Monthly Archives: April 2016

An Interview with Jim Pope, Director of Hearing Things



Tell us about your involvement with Hearing Things

I’m the co-artistic director of Playing ON and we’ve been working in mental health settings for about five years now. Devising and creating engagement work in hospitals and community settings, over that time we’ve devised material for this play at the Albany.


Where did you get the idea to stage a play about mental health?

We were in Homerton hospital delivering some engagement workshops and we were waiting to go into the wards to start. And before you go in there’s an office where you can see into the wards and the administration, and there was this guy at a computer cackling maniacally in the corner. Then a member of staff came up to me with a clipboard and started talking about schedules and how busy it was, how they couldn’t possibly fit anyone else in, double bookings etc and she was really stressed and gabbling away. I told her ‘I’m not here for that, we’re just delivering a workshop, I don’t know about your schedules.’ And she didn’t hear a word of it, she just kept going on and on. So we had this guy cackling in the corner, and a person talking over us about what’s going on and I looked over into the ward and there were just a couple of guys playing pool, calm as anything. It was very apparent that at that moment, if you were asked to say ‘Who’s mad’ and ‘Who’s sane’, it would be the office where the stress and tension was.  And that was our experience throughout. The environments felt very anxiety-laden. That situation sparked an interest in the question ‘what is mental health?’.




What themes and issues does the play raise awareness of?

We really want to look at the artificial division in mental health. There’s such a stigma and the phrase carries judgement and people are either mentally well or mentally ill with nowhere in between. And that’s just not realistic. It’s not like that. So we’re very keen to expose, challenge and explore those preconceptions.


What do you want audiences to take away from the play?

I’d like people to come away with a different attitude. We don’t want to teach them, I want them to ask questions, because it is a complex issue. And to consider the role that both medicine and community have on mental wellbeing. Medicine in mental health has a vital role to play but so does community. So does engagement, so does acceptance and lack of empathy within society. I think funding cuts and the current constant outcome-driven system creates mental illness and makes things worse.


What has the audience response been like so far?

When we did this performance in the grounds of the Maudsley Hospital, We had patients and professional actors improvising the play together. The patients played doctors and some of the staff agreed to be in it playing patients. And there were various doctors, funders, friends and family of patients watching. At the end the audience didn’t know who was who. There were senior consultants who said ‘well that person is clearly a psychiatrist.’ When actually that person was resident in the Maudsley Hospital and had been there for several weeks. They didn’t know. That was a very powerful result of what we’re trying to do – which is mess around with the boundaries and see what wellness and illness is.


Hear more from Jim and the actors in the trailer.
Hearing Things plays at the Albany from 26 – 30 April, find out more.




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Permission to Speak

I guess you could say Alaska the show exists because I never learned how to talk about how I really feel with people.  I never did when I was a kid:  I wrote poems instead.  That started when I was about eight or nine, and I never stopped.  When I was very grown – 32 – I started going to a psychiatrist on the NHS, and kept on for the next sixteen years.  At the end of those sixteen years, my psychiatrist said I had never talked about my feelings – only about symptoms, and how to control them.  I think I did Alaska because I never felt able to talk about my depressions outside a doctor’s office.

That’s not what I thought I was doing when I started working on the show.  I had just had an invitation from Commonword, a grassroots publisher in my adopted hometown Manchester, to publish a collection of my poems.  I’ve been a playwright and director for years and years, but I started out as a performance poet in a workshop run by Lemn Sissay [currently Associate Artist at the Southbank] at Commonword.  Going to that workshop turned out to be crucial:  I got my first Arts Council grant for a writing residency, my first professional playwriting commission, my first few professionally-produced plays, my first published poems – all from the Identity workshop at Commonword.

I only went to the workshop because I didn’t want to be a difficult-to-understand ‘page’ poet, as my Cambridge training had made me.  I wanted to write things that were both intricate and accessible.  If you needed a university degree to understand something, then to me that ‘something’ was lacking.  Work could be complicated and imagistic and intellectual, and still be understood in one hearing.  That was my goal.

That was my intellectual goal.  But the most important part – the emotional drive — was being understood.  Writing was the only way I could tell the truth about how it felt to be depressed, suicidally depressed.  And if you write it, or perform it, no one ever asks you any questions about it.  You can hide in plain sight, and I desperately wanted to hide the depression. I felt that it worried my friends and family, and downright panicked a lot of my doctors.  But being a performer is the true Harry Potter Cloak of Invisibility – you can say almost anything, as long as it’s within the sacred circle of the stage, and it is as if someone else said all those things, not you.

What complicates all this, is that the performance of normality that was going on all this time – acting like everything was OK – well, it was an act and it wasn’t.  If you’d seen me, you would have probably seen me laughing.  A lot.  Having fun with my friends, having fun at work.  Drinking a bit more than I should, but having a hell of a good time.  And that was true, too.  Both selves were true.

And getting that deeper reality into Alaska the show is what surprised me about doing it.  When I started thinking about it, I wanted to do a poetry-play, that used a lot of the poems that are now in the book Alaska.  But when I started work with my director, Darren Pritchard, he had me lay all the poems out along the floor, and put them in chronological order.  Then he asked me what was happening in my life at the time I wrote each one.  He immediately saw that the stories behind the poems would make the better play.

