At the core of our work and therefore one of our strongest talents is improvisation. Our recent role play sessions with the Mental Health Nursing students from the School of Health and Social Work at the University of Hertfordshire was an excellent opportunity to display that. The clinical scenarios allowed us as cast members to tap into our lived experience and each scenario showed our adaptability in being able to respond to each student's approach to the given scene unfolding before them. Each session saw the students improve in their communication skills, their response to and understanding of the 'service user' before them.
After each scenario the feedback given by us in addition to that of their tutors assisted in further learning and it could be seen that many of the students gained a deeper understanding of the service users experience.
The scenarios given to the students were varied. Some dealing with crisis, psychosis and through to gender and identity and grief. They were set in different locations eg. at home, on a psychiatric ward, at a psychiatrist office. The information provided to the students was brief, with our roles as actors being more detailed and it was the job of the student to glean as much information as they could from the service user in order to understand, respond appropriately and plan a way forward to assist in the recovery, or at least contain a crisis situation. It is fair to say that we didn't give them an easy ride, but by using our own lived experiences we are giving the students a genuine insight into the minds of real people whose care they will be involved with in their chosen occupation. It was heartening to see the change in attitude from some of the students and the way they took on board our comments and recommendations and put them into practice in their next scenario.
There were many opportunities for the students to respond to real situations, trying out various techniques and language to establish the correct approach to what can be a stressful and frightening experience for the service user. After discussion it was heartening to see the change in attitude from the students and the way they took on board our comments and recommendations and put them into practice in their next scenario.
Working through these scenarios is an extremely rewarding and enjoyable experience for the Company. Being able to assist in the learning of future Mental Health Professionals gives us a great feeling of achievement and satisfaction. We know how beneficial these sessions were to the growth of the students, but also to their tutors and to us. Having input into the way that the subject of mental health is approached in teaching is immensely valuable to us, and it adds an extra dimension to the way tutors approach lectures with us as real people in their minds.
Going forward as a Company we would like to expand this opportunity for learning into other universities. We work in a way that is safe for both the students and ourselves and we have always adopted an 'ask us anything' approach. This means that we encourage students to ask us things that they might be reluctant to for fear of offence or ridicule, or that they genuinely have never considered. It can be seen as an invaluable opportunity to make mistakes that in a real world situation could cause harm or distress to the service user. We are always open and honest in our responses to them which can sometimes be challenging for the students, but always ultimately valuable. At the moment other places of education use professional actors for any kind of role play experience but it is our belief, as evidenced by our work with the University of Hertfordshire that using actors with lived experience is the most authentic way of teaching and learning. Their feedback to us was gratefully received:
" May Contain Nuts did a series of improvisation role plays with our student nurses. This was an excellent experience and we saw the students grow each week in their communication skills, approach and confidence. The theatre company were fantastic at adapting their responses to how the students spoke and reacted to the situations presented in the role plays to allow a more "real life" feel. The actors also reflected back with the students afterwards about the role plays to allow the students to think about their communication and also shared some of their personal experiences of living with mental health problems and what they've found has helped from professionals. This experience complimented taught sessions perfectly, and is something the students will value throughout their course and professional careers. Thanks May Contain Nuts, and we look forward to welcoming you back again!"
We are often asked how we keep ourselves safe during and after these sessions. The answer is simply one of strength within ourselves as a Company, as service users and as friends who have a unique insight into each others worlds, a mutual respect and compassion for one another. We have an opportunity to discuss the sessions, both the positive and negative elements and support each other when needed. We are indeed the most unique of Companies in that respect.
We would like to thank the students for their hard work and commitment, their openness to us and for their desire to be better mental health professionals than (some of) those who have gone before them. We look forward to coming back next year for an extended run of 6 sessions with a new cohort of students.
Please feel free to leave comments as we always welcome feedback.
It's been an amazing 10 years for May Contain Nuts Theatre Company. We've been through a lot as individuals, we've each had our own mental health challenges to cope with, and as a Company with the uncertainty of lockdown and wondering if we'd come out the other side with the same passion and dedication. But WE HAVE!! And we would like to share some of our thoughts and memories from our first decade with you, while looking forward to the next !
