Other People’s Stories

Participatory work

It has become increasingly common for artists to make participatory projects about mental health. These projects encourage people who have gone through sometimes profound mental health challenges to explore that through creativity. The idea is to open up conversations about mental health, reduce stigma, and support self-expression. But in doing so, how do you avoid making people more vulnerable, or even exploiting them?

“When you’re an artist, making work about your own mental health or your own journey, you have a duty of care to yourself. But when it is participatory, there is a whole other level of care that you have to have.”

Mariem Omari

For five years, Mariem Omari worked as a humanitarian in conflict zones in the Middle East and North Africa. Since moving to Scotland, she has used the listening skills she learned when taking testimony from vulnerable, often traumatised people, to create a series of acclaimed artistic projects drawing out other people’s mental health stories through conversation. 

“I had learned while I was working as a humanitarian how to work empathically but also to be an excellent observer of human nature and of human beings when you are taking their testimony in such harrowing conditions. There’s a lot of work that goes into how you start to unpack the narrative of someone’s life, their psyche, their mental health, where they’re at. That takes a lot of prep. And my approach is – there is no one else in the world but you right now, you are everything – which allows me to be fully present to that person, fully present to their pain and fully present to their story.”

Mariem Omari

In 2016, Omari’s company Bijli Productions created If I Had a Girl…, a theatre show about honour-based violence in South East Asian communities in Scotland. The following year it premiered One Mississippi, a play about men from various cultural and religious backgrounds who had all attempted suicide. 

Both shows were performed by actors, but the scripts were assembled from interviews with real people, talking about real experiences. Each project involved a careful process of identifying potential interviewees, building relationships of trust, collaborating on how their stories were told, and carefully protecting their identities when the work finally went public. 

More recently, Omari has worked on projects in which the process is led much more by the participants, telling their stories themselves through live or pre-recorded performances. For Doing it Our Way, a community project in Ayrshire, Bijli ran weekly sessions for six months, to support a group of people with complex mental health needs to create a theatre piece about their lives, with help from John McCormack of the Scottish Recovery Network. It was, Omari says, a valuable learning experience. 

“So you have to yield when you’re working with people who have mental health challenges, and it could be a good day or could be a bad day. And you have to be able to shape the work around that and continue to support them on their journeys without imposing too much… when I say imposing, of course, you want to bring your creative vision to it as an artist, but you have to look after yourself and them in the process. And if you push too hard in the direction that you think the work needs to go, and it falls flat because the group can’t go there for whatever reason, you’re not only doing harm to the group, you do harm yourself as an artist, because you’ve become wedded to this idea that it must be this thing… And I just had to relinquish and actually the more that I relinquished and sat with what I had been given, and with what was safe for that group of people, the better the work became.”

Mariem Omari

An example of this was Doing it Our Way’s final performance. Some of the participants were struggling to remember their lines because of anxiety. Bijli came up with a solution where, thanks to three technicians closely following the script, if anyone forgot their lines on the night, they could raise their hands and a pre-recorded version of their monologue would start playing, from the exact point at which they had stopped talking. 

“When they raised their hands we knew they’d forgotten, the audio would come up, and would be basically the rest of their lines. And so there was never an interruption in relation to the delivery of this show and they felt held. It was like the trapeze artist with that wonderful soft landing. And all of that fear that was causing mayhem in those last couple of weeks was just washed away. And so we then discovered these additional ways of being able to work with vulnerable people, with complex mental health needs, that kept them safe, but not only safe, it created this extraordinary feeling of freedom and self-expression in that safety.”

Mariem Omari

James Leadbitter makes participatory arts projects under the name the vacuum cleaner, and now specialises in working with young people who have long-term mental health needs. He has also learned to be flexible in his approach to every aspect of each project.

“So number one, you don’t have to do anything you don’t want to do. You can walk at any point, you can pull your material at any point, often in performances, or shows. On the day of the sharing, on the day of exhibition, once the exhibition is open, you can pull your work. And we’ll back you on that. I will always want to have a conversation with you about that – what’s going on, why that’s happening – but ultimately if you’re going to open up about an experience that’s hard, you’re in control, it doesn’t matter whether you signed a contract or not, you’re in control. And that can be really empowering.”

James Leadbitter

An example of this was For They Let In the Light, a 2022 project on which the vacuum cleaner worked with young people with complex and severe mental health difficulties, who were patients at the Coborn Centre for Adolescent Mental Health in east London.

