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Bedside theatre performances in hospitals are helping children escape from stress and anxiety. Persephone Sextou explains the work of a scheme currently operating in the Midlands.

Photo of four actors with props before a show
Members of CADLab bring Bird Island to a hospital

Applied theatre – the practice of drama and theatre in non-traditional and community settings – can play a key role promoting health and supporting the wellbeing of participants. For children in particular, periods of ill health resulting in hospital stays can be frightening as they find themselves in unfamiliar surroundings characterised by alien medical equipment and sterile wards.

When this is combined with the physical symptoms and limitations they may be experiencing, their imaginations often provide the only easily accessible release from the clinical conditions of the hospital.

This engagement is crucial as it suggests that children experienced a period of escape from the medical identity of the ill and unable child during these performances

This is where applied theatre can spark their imaginations: facilitating a shift in the children from passive patients to active participants in the performance, and helping to normalise their hospital experience.

Research hub

The Community and Applied Drama Lab (CADLab) was founded at Newman University in Birmingham in 2010, with a grant from the Higher Education Funding Council for England, to develop knowledge transfer and cross-curricular theatre projects in the community.

CADLab is now a research hub that operates parallel to the university’s drama department, providing all drama students at Newman with the opportunity to participate in projects that explore the principles of applied theatre and learning theatre skills in real-life, working environments.

Bird Island

Our most-recent venture, ‘Bird Island’, is a three-year theatre and art project for children in hospital, funded by a grant from BBC Children in Need. It draws on empirical research in the field, as well as our extensive experience delivering bedside theatre projects to children. It uses puppets to create participatory, intimate bedside performances on hospital wards, helping children to watch dramatised stories, laugh, sing, make crafts, learn breathing exercises and relax.

Research shows that bedside theatre normalises the hospital experience because it helps people feel better and collaborate better with nurses to take their medication during their hospital stay.

The current phase of the project sees the development of a play based on the story ‘Lollie, the Rough Collie and the Magic Kiss’, which is performed with the assistance of two actresses, a living puppet, a storytelling quilt and a set of portable of cherry trees.

The play was piloted last autumn with an audience of children in one-to-one storytelling workshops in the paediatrics department at Heartlands Hospital and schools across the West Midlands. It was well received by the children, their families, the nursing staff and play specialists, as well as by the schools.

Some of the most insightful feedback came in the form of pictures drawn by the children, which depicted them as participants in the story alongside the main characters. Most importantly, the children’s explanations of their drawings demonstrated a deep engagement with the story that reflected their enjoyment.

This engagement is crucial as it suggests that children experienced a period of escape from the medical identity of the ill and unable child during these performances, an escape that helps to reduce clinical stress and anxiety during treatment and regulates their overall clinical experience.

Learning from the children

The children involved in the 'Lollie’ pilot have helped us shape that journey, sharing some of their own ideas and making suggestions that are helping us adapt the play to better suit their needs and interests.

As researchers in applied theatre, we are always learning from our audiences and sharing examples of our research and practice with them to help us become both better artist-researchers and better citizens. Through CADLab, we are able to study the effect of applied theatre on children receiving treatment in hospitals, while empowering new practitioners to develop the skills they need to share compassion through the arts, participating ethically and respectfully in the lives of those who suffer.

Persephone Sextou is a Reader in Applied Theatre at Newman University and founder of CADLab.

CAD is currently visiting children at Birmingham Children’s Hospital NHS Trust, Heartlands NHS Trust and Acorns children’s Hospice in the Black Country.

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Photo of Persephone Sextou