Mariem Omari: Part Two

Mariem Omari is a playwright, screenwriter and producer who worked in conflict zones in the Middle East and North Africa for five years before moving to Scotland, where she used the listening skills she had 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.

In 2016 her first play, If I Had a Girl… addressed honour violence in Asian communities in Scotland. Almost all of her work since has focused on mental health. Her best known play, One Mississippi, addressed male suicide and premiered as part of the Scottish Mental Health Arts Festival in 2017.

More recently, Mariem 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. Examples of this include Doing it Our Way, A Knot a Day and We Make the Path (pictured above).

Over two days in December 2023, Mariem talked to Andrew Eaton-Lewis, arts programme officer for the Mental Health Foundation, about what she has learned through the course of all this work, including mistakes she made along the way.

Part Two: Doing It Our Way, A Knot a Day and We Make The Path

Can we talk about Doing It Our Way next? Since One Mississippi and If I Had a Girl…, you’ve moved away from plays about mental health, based on interviews but performed by actors, to projects where participants tell their own stories, and this was the first example of that.

With the success of If I Had a Girl and One Mississippi as verbatim pieces, even though the people who told those stories were not performing their own work, I was approached by different funders who had seen them. And I think with If I Had a Girl… in particular, I was working at Amina Muslim women’s centre and it kind of went to the precipice of almost being a participatory project without actually involving the women themselves as performers. And the funders and heads of various organisations wanted to see if they could replicate that. 

AIMS Advocacy had received funding and had a group that John McCormack (of Scottish Recovery Network) had been working with. And I was delighted that this group was into the idea of creating this piece that would be creative. However, we were very aware that people in the group had complex mental health needs, such as recovering from addiction, and also bipolar. And so we were reassured that as part of this six month project that there would be support workers in the room. It was going to be a weekly session over six months. We were going to do approximately 40 sessions. And they were definitely clear that they wanted to create something, a drama piece.

I knew that John McCormack would be seeing the group when they did trauma informed work separately. But given my relationship with John, I was really excited at the fact that anything that might come up in our sessions would also be kind of touched on in his sessions with them, even though that was an independent session, and an independent project. And I was also delighted, after the experience with If I Had a Girl…, that the support workers would be in the room for every single session. So they would be fully aware of not only the process, but the things that the people they were working with were saying, and then in terms of confidentiality and anonymity, all of that I could put to the side – which as you know with the If I Had a Girl situation had made it more difficult to speak about that with the support worker.

It was a mixed group, this time men and women, and there were people in recovery. I worked with my wonderful colleague, Mark Jeary, and the two of us brought all of that experience him from doing Blackout, his verbatim play, but also coming through recovery from various addictions and being able to really speak to that process in the room and how creativity took him from a dark, dark place into a place where he felt fully free to express himself and as a result to make work about his mental health, which he did with Blackout. And I think the combination of our skill sets and Mark’s lived experience of recovery and my experience of working with people with complex mental health needs, and also my own journey with my father, just made for this alchemy that allowed us to take really vulnerable people, who had never worked in this way before, into this world of using voice, using posture. How do you walk to the front of the stage and tell someone your truth? How do you connect with someone? And so we just started building on all of these theatrical skills, while in the meantime, knowing that we had to work with their stories as well. 

So they were very committed to the fact that they wanted to tell their stories to their community down in Ayrshire. And that was my responsibility. And at times it was fraught, but this time around, where it became fraught was because the organisation wanted a drama, they wanted a piece for SMHAF, and that was what they were funded for. And the group as a whole wanted that when they started out. And then I created the piece, you know, editing and putting it all together, as I have done in the past. But then one of the women realised she just could not do it. And we said ‘your advocate could come in,’ because of it being AIMS advocacy, they all had advocates, ‘your advocate can come in and stand in for you.’ And she thought that was a great idea. And then no, she wanted her story out. And I had to rip it out. But it was three weeks before the show, so I had the time to take her whole story out, and then augment what was available to me. 

Then, ironically, one of the women who had said she did not want to have anything to do with being on the stage or putting a story in saw how much the others were getting out of it and decided she wanted to be in the show. So then I had to rejig the work again. But what was so beautiful was, I think, because of what I learned in If I Had a Girl…, I started to work in a way that was a lot more fluid or flexible. You can get very wedded to your own artistic vision, even when it is a group with lived experience who are doing their own performance. As a facilitator, you can still become so aware of what is a powerful drama and what you think the community needs to see. And that ultimately is the wrestle between ego and surrender. There was some absolute gold in some of the pieces, especially the woman that had withdrawn completely. 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. 