Please feel free to leave a comment or send us an email if you have any questions about our work, we love a bit of feedback and are always happy to respond.
What can I say about Nuts? No words could ever sum up what Nuts has done for me, but here's a few. So many laughs, tears and hugs. Bonds that will last a lifetime. Nuts brings the best out of me, I can be someone I want to be and not be judged for who I am or what illness I have. Nuts has changed my life, what more can I say but 'thank you' xxx
Prior to my mental health struggles I had no interest in drama, acting or writing. I've always been creative but more with art and crafts, and my only experience with acting or performing had been in the school play, aged 12, being forced to do it and hating every minute. Not the best experience for a little girl who didn't want to exist let alone be visible.
Fast forward 28 years and I found myself on the other side of a suicide attempt and being offered Drama Therapy as a way to express my thoughts and emotions in a safe way. I didn't have anything to lose at that point so I thought 'why not?'. It has turned out to be the best thing that has ever happened. I'm not going to pretend it was easy, it was actually very challenging, even distressing and scary at times but all in a safe environment facilitated by a genius of a Drama Therapist (who happens to now be our Director so I have to say nice things about him :-)). Ultimately, it saved my life. And then gave me something to live for.
Enter stage right May Contain Nuts! In a strange way it has made all the trauma of having mental health issues worth it, because without them I would never have walked this path, met this amazing group of creatives, experienced the feeling of being a worthwhile human being and making true friends for the first time in my life. Being able to use my past experiences as well as current struggles to colour each character that I devise is healing in itself, and then using that person to illustrate the difficulties we face in every day life as well as the stressful situations that hit us out of nowhere.
For me, the most valuable thing is performing for Psychology students and running workshops with them. The feedback we get, not just for the quality of our performances, but the benefit they get from talking to us candidly about our experiences, both on a personal level in describing how our illnesses manifest, and our experiences of various mental health services and professionals. We work with them on an 'ask us anything' basis and we answer with honesty which sometimes takes them aback and sometimes reduces them to tears. But to make a difference to the way they see 'patients' as real people with real lives and valid experiences is beyond rewarding for me. To be told that their time with us has been the most useful part of their module is truly gratifying and if we can have even a tiny influence in the way future mental health professionals see us then our work is done. And for me it's worth every emotion that I put in.
So if you are reading this as someone with mental health issues and wondering if Drama Therapy will help, I would urge you to try it. If you are a student reading this and wondering what career path to take, I would say have a serious look at being a Drama Therapist. People like us need people like you.
Here's to a future of acceptance and understanding of mental health issues, and to another 10 years of working to achieve that goal.
For me Nuts is more than a theatre company. Working with university students, Community Mental Health Teams and the general public; creating pieces around mental health is a valuable and enjoyable thing to do.
In a Nutshell - being involved going on the stage helps and teaches equally.
This year marks the 10th anniversary of May Contain Nuts. Ten years! That in itself is an achievement, separate to all the hard work, productions, workshops, Q&As and small group work we have done. Ten years ago, this year, a group of people interested putting on a performance started to improvise around a very simple idea of someone sitting in a chair. We spent the afternoon gathering ideas, suggestions and hope, because we wanted something to happen. Something that would illustrate an honest and open view of mental illness and mental health care. It was a sunny afternoon, warm and exciting: something was going to happen and in that space we began, we started and what was our first step became something which a few years later would gather the support of Sir Mark Rylance and be nominated for three national awards, winning two of them and being highlighted as an example of excellence in practice. We have a come a long way, but never strayed from our message and our focus.
Over the last ten years we have improvised and produced seven shows, countless workshops and been involved in higher and further education as well as secondary schools as an advocate for further understanding of mental illness. WE have helped train and educate: psychologists, nurses, drama therapists, pupils and teachers at schools. We have championed speaking out about mental health, educating people , challenging bias and prejudice and taking our expertise to professional clinicians of the future. And, we will continue to do so.