“On the evenings that they were sharing they had the right not to be on stage. And we made three versions of every bit of material. We have a live version, we have an audio version, we have the version where that material wasn’t in the piece at all. And in the moment, a young person might say ‘I don’t want to stand up and read it today’ and I’d be like, ‘Cool, can I read it on your behalf? Do you want to hear the audio version?’ Or some days the young person might not be able to turn up, or turns up really late, so we’re always coming up with these adaptive and complex ways to navigate through people who have fluctuating conditions.”

James Leadbitter

This kind of flexibility can also be vital in persuading people to take part in a project in the first place. Several artists I spoke to emphasised the importance of understanding what places, and what times, would be most practical and comfortable for the people taking part, and of providing free childcare, transport, and food and drink. 

Sabra Khan is producer of BEDLAM, an arts and mental health festival in Birmingham. BEDLAM’s programme has increasingly leaned towards participatory work in recent years, working with Black, South Asian, or other ethnic minority communities, and planning activity in community spaces around what’s possible for participants. Khan told me about a project she has been working on with a group of LGBTQ asylum seekers.

“Our approach was very much about what they wanted to do. And so we had to just put in place lots of things that we had to go for weekends. And we built it around the artist’s availability and the group’s availability and not what was easiest for us in our calendar, we had to put in the budget to travel costs, we had to make sure the budget included lunch for the participants. And we committed to the idea that what was most important was the participation process. There may be nothing to show at the end, we wouldn’t know that in weeks one to four, but we might know it by weeks five to eight. And because it had to be slotted into the BEDLAM festival, it was tricky, but I would say it was some of the most amazing work that I’ve seen done by an artist with a group…. For me, it was just working with that thing of not really knowing what’s going to happen in space and going with it, and allowing the participants to work with the artist to see what would work.”

Sabra Khan

This kind of approach was also key to the success of Mariem Omari’s next project, We Make The Path, on which she worked with John McCormack and wellbeing practitioner Vicky Mohieedeen. We Make The Path supported 15 Black, Asian and Arab women to curate a performance themselves, on their own terms. There were ten months of weekly sessions, and the project evolved along the way.

“In a participatory setting, when you have preconceived ideas that you’re trying to impose on people, because you have written in a funding application that you’re going to create a piece of theatre, with people with complex mental health needs, from Black and Asian communities, you are setting yourself up to force through something that has not been organically conceived. And you set up a power dynamic that removes the agency of those people in that group to be able to speak what it is they really want to create. And I think that is one of the most damaging things about having to tell a funder, ‘this is the form’. (It’s better) if you can say ‘this is the form for now, but during the creation of this project, if the form needs to change, please let us change it, because we will be doing that in order to give power to, rather than have power over, the people in this group.”

Mariem Omari

The results, Omari says, were transformative.

“Of course the most important thing is the women’s feedback. One of them has gone on to become an artist with the Refugee Council, and she’s being mentored. Another one is now in doing the rounds as a slam poet, and the other one is getting her poetry pamphlet published. They emerged out of this believing that they were artists, and they never conceived of themselves like that before.”

Mariem Omari

This can be a difficult idea for some funders, and some artists, to get their heads around – a project that could be in any artform, where the lead artist has limited creative control, and the outcome is uncertain. I asked James Leadbitter how he would measure the success of these kinds of projects.

“I measure it by whether people stick with the process. So, for instance, the process I’ve just been running, which led to a showing at Whitechapel Gallery, I think we began with 35 young people, and I think we ended with 29, over six months, so people stuck with the process. I measure it in terms of the work. Is the work resonating? Are people connecting with it? Is it considered? Is it compositionally interesting? Is it structurally interesting? Is it challenging? Is it beautiful? What do the participants and the audience say afterwards? Yes we are evaluating but we are evaluating through conversation and through listening. After we’ve done a sharing we might say, what was that like for you? And somebody might say, I feel like everything I’ve been through now has some meaning in my life. I was in hospital for a year and a half, they were really violent for me and I’m deeply traumatised and I’m having therapy for being in hospital and I feel like making art has given meaning to this experience. That’s beautiful, as a gift to give to another person. And then when you put young people in a room and they’re sharing their stories, and other young people see it and they go, ‘I feel seen, I feel heard’, it’s magic.”

James Leadbitter