I spent the afternoon with Keith Palmer and The Comedy School over at the John Howard Centre in Hackney.
The centre cares for about 180 sectioned patients who once a year meet together for a festival run by themselves. The Comedy School helps them prepare with workshop support in the build up and creating the event.
Key to the work is the negotiation of space. Many of the inmates suffer from agoraphobia and even a couple of hours away from their wards in the communal open space has to be carefully managed. Last year Keith explained they sat everybody in rows, facing the stage, but this led to some tension in terms of the formality of the arrangement and the potential for hierarchy it created. This year the space in front of the stage was set up cabaret style and the patients moved their own chairs into position. Magically, this freedom relaxed everybody. It's a case of understanding which choices are empowering and which create an ordeal for the patients.
I was looked after by G, who was my escort for the afternoon. G had been institutionalised for 30 years, most of them spent in Broadmoor. He took great pride in his appearance and had turned up to the event in a dapper gold suit, he very was anxious that he shouldn't spill food on it. We talked a little about his schizophrenia and, after I'd told him I was a Drama lecturer, compared it to acting.
'It's all about pretending to be something you're not -isn't it?' he asked 'and I guess to do that involves a huge knowledge of body language. The problem with schizophrenia is sometimes you see somebody do something, stand in a certain way, look at you and you're convinced you know what it means. The problems come when you get it wrong. So how do actors do it? How do actors convince the audience there not who they are?'
I asked him whether his schizophrenia would cause a problem if he went to the theatre - could he always tell it was acting.
'Yeah, I think that'd be ok. I think I'd spot an actor who was bad though. I'd know somebody who was trying to pretend to be something and not managing it... but then sometimes I get that wrong as well.'
Some of the patients took it in turns to play music, sing, rap, perform poetry and dance whilst others cooked the barbecue and served cakes and smoothies made during the week's cookery classes. Everybody smiled. It was escapism in it's purest and most literal sense.
Keith is going to run some facilitation projects with our first years in October and we're hopeful that some of our students might support the workshops in the build up to next year's event.