Word/Play is an initiative in Somerset for people with mental illness or a learning disability. Mark Helyar describes how it has engaged with this predominantly rural community.

Image of man reading holding glasses

Beata Kosc Photography and Somerset Film

Earlier this year 25 people appeared on stage at the Tacchi-Morris Arts Centre in Taunton. Their performances were deeply personal, written by themselves about themselves. Had they known two months previously what they would be doing, many would have run a mile. Some people barely had the confidence to walk through the door of the first workshop. “The first time I came in, I cried and couldn’t even get up to say my name,” said one participant.

Word/Play is a two-year initiative that brings together theatre, spoken word and digital media to create change. It is for people in Somerset − individuals, groups and communities – anyone who wants their voice to be heard, to feel better about themselves or to make a difference to their lives. It is produced by Take Art, an arts charity that serves the towns, villages and rural communities of Somerset.

Rural isolation contributes towards a poor sense of mental well-being for many people

Between January and March this year, phase one of the project, called 'The Thing Is…', used performance poetry to empower individuals and give them the freedom to tell their stories. Eight performance poets worked with over 50 people affected by mental illness or with learning disabilities in Frome, Chard, Yeovil and Taunton to write, record and perform incredible pieces of work.

Somerset may appear to be a prosperous county with a high quality of life, yet it is predominantly rural with poor transport networks, no city, no university and significant levels of poverty, deprivation and need in several communities. Rural isolation contributes towards a poor sense of mental wellbeing for many people. Given these challenges, the project included several elements, such as digital media, to encourage access. Ignite Somerset helped people, particularly those who could not perform ‘live’, to create a series of digital artworks. Eight short pieces combined film, image sequences, animation and the spoken word to tell their stories. One participant, who is agoraphobic, was unable to leave his town to perform at the celebration event. But through his film, his voice was heard. Somerset Film also produced four shorts to document everyone’s adventures in spoken word.

Annie Crossland, a Well-Being Project Worker for South Somerset Mind, described Word/Play as “a brilliant tool for us sometimes troubled peopled to be able to express our inner magic."

"Everywhere I've gone, I've always been pushed aside,” said Bernie from Yeovil. “But coming here has made me realise that I am acceptable to other people.”

Another feature of Word/Play is the training and employment opportunities it offers to theatre and spoken word practitioners in a region where artists can often feel disconnected. Gina Sherman, South West Coordinator for Apples and Snakes, believes that the project’s training programme has been “key to the success of this project, especially when working with vulnerable groups of people in rural areas”.

“It’s been an amazing journey to see people with absolutely no self-belief or confidence go from shoe-gazing to writing and performing with passion, courage and genius,” said Liv Torc, lead poet. “This really has been life-changing stuff for everyone involved.”

At the time of publication, we have just launched the second phase of Word/Play. Called 'Get Over It!', it is an interactive performance that explores the stigma, prejudice and ignorance surrounding mental health that people frequently encounter. The final phase of Word/Play is a large-scale community theatre project that aims to inspire public dialogue around social change for people in Somerset.

Stringent cuts, replicated across several services, have precipitated a rethink for communities about how we can maximise our shared resources. Word/Play seems to be energising people in a dynamic way, giving voice, enhancing dialogue and generating new possibilities for people living and working in rural Somerset.

Word/Play is supported by the Esmée Fairbairn Foundation, the Lloyds TSB Foundation for England and Wales, Literature Works, Apples and Snakes, Somerset Skills and Learning, OpenStoryTellers and Arts Council England.

Mark Helyar is Co-Director of Theatre at Take Art.

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