And that, I think, was the alchemy. Alison – she’s passed now so I know I can mention her name – had had a severe head injury, which was why there was a lot of concern about her story and going on stage because she wasn’t going to remember any of the lines. So this is where we came up with two things, which was probably why this show is just amazing and powerful. We came up with a gesture, which is where they would, as part of the piece, raise their hand. And we would know then that they needed a prompt, but because we didn’t want anyone else prompting from the side of the stage, we recorded their entire pieces. And when they raised their hand, we knew they’d forgotten and the audio would come up. And it 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 this wonderful soft landing. And all of that fear that was coming up and causing absolute mayhem in those last couple of weeks was just washed away. We did these rehearsals, and every time they’d forget, instead of freaking out, which is what we were having before we came up with the solution, they would just raise their hand, and then the line would continue but as their own voice recorded through the speakers – we had three techies, with one who was paid literally to sit there and follow the script.

And so we then discovered these additional ways of being able to work with vulnerable people, with complex mental health needs, that kept them not only safe, but created this extraordinary feeling of freedom and self-expression in that safety. And the audience was… I mean, they were weeping – I’m yet to produce a show that people aren’t weeping in – but they laughed a lot, too, because that was their community, and they knew how much these people have endured. And to see them get up there and claim their space, claim their agency, in front of their families, was extraordinary. 

So you then make another participatory project, called A Knot A Day, which you ended up having to in quite a different way. Can you talk about that?

I already had a relationship with Amina, and so I wanted to start exploring this idea of Jinn and mental health (the belief among some Muslims that mental illness is caused by spirits inhabiting human bodies) because this is something had been coming up for quite some time, growing up in a Muslim community. We know that what we were calling, back then, BAME or ethnic minority groups were underserved by mental health services, because of the shame and these kinds of narratives around it. And so I floated the idea with Amina and they were really into it, and there was money available. 

At first I thought we could perhaps do something like If I Had a Girl…, or Doing it Our Way, but when it comes to Jinn and mental health, the fear around being identified was so strong that it didn’t matter what configurations we proposed. There was just no way these women wanted to do a drama. And 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. You set up a 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.’

I think what became clear to me was that the less I held tightly to these preconceived ideas of what the charity or the organisation was asking me to do, and the funder was pushing for, but held it lightly, kind of like the sand in your palm…. If you hold that lightly, it’ll sit there. When you cling to it, it falls through. So it’s keeping this lightness to it, and being able to go into that process with these communities knowing full well that yes, I’m Arab, mixed race, yes, I speak Arabic, yes, I was raised Muslim, but it still doesn’t mean I’m part of that community. They do embrace me somewhat but not quite. It’s recognising that and having some humility as an artist around that. 

It’s like ‘artists of colour’. You’re all lumped in there together. Just because I’m Arabic it doesn’t mean I can necessarily walk into a room and work with black women. I think you need to have some humility around what your ‘colour’ is versus someone else’s ‘colour’ and also my experience of racism will be different to someone else’s experience of racism. It’s unique to the individual artist and what their journey has been, that they can then bring to the participatory work. 

And so as I stepped further and further away from having preconceived ideas, the work would reveal itself through working with the group. And with that one (A Knot a Day), because of the shame around mental health, and this idea of being possessed by Djinn, was so strong, we floated the idea of ‘what if we do an audio piece, sort of bringing these voices together? And what if we then create the knots that are supposed to protect you from the Djinns as part of this piece? And we put it in Tramway?’ And the women were kind of like, oh, we get to do craft stuff, and we talk about our stories, okay, we’re on board with that. 

I still had to do these one to one interviews though, and then the difficulty was some of them wanted their own voices and some of them didn’t. So (sometimes) I had to have a sound engineer in the room. depending on whether they were wanting a quality of recording that would be used in the exhibition. It always changes things a little bit for me, when there’s someone observing me, and observing the person I’m speaking to. That’s fine, I was able to still get really good interviews, but I could tell that there was much more intimacy and detail in the interviews where it was just me and them. 

And that went on to do well; we created that piece, wove all those stories together. And the women visited the exhibition. And what they found amazing was because we had an opening, we had all these mental health professionals there and all the rest of it, I think they felt was that there was an understanding around the stigma and the shame, because we got all this feedback after the exhibition for the women, that they felt that the Scottish community, the white people, people who aren’t Muslim or whatever, now started to understand what they were dealing with. And there was this kind of bridge being built. 

Some of the stories would be absolutely heart-breaking. I went on to write a full piece for Radio 4 (for BBC/LUX) about a young woman who at the time was diagnosed as schizophrenic. She was a cousin of one of the women that was telling me a story. She was self-harming, they (the family) were getting exorcisms done and over and over again, going down to Birmingham, and she completed suicide. She didn’t get help. The doctors had told the parents this was schizophrenia. That had a rippling effect in terms of the rest of their extended family, and the fear around any mental health that anyone in that family had, because of what happened to their cousin. So from that perspective, you’re walking a very delicate line in that kind of work. 