Darren and I really worked very closely together to craft Alaska.  I’d describe it that I wrote and performed, while he devised and directed.  I could never have written the show without him. More specifically, I couldn’t have structured it.   His sense of how to put together a show that juggles impressions to create a whole was essential.  Darren had worked several times in collaboration with Quarantine, especially on a play he performed with his mother, Susan + DarrenQuarantine create shows with both trained and untrained actors, based on people’s own life stories.  They’re strong on visual imagery.

There’s a flavour of that in Alaska:  it’s full of images and worlds created by words, and full of fun and dreaming and imagination, and singing and dancing on the moon.  And the truth about how it has felt for me, growing up a depressive.

Doing the show has been loads of fun.  It’s changed my life – Alaska is leading me to places I would never have imagined going before — to rural tours in the Lake District, to a Fringe Festival in Plymouth, to being part of A Nation’s Theatre here at the Albany this spring.   It’s given me a team – Darren and my producer, Jayne Compton – that supports me in ways I didn’t even know I needed support.  It’s led, indirectly, to our team founding the Black Gold Arts Festival, to give that same kind of support to other black performance artists in the North.

And all because for once I wanted to be able to talk about my feelings as well as I can write about them.


By Cheryl Martin

Co-Artistic Director, Black Gold Arts Festival

Alaska is coming to the Albany on Tuesday 19 April, 7pm & 8.30pm.

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Meet Me at the Albany: A Guest Blog by Yestrans

Yestrans  is a German to English translation company based within the Albany.

We’ve had our office at the Albany since January 2014; we love it here, and the community focus of the organisation was a huge attraction for us. We’re a translation company with international connections, but supporting local initiatives is really important to us, so The Albany feels like the perfect home for our company.

Meet Me at the Albany means that Tuesday is always a highlight of our week. It’s such an uplifting environment to come into when arriving for work, with the café space full of happiness and creative energy. When we found out more about the programme and the fantastic work it does to reduce social isolation for the over 60′s in the area, we were delighted to become official supporters. The remarkable – and enormously popular – programme includes creative partnerships with established artists and has been cleverly designed to include things like professionally-run courses on circus skills – a brilliant idea which aims to reduce falls among participants by promoting better balance.

As the Albany themselves say, this isn’t your usual over 60′s programme:
‘At Meet Me at the Albany, participants are just as likely to be suspended on silks in a circus workshop, enjoying a performance of jazz or writing poetry with top poets like Simon Mole and Malika Booker, as they are to be drinking cups of tea or knitting.’

With the ever-increasing challenges programmes like this face due to reductions in local authority funding, we wanted to do our bit to help.
Activities coming up in the next few weeks at Meet Me at The Albany include poetry, sculpting and choir sessions so we’re looking forward to seeing and hearing the results when we arrive in the office each week!

Luke Trinder, Founder, Yestrans

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Hidden Gems: Matthew Bellwood brings (The Story is Not) Set in Stone to the Albany and An Icy Man to Canada Water Culture Space

As a producer, one of my favourite things is uncovering hidden gems – artists who are working just outside of the mainstream, who haven’t yet had the recognition their work deserves.

One of these is the brilliant Matthew Bellwood. Matthew has spent the last few years telling stories, uncovering unexpected tales and creating unique events in his native Leeds. He has brought together a fantastic body of work that explores the beauty of the everyday, and the endless possibilities that life offers to change our lives, and the lives of those around us.

This strand of his practice culminated in the spectacular 365 Leeds Stories, which explored the multiple versions of the city that exist in the minds of the people who live there. It engaged hundreds of residents in creating a series of imaginative “maps”, through performance, visual art and multi-media.

I’m thrilled that Matthew now has the chance to show his work in London – audiences are in for a treat.

One of the incredible places that Matthew uncovered during his explorations was another hidden gem – the wonderful Leeds Library. Not the usual municipal affair, this is an independent members subscription library, founded in 1768 above a bookseller’s shop in the city centre. It’s now the oldest surviving example of its kind.

It provided the inspiration for his latest piece, a collaboration with A Quiet Word’s Alison Andrews. (The Story is Not) Set in Stone takes place in a mythical library, which the characters seem to remember differently every time. An intimate performance in which the audience is seated round a large table, this is a playful show about the places and ways in which we tell stories.

Matthew and Alison will be performing the piece at The Albany on Thursday 7th and Friday 8th April. It forms part of a residency in London as part of A Nation’s Theatre, a festival celebrating work from around the UK – and in process (you’ve guessed it) uncovering some hidden gems from across the country.

Along with the new show, the pair will be spending time in and around Deptford with their specially constructed model of the Leeds Library, asking members of the public to fill in miniature books telling their stories. The material they gather forms part of the finished show, making it unique to each place it visits.

Matthew will also be performing his solo show, An Icy Man, at Canada Water Culture Space on Wednesday 6th April. This is the first piece we worked with Matthew on, and I knew from the start we were on to a winner. It’s a beautiful storytelling experience, in which the audience is seated round a model, snowbound village. It’s kind of a contemporary ghost story – but the narrative will speak to anyone who has ever loved and lost.

The piece was first performed at the West Yorkshire Playhouse as part of their Transform season, but has since travelled the length and breadth of the country, playing in theatres, festivals, church minsters, and even an old railway tunnel.

One of the best parts of my job is watching the faces of audience members as they come out of the show. You know they’ve all experienced something very special – the kind of thing they’ll want to tell someone about.

So – a hidden gem? Definitely. I hope you’ll join me in discovering it.

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