It hasn’t always been an easy journey. We have had people leave and people join and each change in such a small tight knit group takes time, but we have rolled on and are now exceeding what we thought was achievable in terms of quality and creativity with a show that for the first time will be over two acts. It is also our first show that does not focus directly on mental illness, but looks at the impact of relationships upon a group of woman, with each other, and the absent men. I am sure this will be the most dynamic and relevant piece we have yet produced. We have previewed act one with an audience and the feedback and comments illustrated that there is an excitement for what it says and for where it will go in act two. Considering we have spent a year on producing it, the response was very gratifying and encouraging.
We work hard, we don’t settle, we improve all the time and we learn all the time. We put together challenging pieces that audiences applaud but also question and disagree with. We’re honest about the way we work, what we can produce and why we say and do certain things in our shows. We don’t pull our punches which makes us challenging and outspoken; but we always want to learn and understand because that helps us and the work that we produce.
This is a company I am proud to be involved with. A company that has worked hard to win awards, plaudits and support for the work we have accomplished. We work at the grass roots because that’s the best place to start but we walk on to perform wherever we’re needed, be it Universities, multi-disciplinary teams, schools, theatres, mental health units, churches, pubs or anywhere we can, making our message and our support accessible for all.
Here’s to the next ten years…
If someone asks me "what do you see yourself doing in 5 years time?" I used reply with "I don't know what I'm doing in a months time." Imagine my surprise when we realised that May Contain Nuts turns 10 this year.
While I had underlying mental health issues for a while, 2 major events brought everything to a single point in my life, starting drama therapy. I found it strange how this 1 hour a week session was able to help me understand my feelings and thoughts and struggles in a way that I couldn't quite manage when in general talking therapy. Somewhere down the line our Drama Therapist (also our director, who somewhat keeps us focused) mentioned about starting up a drama group that wouldn't be about the therapy side of things, where we would create a piece and present it to friends and family.
So it began, with a man in a chair, and developed into our first piece titled 'Insidious Baggage'. During this we explored the relationships between co workers where the mental health of the much beloved Ozzy (just don't ask Shirley) was causing problems in and out of the workplace.
An opportunity came about to present this piece as part of a workshop that Gerald (see director) teaches more or less every year for the Doctorate in Clinical Psychology students at the University of Hertfordshire at the end of 2012. We had barely taken our bows when we all shared a look, this is something amazing, when can we do it again.
So we did it again, we created more plays, we did a series of monologues, we've even managed to put on a performance or 2 via zoom when we were under lockdown. We have always been honest and upfront when talking about how our mental health impacts our lives, take time to remind everyone that we all have mental health just not everyone has mental ill health and trying to educate people to think in ways other than what is taught in a textbook or shown in the media.
Throughout the years, the highs and lows, the comings and goings, we have adjusted and adapted in ways we never would have thought possible. We have continued to produce shows and pieces that will always be relevant and to a high standard that we set ourselves. This standard is reflected in our 3 nominations for innovation in mental health where we won 2 of those, including the Advancing Healthcare Award sponsored by The Guardian newspaper. We have given interviews, performed at conferences, in pubs, anywhere that will take us. We have a wonderful patron in Sir Mark Rylance and, barring Covid-19, have yearly workshops with several Universities.
For the most part the past 10 years have been some of the best of my life, but there is no way I could have done any of it without the rest of the company, and for that I thank them from the bottom of my heart for this amazing journey we have all taken to get here.
Happy 10th birthday May Contain Nuts, looking forward to the next 10. xx
A lot can happen in 10 years. From an acorn of an idea Nuts has grown. With each rehearsal, each performance and each workshop we have grown in confidence. We have survived mauling by ‘professionals’, indifference from doctors and adulation from drama and psychology students.
Awards and ceremonies have come our way; we have taken our place alongside amazing health workers as equals. We are seen and heard, our ‘lived experience’ appreciated and validated.
There have been ups and downs but the company has held together, supporting each other and working through difficulties. We are unique (of course we are) and will remain so.
After 10 years I am so grateful to belong to a family and that family’s name is Nuts.
As we all know, 2020 was a washout. 'Nuff said about that. So we were quietly hoping that 2021 might be a bit better, but it wasn't looking good as we entered another full lockdown after Christmas. We knew we had a couple of performances booked in but that we wouldn't be able to perform them. But the show must go on! And Zoom became our best friend. It's fair to say we had our reservations about putting on any kind of performance 'virtually', we pride ourselves in putting our hearts into our pieces and were worried the impact would be lost. So, what to do? We didn't want another year of nothing!
