieces of music were played by professionals and this was the first time – aside from the rehearsals – that even their composer had  heard any of his music played “live” –  let alone anyone else. Likewise, the drama piece – not just the first time it had ever been performed anywhere, but the first time the playwright had ever heard his words outside his own head. And the photographer – his amazing pictures kept under his bed for years, the negatives destroyed long ago, and he adamant that he will never take another photograph in his life.

I should say that the composer, the playwright, the photographer and two of the poets are all in in receipt of psychiatric services of various kinds, long-term and ongoing.

The programme lasted two and a half hours, the odd half being an interval in the middle, with hot food provided. The even hours on either side were varied, with the music scattered across both of them in short bursts, the play taking up 40 minutes up until the interval and each of the three poets reading for 15 minutes.

70 people were in the audience, I think, though well over 100 had booked a seat (had they all turned up, we wouldn’t have coped, perhaps, as the room was full). Most were mental health professionals, though a significant proportion were users of local mental health services, including patients of an in-patient unit.

I think it was a special and unusually rich event for the following reasons : the general high quality ; the spread, variety and creative inter-play of art media ; the inclusion and powerful articulation of the mental health aspect, overt in the poetry  and in the play ; and the richness and electricity of contact between performer and performer and between performers and audience. Thus, one of the poems I read out had been put to music by the composer and was played straight after I had read it ; furthermore, it had been written in celebration of the birth of someone’s first child, and that someone was present in the audience. The composer had put someone else’s poem to music (both words and music very powerful and referring to suicide) and in this case too we heard the words first, read by the poet, and then the song that was  made of it, sung by a good professional tenor.

I think it’s fair to say that the concept for the evening came from the many years I have spent in one locality, as service user support worker, using ears and eyes, and winning trust.

The composer has been writing serious music, in his tiny bed-sit, for the past 26 years. Very very few people know that about him, but after years of knowing me, he shared his “secret” with me and eventually I heard some of the music digitally on computer. Likewise the playwright. He is writing all the time, at all hours in the 24, and has 45 unpublished plays in his flat. Eventually he showed me one of them (about mental health) and I saw its beauty and power and suggested an excerpt that seemed to stand out. I suppose what galvanised me most was the life-long masking of these talents, these statements, this witness, hidden behind the mental health label.

The photographer too. He dropped those wonderful scruffy black and white prints onto the table one day, after years of knowing me. He denied any skill in or knowledge of the developing process, though the longer he talked about how he achieved the different pictures, the more his knowledge and skill became clear.

16 actors, graduates from two well-known drama schools, had expressed interest in acting in the drama piece. On the night, several of them sat in the audience. They had been unsuccessful in the audition, (which did not mean they were less good as actors) but were present because the play and concept had gripped their imaginations and they wanted to see the end-result. They are keen as well to continue meeting next year to explore other possibilities for using drama in the mental health field.

I should say that my role was a complex one in all this. On the evening itself, I was just the Organiser and in a way the need to concentrate on that aspect deprived me of much that had come before. For instance I had taken part in almost all the drama rehearsals beforehand, several long evenings’ worth, and these had been wonderful. Watching the finished item slowly emerge into the light, with detail filled out, and partly created and made clear  by the rehearsal process itself, was just part of the wonder of it all, though magnificent enough in itself. I was also acutely aware that I had instigated something here that was going to put several people through very intense and even transformative experience over time ; and I needed to take full responsibility for this and  be alert and in support for whatever arose. But what did arise was totally unexpected. Of course I had my eyes mainly on the creators, and took for granted the performers. As things turned out, the creators were fine from beginning to end. But, one of the actors reported afterwards that the part he played had drawn him down into itself, so to speak,  and he had felt increasingly vulnerable and at sea as the rehearsals went on and for a few days after the performance. I failed to pick this up and realised that I should have been alert in all directions  – not just the obvious one. I do not mention my ommission from any great desire for punishment, but as a point of interest and learning, and maybe some irony.

This was a one-off event, its enlightened funding greatly to the credit of the body concerned.  Feed-back since has been universally upwards of enthusiastic.

It is tempting to suggest that the programme we put together warrants a professional audio-visual recording, and also further outings, maybe a large number of them, in different venues and localities. For that to happen, more funding would have to be found. But I am quite sure that all the performers involved would be up for it. I certainly would. When I get some energy back, I might have a go at it. Later outings will certainly cost a lot less than this first one did. For instance, the sooner we repeat it, the less lines the actors will have to re-learn !

I shall (almost) finish this piece with a description of another intense connection that was made that night.

I read a recent poem of my own – “Augustin Doing Life.” It can be found on this site, sitting like an old smouldering dragon in the basement of the “Poem Bank” (see home page, right hand margin).  I will add here to the preamble at the head of the poem, by saying that the person it is dedicated to, Mary Young, is 85 and was present that night to hear the poem. It was terribly important to her to come. In a way I found slightly awe-inspiring, she saw the reading as the completion of her life’s work, (in bringing Augustin to the public’s attention in however small a way) and also the belated “outing” of her secret self. So this elderly person was in a kind of rapture, but also terrified. It was an intense exchange between us, as I read the thing. As far as I am concerned, the poem is about Mary quite as much as about Augustin, but finally of course it’s about me, and my own sense of going through life largely unpublished, largely invisible. But that night, at least three others  “went public” for the first time as well. All very talented people. All Augustins. All Mary’s. I tried to acknowledge  the link between us all. Maybe my identification with their experience of being masked and locked up for all these years, is where the concept for the evening came from. Maybe we are all to some extent unpublished, largely invisible. What would happen in the world if we weren’t ?

So finally to “Art.”   I’m usually suspicious of Art, or at least that part of it that tends never to get beyond the Arts festival or Arts section, preserve of the Exquisite Few. But I think “Art” was doing a proper job that night,  galvanising and electrifying the connections that make a community healthy, alive and whole, and which in turn make individuals healthy, alive and whole through being part of it. Artists  and creators were released of their secret hoards and became something new and welcome in their community. Risks were taken and frontiers were crossed, love was ventured and something vibrant and robust went on.