The other reason that they were comfortable talking to me was I wasn’t part of the Asian Muslim community in the south side (of Glasgow), so I was no threat. But there were women they were terrified of. They kept saying, ‘you can’t say I told you this, because she knows my cousin or my sister in law; this is totally confidential.’ And again, it is reassuring having a printed out audio consent form, the duty of care going at the beginning of every interview. And you sign it in front of them, and they witness you, and you are reassuring them ‘this is between us’. But we have a contract as well. And this is sacred, this is being honoured here. So we’re going to treat this with the respect it deserves. 

And what would be in that consent form?

It basically outlines how the material will be used, who will see the material, what will happen to the material once it has been used – discarded, deleted, so on and so forth. And that nothing that identifies them will be used, and we will check with them before the final piece is in the exhibition.

You’ve talked about adapting the way you make participatory work whatever people are comfortable doing. Is that something you anticipate now in any project that you’re working on, that you’re going to have to adopt the form to whatever it needs to be?

Yeah, I think if you’re working in that participatory way you have to yield. When we were working on Doing it Our Way, that group, day to day, their mental health changes. It was the two men in particular, which was interesting. One of the men was bipolar. He came in, we thought everything was great, and in the middle of the session he just threw everything across the room and walked out. And the support worker went after him, and that was him. And it was early days. And then he said, ‘he’s not coming back’ and we never knew why but actually it was the beginning of a very bad period for him. 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 think that is particularly so with work around mental health, because of what you just described, because of the cyclical nature of this. It is more precarious, at times, and equally much more rewarding sometimes. You know, 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 also it is contained. So you can create the work as you see fit, but you still need to keep yourself safe. I think the hardest thing is to yield to yourself sometimes. But when it is participatory, there is a whole other level of care that you have to have.

What do you think funders need to understand about this kind of participatory work? 

What I would be saying to funders is the minute they identify that this is work around mental health – and maybe this needs to go into the actual funding applications – that there is greater flexibility about how that piece turns out, and that while, okay, you don’t want people just doing whatever they want with that money, when you are hoping that they will come out with a product that elevates stories around mental health, having greater flexibility around the form means that if you meet with a significant challenge, that you can see an innovative solution to, however it may not then meet this particular criteria, that you are not penalised as a result of creating something that was not what you originally put on the (application) form. So flexibility is a must. And the more that funders are prepared to be open about that, I think the better quality the work will be because you won’t be shoehorning it into something. 

And some artists are okay with deviating, but for emerging artists who are working with mental health, they’re less so because their confidence isn’t there. So it’s when you start to build up that confidence that you can start to diverge, but you can sometimes try and be very rigid with the parameters that have been set by the funder from the outset because you think that’s what you need to do when you’re emerging. So I think those reassurances. Let this be okay, that if it is a little bit different but it’s still a magnificent piece of work, that you don’t ask the artist to sweat over an evaluation report explaining why they changed it and having to justify themselves because it takes so much away from the joy of what they’ve made. 

Let’s finish by talking about We Make The Path, your most recent participatory project. How did that come about?

John McCormack and I had been speaking again about how underserved people of colour, global majority communities, are in terms of mental health or complex mental health needs or long term conditions. We now had a track record there, so he was saying, why don’t we go for ALLIANCE funding and create a drama project with people with mental health or long term conditions in BAME communities, because of your reach into those communities? And we got the funding.

We could not get men – getting black Asian, Muslim men to talk about their mental health and to tell their stories in that way was just virtually impossible, and I’ve actually not seen it done in Scotland yet – but we got an amazing group of women. I recruited Vicky Mohieddeen. She’s Arab-Scottish, mixed race and she’s excellent at working with groups, she’s a fantastic facilitator. I said, this is going to be tricky because it’ll be the first project where I’m working with vulnerable women with complex mental health needs who are also asylum seekers and refugees and we’re gonna see if they want to perform their own stuff. Not only that but we were starting out on Zoom because the women had all said that they’ve got kids, so we quickly started to adapt our model and the first thing we did was put a budget line in for childcare, to make the entire project more accessible for these women. They needed to feel safe – with some of them their depression was going up and down – so we had to be completely able to create this kind of drop in model from the beginning of the project on Zoom, and start to try and build intimacy and trust.  

So what was the thinking behind this project for the ALLIANCE? What were they trying to achieve?

