Outside Edge Theatre Company: Collective Power Award

| Anna Eaton

We are delighted to be involved again this year with the Culture, Health and Wellbeing Alliance’s (CHWA) annual awards which focuses on collective power (partnership and co-production), practitioner support and climate. The awards ceremony took place online on Friday 23rd April celebrating an amazing collection of organisations and people supporting others to cope, create and grow.

We partnered with CHWA on their Collective Power Award. This award aims to recognise an inspiring project, consortium, collective or movement of people in which meaningful partnership and co-production has improved the health and wellbeing of individuals and communities through culture and creativity. CHWA were positively overwhelmed by the quality of applications for this award. Each application told another story of the incredible work happening all over the country and the amazing collaborative and creative spirit of people responding to individual, local and global challenges. We loved the different interpretations of “collective power” and we were blown away by how people and organisations worked together to respond and adapt during the pandemic. 

Outside Edge Theatre Company

In order to showcase this work, we are running a blog series on each of the projects shortlisted for the Collective Power Award and this week we are delighted to feature the award winner Outside Edge Theatre Company.

Outside Edge Theatre Company is the UK’s only theatre company and participatory arts charity focused on improving the lives of people affected by any form of addiction, including their families, carers and champions.  

Using drama as a creative outlet, their strength-based approach helps people affected by addiction to build the skills required to lead productive, healthy lives. They engage freelance artists with lived experience of addiction to facilitate their activities and train participants to deliver drama taster sessions in treatment facilities. This lived experience in their workforce fosters a Recovery Community founded on peer-to-peer support. Before Covid-19, in 2019/20 four weekly activities (improvisation, script writing, intermediate acting skills and advanced performance skills) helped 231 people. 

During lockdown their participants experienced acute loneliness, boredom and depression, which they explain are triggers for relapse, so they were pleased to see a 40% increase in attendance since moving activities online. They also provided devices and WIFI to people who were previously digitally excluded. In addition to their pre-Covid activities, over the last year they worked with participants to co-produce five new weekly groups to ensure people had access to daily arts activities throughout lockdown. Across 2020/21 they delivered nine weekly groups of 305 people. One participant said, “I’m grateful for this safe space. It’s keeping me sane. It’s keeping me alive.”

We asked Matt Steinberg, Artistic Director and CEO of Outside Edge Theatre Company some questions about what they’ve loved, learnt and been surprised by over the last year:

What has been your favourite thing about the project?

Matt: The best thing to come out of the enhanced co-production work that we have undertaken in response to Covid-19 has been a stronger feeling of an active Recovery Community across our arts organisation. Our co-production consultations helped to disintegrate the barriers between our creative recovery support group participants, freelance artist facilitators, management team and Trustees, because we focused on the holistic needs of our entire community and came up with solutions collectively that were grounded in our shared enjoyment of cultural activities and a shared belief in the power of lived experience to support recovery. The result of this was that our staff began to attend more sessions as participants and our participants began to lead more peer-support session as volunteers. 

For example, a handful of our freelance artist facilitators are now consistent audience members at our weekly Theatre Club group, in which we watch a streamed production and have a Q&A with members of the cast or creative team. And a group of our creative support group participants formed a weekly recovery-focused Peer-led Check-in, for which their efforts during the pandemic earned them a Mayor of London Volunteering Award.

The personal growth experienced over the past year by members of our Recovery Community is best summed up by one of the Peer-led Check-in volunteers who said, “Volunteering has given me a sense of purpose and an improved sense of self worth. I have gained self confidence by doing something new to me that is very much out of my comfort zone. By challenging myself to broadening my skill set as a Peer Volunteer, I have felt a sense of achievement.”

By strengthening our Recovery Community through trusting the value of co-production and being guided by lived experience, we have been able to grow the number of arts activities we offer without compromising the person-centred support we provide through creative engagement. We’ve expanded the community of artists with lived experience with whom we work, including the development of a partnership with Fallen Angels Dance Theatre in Chester to provide physical exercise through dance for people in recovery, which was the direct result of a request from our participants during one of the first co-production sessions we held after the start of lockdown.

As our theatre company moves into our own phase of Covid-recovery, we will continue to draw on the positive lessons learned from our year of enhanced co-production work to maintain a stronger and more active Recovery Community that will enable us to address questions that will be raised by our Diversity and Inclusion working group and to help guide us as we plan our next three-year strategy.

What have you learnt along the way?

Matt: One of the biggest lessons we learnt this year was just how powerful arts and culture can be in creating and maintaining a feeling of community. We ran participant self-reported evaluations through a computer programme that analyses the repeat words in their feedback statements and we were pleased to learn that the most common words to appear were ‘family’ and ‘people’. For us, this was a clear demonstration that the value of our offer was not the creative activities but the community of support that these activities foster. Of course, without a high-quality creative offer we would not be able to recruit or retain the participants who go on to form this Recovery Community, but it was an important reminder for us that in our case, arts and culture is the glue that holds together our peer-led support offer.

“I like the community feel and connection to peers with common interests. I have really enjoyed developing writing skills through the weekly commitment of attending the group.” – OETC participant

“The group is like my family. I see the same faces weekly and it helps me feel less lonely. I am consistently improving my acting skills and am more confident.” – OETC participant

This is not to say that the individual experiences of personal growth and transformation through creative engagement are any less powerful than the collective whole. For example, one of the participants who started attending our activities this year was Alice, who in her early 30s had just left drug and alcohol treatment when she discovered Outside Edge during lockdown. She says, “I felt that the Women’s Drama Group would be a safe place to help me gain confidence. It’s given me structure and stability at a time when not much else felt stable. It’s encouraged me to continue to pursue new found passions and talents. I have since begun attending more groups with OETC, performed pieces of my writing and even submitted a piece of my work to the Living Records Festival. I’ve started a short drama course at an adult education centre, which I would never have done if I hadn’t started with OETC. It has given me a new found joy and sense of hope.”

Has anything surprised you during the project?

Matt: The speed and agility with which our participants and staff managed to adapt to the ever changing landscape over the past year has been the most surprising element of our project.

The creativity and ingenuity shown by our freelance artist facilitators and Peer Volunteers to redesign and reimagine their work for online platforms was astonishing to watch. Not only did their creativity allow us to move all of our activities on to Zoom within two weeks of lockdown, but they were able to ensure that our activities would remain accessible to digitally excluded participants who would only be able to dial in to sessions as an audio-only phone call. They were also able to eventually redesign these activities to accommodate our current hybrid online/in-person service delivery in which half of the participants come together in a socially distanced rehearsal room (the ‘Roomers’) and interact with the other half who are in a Zoom room (the ‘Zoomers’) using webcams and a large projection screen. 

The culmination of this incredible work was that at the end of March we were able to present a livestream production that had been devised by our participants in recovery and performed by a blended cast: half of the ensemble was able to come together in a theatre and the other half were on Zoom, but they performed together as a cohesive ensemble.

Within 12 months we have gone from having no digital arts offer to having a sophisticated, innovative and inclusive working model that was co-produced with members of our Recovery Community to meet their unique needs during a global pandemic. I think it is fair to say that a year ago this end result was most definitely beyond our wildest imaginations!

To find out more about Outside Edge Theatre Company visit their website www.edgetc.org, follow them on Twitter @OutsideTheatre and Facebook.

Photo provided by Outside Edge Theatre: Ali Wright, Check In/Check Out, Outside Edge Theatre, VAULT, Vault Festival

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