Man Up and talk
In this blog post, No Place Production’s John Burns writes about his theatre company’s new prison project, ‘Man Up’ (not to be confused with Safe Ground’s excellent programme of the same name). He explores co-production, difficult conversations, and why he thinks – from personal experience – that encouraging men to talk is key to improving their mental health.
When I took my first job in a prison at the age of eighteen, I was a little nervous to say the least. As an actor and drama practitioner I had only ever worked in theatres, and prison theatre seemed a far throw from this. It did not take long for me to realise that delivering drama projects in criminal justice settings is one of the most rewarding and fulfilling things I could have ever imagined doing.
Since that first job I have had the pleasure of working with Rachel Worsley, my now business partner at No Place Productions (NPP), on a plethora of fantastic arts projects and tours with prisoners, former prisoners and those at risk of offending. Coming from a not-too-dissimilar background to a lot of the people we work with gives me the extra drive to do great work for some of the most marginalised and overlooked in our society.
No Place Productions
Whenever I am asked to describe what NPP is, I explain that our theatre company is a “not for profit organisation that uses live theatre performance and drama workshops as a vehicle for positive reflection and progression away from offending”. But to me, NPP is far more than just that.
Although we were officially formed as NPP five years ago in Liverpool, our core group of practitioners have been working together in the criminal justice system and in ‘hard to reach’ communities for over 12 years. Since our formation we have gone from working regionally to nationally, and now internationally as part of the Erasmus+ Key Action 2 project.
NPP has worked across all sectors of the criminal justice system in the UK, from high-risk establishments to open condition prisons, with those at risk of offending and those on probation, as well as in schools and drug rehabilitation centres. Our commitment to the discussions that we all know will be difficult – but are crucial first steps toward creating change – is what I think makes us a pioneer in our field.
Man Up, our latest project (not to be confused with Safe Ground’s excellent programme of the same name) consists of a live theatre performance followed by a facilitated workshop specifically aimed at men in prison. Man Up challenges the barriers that prevent men speaking about their problems, accessing services and seeking emotional support. Suicide is one of the biggest killers of men in the UK and an even bigger killer of men in prison. We believe cultural stigmas around addressing mental health issues are one of the causes of this.
Funded by Her Majesty’s Prison and Probation Service (HMPPS) 2018 – 2020 Innovation Grant, we delivered 38 Man Up sessions and reached 987 men in our first year. In 2019, Man Up tours HMP Hindley, HMP Thorn Cross, HMP Lancaster and HMP Garth. So far all participants say the piece has changed their perception of mental health and wellbeing.
The success of this project and of past projects comes from NPP’s ethos. We work closely with prisoners, staff, voluntary organisations and families of prisoners in the production of every project we deliver. It is this co-production that allows us to deliver projects with authenticity – generating real discussion, of which the effects I have witnessed are nothing short of ground-breaking.
L-R: The two main characters, Liam and Emma; Two wing mates who find it hard to talk
Me and my mental health
The issues surrounding Man Up are very close to my heart. In my early 20s I developed anxiety and as it grew stronger I became more reluctant to speak to those closest to me about it. I told myself: “this isn’t me, everyone knows I’m stronger than this.” I come from a close-knit family and circle of friends and, in hindsight, I can see how turning to any one of them and talking about how I was feeling would have been the best step. I bottled everything up and let it get to a point where I left my van running with the keys in on a busy road, walked into a doctor’s surgery, and demanded to someone immediately because I didn’t know what I was going to do otherwise. Even now writing this is hard for me, and it upsets me that I let it get to that point and that others continue to do so every day.
Using innovative techniques and creative methods to approach these issues has helped me as an artist and a person. I have also seen first-hand how it enables other men to open up, talk about how they are feeling and talk about what help they need. Every performance and workshop NPP delivers takes one extra step towards creating a culture within the criminal justice system in which all men can do this.
For me, Man Up is the piece of work I am most proud of, and I can only thank those who granted NPP – a small but plucky theatre company from Liverpool – the opportunity to make a difference to a problem that will affect every single one of us in some way.
Find out more
For more information on managing and improving your mental health, see Every Mind Matters, a new platform from Public Health England and the NHS.
Image: The No Place Productions team on its first tour of Man Up. L to R: John Burns, Kieran Sing, Rachel Worsley, Joe Shipman, Carl Cockram. Credit: John Burns