They wanted to serve more people within these minority communities. They just had virtually none on their books in terms of projects around mental health and long term conditions. There was addiction. There was, obviously, mental health, long term depression, anxiety, all these other things within white communities represented across Scotland, but not people of colour, not the minorities, and when we wrote the application we were able to show with all the statistics it’s just practically non-existent, mental health projects that work with these communities.

But again, as with A Knot A Day, and Doing it Our Way, you had to adapt the project in response to what these women were able to do. Can you talk a bit about that?

We started working with their stories. And as everyone started to be more comfortable working together, we started to create this hybrid where we would meet once a month in a safe, comfortable space and we’d do drama, exercises and a bit of storytelling, and introduce all of these techniques that we would be using in Doing it Our Way. And then we started to introduce the idea that they might want to perform their stories. And for a couple of the women, it was great, but for some of them, no way, it was just harrowing. They couldn’t, even within the group. Some of them escaped terrible war and conflict and circumstances. So it was not going to work, and we had to throw out the idea of it being like Doing it Our Way, and instead empower the women to make choices about what is it that they would want to present on stage. Some of them wanted to do their stories, and some of them wanted to do more uplifting poetry, and what it is that has saved them. And we were completely on board with that. 

When we started out, some of them had never even caught a taxi before. One woman caught a taxi for the first time and she was so happy she was crying. She rang her husband, he left her on one end, and she got a taxi to us. Another woman had never left her child. So the big thing that’s very powerful in participatory projects is this modelling behaviour. So we’ve got the mental health element, but we’ve also got the trauma, and when they could see other women modelling and leaving their children, and coming into the sessions, and feeling confident their children are safe, and that they are safe, they were able to start to express themselves and really engage with what they wanted to say. 

Sometimes their anxiety was up, sometimes it was down, like I said, some days you could see they’d dragged themselves out of bed and kind of got themselves there. But they always always felt grateful to be the presence of these extraordinary friends that they had made in this group. And we started to sort of really feel and see the rapport coming. And when it came to the pointy end again, where I was going to do interviews and start to work with them, because some of them had selected not to do that it then became working with their creative prose and their writing with them, to help them to really pull together what it was they wanted to say on stage. And meantime Vicky was helping them in terms of how they were going to present on stage and what it is they wanted to speak about. And some of them spoke about their mental health. And they would say ‘this is so shameful in our culture, to say I have depression, I have anxiety, I panic, I’m crying on the street, but I’m going to tell them this is my truth. 

And so we had to put in a budget line on childcare. Basically the women said if you want us to turn up to rehearsals, we need childcare. We gave them cash, no questions asked ,per hour, the time they were with us. Because it meant that they wanted to leave their kids, they wanted to be there, and they wanted to explore things.

In the background, John was there, constantly checking in. We did a baseline project and an end evaluation, this was the most robust project I have ever run in terms of research and evaluation and testimony to gauge where they were at. And in the end, all but one woman performed. And the only reason the other one didn’t perform was because she had a bereavement and she couldn’t be there on the actual day. And so, what we did to represent her – which was a suggestion by the women – was we still used all her images, and we had her written text that was projected onto the screen. And one of the women said, ‘Nancy can’t be with us today.’ But they had complete control over the way they would deliver, in terms of what was projected behind them, and what they wore. 

What for us was really the ultimate outcome, and for the ALLIANCE, was that they felt that their identity was shifting beyond what they saw as ‘just a refugee’, ‘just an asylum seeker’, a woman with depression, a woman who can’t walk in the street, because she panics, to an artist and a creator, who has depression who has been through trauma, but are now this new identity. And they were able to kind of revel in that, which was extraordinary. They could embrace it all – the mental health challenges, the trauma, and the artistry, you know.

But as with previous projects, there must always have been the possibility that any one of them might have dropped out at any point. And I guess that’s something you must have had to anticipate. 

Yeah. I think though, my learning on this journey, from making If I Had a Girl… to where I was with We Make The Path, is what I said to you earlier. It was the most robust in terms of safeguarding, I said to Vicky, we’re sort of rare as hen’s teeth in Scotland, we have that diverse background, but also that therapeutic background, but also have an artistic…. to be able to run these projects. Also, safeguarding, how you hold that project. We had made choices based on our previous learning that meant that John was there as a safeguard from the get go in terms of conceiving of the project, and then all of us had our PVGs in terms of working with vulnerable people, but also collectively we had an incredible amount of experience of working on these types of projects. And ultimately we had a really flexible funder, so we never had to have those conversations where we had to sit down and go, how can we make this work? 

It sounds like they appreciated they had a quite rare opportunity to create something quite unusual, and it wasn’t going to happen unless they were flexible. 

Yeah, absolutely. So that was an out and out success in terms of, obviously, the performance went off without a hitch, and the feedback was amazing. But, of course, the most important thing was 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.