We were delighted to be invited to perform at the Wakefield WY-FI (West Yorkshire Finding Independence) One Year On Conference as part our partnership with them. The event was the hosted by Spectrum CIC to mark the first year of the WY-FI project. The audience saw videos made by beneficiaries of the Wakefield Navigator Team, presentations about the team's achievements and testimonies from partners in Wakefield who have worked with the team often with people they haven't been able to sustain a working relationship before.
Followers of OOC will know we have been, over this past year, been running performance workshops across West Yorkshire to help WY-FI users tell their own stories of recovery and resilience.
This work has informed some research into the particular struggles of people, often with the triple threat of complex needs (addiction, homelessness & mental health issues), as they seek to find help and support in getting their lives back on track. All too often, but with the best of intentions, services aiming to help such people are often designed from the top down. WY-FI has been trying to find ways in which the 'systems' which are employed to help people are designed by the people that need and actually use them. These experts with 'lived experience' have a great deal of wisdom about the barriers they face and how best to overcome them.
Based on the stories we encountered and have experienced ourselves we have begun to create new short pieces which comment on the 'fairness' or otherwise of these experiences. Drug users or the mentally ill, in some of the accounts, often felt judged and not given the same care that other people might expect when seeking medical help, for example. Access to housing didn't always take into consideration the complex needs of some people, ending up with more homelessness and acute frustration and desperation on both sides.
In was interesting then that we found ourselves in the stunning environment of Wakefield Town Hall to present some of this new work. This grade 1 listed building lies in the heart of the legal quarter of the city and in fact our dressing/rehearsal room was a beautiful wood panelled room (with gallery) that rather felt like a magistrates court. We were about to indulge in some (un)Fair Play...
We had 30 minutes to share some of the things we have been working on. They were not all at a polished state, and unfortunately some of the company were unable to make this performance, so it was a rough and ready sharing of some old work and new. But, for those who weren't there, we began with 'NHS'. This is a satirical piece we originally developed with Love Arts Leeds back in the autumn of 2014. Two rather grumpy men sit drinking coffee in a district hospital and bemoan the NHS 'wasting' money on 'art'. This comic sketch always gets laughs - particularly from those in the NHS, and the final twist always gets the biggest laugh of all.
This was followed by a new piece we call 'Bootham Montage'. We created this in response to the closure of Bootham Park Hospital. It is a series of interlaced monologues of real stories (both serious and tragic) from the company about their time there. Some are positive and some are negative. OOC actor Rob told an exasperating story about rules and shoes which got a very strong reaction from the audience. Most relevant to WY-FI are the concerns for what the closure of this service means for many people. OOC Actor Laurie gave a very moving performance as a person now made homeless because he now had nowhere else to go. 'I am a box to be ticked. A care plan to be forgotten.' One of the delights of this drama is that it always changes depending on which OOC members get to perform it. This time OOC actors Adam, Rob, Mark and Brian joined Laurie in this thought-provoking short.
After we finished 'Bootham Montage', with Mark worrying that that there would no longer be a central hub providing care for a city in need, we moved onto to a lighter note. OOC actor and stand-up comic, Robin, lifted the mood with some surreal jokes which was followed by actor-musician Laurie performing a new song 'Rescue Me.' In the Huddersfield WY-FI workshop, back in July, housing became a prominent theme. Through that workshop Laurie spoke in extremely moving depth about the time he was in an orphanage (also in Wakefield) and the ten years he spent living on the streets. 'Rescue Me' is a beautiful ballad which refuses to ask for sympathy but, instead, talks about the gift of music he discovered in the orphanage and how a cleaner, rather than a carer, turned his world from black and white into colour. That gift is now a fairly powerful weapon and Laurie stunned the audience of service providers with this extremely moving song.
We finished with a final drama which came from the workshop in York. 'Lifeline.' This drama follows Chloe (played by OOC's Christie) as she encounters various barriers to seeking care. She is struggling with violent and harmful thoughts and seeks advice from a contemptuous doctor who thinks she is 'thinking too much' and should 'get a job'. She eventually finds help from 'Doctor Christmas' who over prescribes a new 'Wonder drug' which actually makes things worse. No longer able to seek help her family are forced to try on her behalf but encounter the 'Bouncer' doctor who is unable to do so 'I cannot disclose any of her information at this time.' leaving her stranded at home on the wrong medication. A well meaning CPN arrives but, because of cuts, has no time to spare. He is powerless to help. Chloe moves into counselling desperate for a solution but the counsellor reflects everything back onto her asking her to find he own solution. Chloe is now more angry and violent than ever and is sent back to the original GP who fails to understand this anger. 'It's not really a medical problem, is it?' This cycle of frustration is familiar to Wy-Fi clients and not exclusive to mental health. The stereotypes of services depicted are present not just in mental health services but also in housing and recovery providers. The drama is not one of encouragement but one, we hope, spurs brilliant and caring people to find new ways and new attitudes to overcome what seems to be impossible and turn an unfair playing field into a space where everyone can thrive.