Exercising Citizenship Through Creativity Is More Important Than Ever

| Paul Hine

Having something to do is so important. And that something needs to be something that you can care about, something that matters to you, something that brings about a change in some way, something that you can feel good at or at the very least enjoy doing, something you can feel part of and be proud to share with others. Not having that sort of something can and does lead to loneliness, unwanted isolation and ultimately depression. This is true at the best of times, let alone during a pandemic. Human beings are creative and, on-the-whole, social animals. After having a roof over your head, food in your stomach and someone to love, having a purpose of sorts, or some kind of worthwhile pursuit to get your teeth into, is vital in maintaining wellbeing. 

Our mission at Made by Mortals is to cultivate creative citizens. Cultivate because our work is about empowerment and shared ownership for the common good. Creative because our work provides a platform for people to hone and practice their creativity irrespective of ability or past artistic experience. Citizens because we believe that people can use their creativity to take an active role in society and bring about change through sharing stories, imaginations and experiences in an accessible and meaningful way.

“It gives you a sense of belonging and I feel a part of society in which I used to feel like I didn’t fit in”- Michelle, participating from Hospital in our ‘Hidden’ project.

Covid-19 and the resulting lockdown put a load of new challenges in our path to achieving this mission, but it has also presented us with some exciting new skills, tools and opportunities.

Most of our participants (including me) had never even heard of Zoom this time last year and most had never listened to a podcast. All our workshop, online events and recording sessions are now delivered over Zoom and all of our creative output is now podcasts. To support this shift, we have provided one-to-one technical assistance, equipment where needed and a freephone number for people without WIFI to access the online workshops. This has meant that we have had to adapt our delivery methodology to accommodate people on a range of devices. We have seen people overcome their fear of technology, make connections in new ways, extend their social networks, discover the joy of independent arts practice and find resilience to the challenging times we all face through participation in creativity with others.

“It’s allowing yourself to be part of something bigger than yourself” Katie, participating whilst shielding.

We have worked with two core groups: Hearts & Minds are an over-55s (most are in their 70s and 80s) group that create musical theatre inspired projects for children. Participants have lived experience of long-term illness and/or mental health conditions. The Johnny Barlow Theatre Company are an intergenerational group that create theatre for social change. Participants have lived experience of mental health illness and/or learning disability. Together they have coproduced the following.

Armchair Adventures’- an interactive podcast that inspires older people and children to participate in musical theatre together. The podcast has to-date had over 8000 listens, including people in India and the USA. The older people working on this project have co-created an activity pack that has been distributed to over 500 people, a school’s workshop that has engaged over 3000 school children and a care home offer that has supported four local care homes to provide creative workshops to their residents.

This has all been achieved by older people, many of which have been shielding, using technology that they were initially unfamiliar with.

“It’s helped me find my inner voice and express myself at a time that has been very challenging for me and my partner” Linda, carer. 

The ‘Armchair Adventures’ project has helped everyone involved enact citizenship by offering older people the opportunity to invest in young people’s cultural capital and mental resilience (at a time that it is very much needed) and young people, through their participation, the opportunity to improve the health and wellbeing of older people (at a time it is very much needed).

‘Hidden’- a series of interactive audio experiences exploring the hidden lives, the hidden health related struggles, that people are experiencing at this time. The immersive audio experience challenges listeners to walk in another person’s shoes using their own homes as a theatrical backdrop (like a set in a live show). So far, with the Johnny Barlow Theatre company we have created a piece exploring self-neglect and financial exploitation (episode 1), and psychosis (episode 2).

Using the audio experiences the groups have been coproducing online events that bring together people with lived experience and health and social care practitioners to consider what a good life can look like for the characters in the stories, and what is standing in the way of them realising that good life. It has been fascinating to hear the conflicts between people’s personal and professional approach to the stories and consider how solutions can be so simple but so hard to achieve in current systems.

Me: What advice would you give someone trying to help Richard (main character in episode 1)?

Nicola: You’ve got to start by listening to him, getting to know him, getting to love him just enough, and then, and only then, will you be able to help him. 

Hidden’ offers people the opportunity to enact their citizenship by bringing their experiences to life using creativity and by doing so improving the services they and others receive. It also gives health, social care and educational organisations the opportunity to fund a project that invests in the health and wellbeing of people while giving them the opportunity to gain much needed insight.

By pivoting how our organisation works, instead of simply just shutting down our projects and community groups, we have found a new way to continue our work. And little did we know that these connections would be what kept us going.

While all of us would jump at the chance to work together in the same room again or perform a live show in a community centre, those weekly video calls have given us the chance to continue to be creative citizens together.

Above all, the most important thing we have been able to achieve since the first lockdown is offering people (including ourselves) the opportunity to have fun and laugh with others. This element has been vital. Having something to do and having fun doing it with other people you care about is, after the basics, the way we are going to get through all this. I am confident that this ethos will help us bounce back from the challenging times we all face, and our new skills and tools will help us enact our citizenship through creativity in post pandemic world.

This blog was written by Paul Hine. Paul is a Theatre Maker, Education Consultant and Director at Made by Mortals. Made by Mortals is a not-for-profit social enterprise that creates people powered musical theatre and performance projects exploring and tackling the health and social challenges of our time.

Follow Made by Mortals on Twitter @MadeByMortals and visit their website for more information

Photo provided by Made by Mortals: The Johnny Barlow Theatre Company and Made by Mortals making Hidden.

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