During 2019 we had developed individual monologues which we had already performed in front of audiences and they had been very well received. Would they be as effective over Zoom? Would they be as powerful if the audience could only see our faces, without us being able to build an atmosphere, without the 'bigger picture' of a physical performance?
What if we created a 'smaller picture'? Or no picture at all. Just our voices. Like a radio play perhaps? Could we make it work? We didn't have much time to find out as our first booking was in January for the DClinPsych students at the University of Hertfordshire as part of their course module entitled ' Power, Inclusion and Social Justice', so we set about rehearsing over Zoom, cameras off, just listening. And it worked! It was a different way of working for us, solely using vocal tone, pauses, volume and silence to create the scene in the mind of the listener. Our individual monologues are each so different but they all still worked amazingly well, and the feedback was incredible! It was a different experience for the audience too, having to listen and actually hear what was being said, without the visual of a physical actor to watch. It's always fascinating for us to hear what the students have taken from our performances and I think it's fair to say that we didn't know what to expect this time round. But they had been so engaged, so 'in the moment' with each monologue, with different thoughts, reflections and reactions to feed back to us. It was lovely for us to see all the little heart emojis popping up on the screen! We enjoyed it immensely and it filled us with confidence to be able to use Zoom again for our booking with Queen Mary's University Msc Creative Arts and Mental Health students for their module 'Critical Encounters in Art and Mental Health' in February, and finally for the Art Therapists of the Herts Partnership NHS Foundation Trust as part of their continuing professional development in October.
Once the lockdown restrictions were eased enough that we were able to meet again in our new rehearsal space at Beechen Grove, we took the bull by the horns and set to work on our as yet untitled new piece. We started in our usual fashion, batting around ideas, walking around the room just to see what emerged organically. It's no exaggeration to say that we had so many ideas that we had trouble trying to trim them down to something cohesive and workable. And we trimmed, and reshaped, and trimmed again, lost our momentum, started again, added more, and more, got confused, lost the plot and blew our minds. But it's been incredible! And we've had so much fun. It's been the hardest we have ever worked, it's the most complex piece we have ever created, and we can't wait to perform it. Although a slight departure from our obvious themes of mental health, this piece is about the complexity of relationships within a family, the fluidity of roles and the fragility of individuals within the strength of the family unit. This piece is also our first to be in two Acts. We are in the finishing stages of Act 1 and will be working on Act 2 during 2022 as well as performing Act 1, the first being in January. We are all so excited about this piece and very proud of what we have created so far.
So 2021 began with a question mark but it has ended with a sense of achievement for us Nuts! As a Company we are all in a good place after a very challenging couple of years. We've each individually had some very difficult times, but as we have always done, we have pulled together to keep each other afloat and get us through. Because above all else, it's our mental health that matters and it will always be our priority. And so we will welcome 2022 with open arms and continue to raise awareness, end the stigma and promote positive attitudes towards mental health issues.
We wish you all a very happy Christmas and a happy and healthy new year!
From all of us at May Contain Nuts
2018 was a big year for us as we were shortlisted for 3 awards and won 2 of them! We were beyond excited to be nominated for the Guardian Award for Innovation in Mental Health Services at the 2018 Advancing Healthcare Awards, and totally beside ourselves when we were shortlisted! We were invited along to the ceremony at the Chelsea Harbour Hotel in London for a swanky 4 course dinner with wine before the awards proper were announced. To say we were all feeling a bit overwhelmed is an understatement as this was unfamiliar territory for us.
We arrived early so some of us went for a walk round the harbour as much to try and calm our nerves as to enjoy the beautiful scenery while the rest of us sat in luxurious surroundings of the hotel reception and bar. After what felt like a lifetime of waiting we were ushered into waiting area before being shown to our table. Suddenly everything felt real!
Once we had eaten the award winner announcements began with our category being almost right at the bottom of the list so the wait seemed endless. We had already decided that as our table was in the far reaches of the room, that we were highly unlikely to win so we went about entertaining ourselves as only Nuts can.
The time had arrived , it was our category up next. 'And the winners are.........May Contain Nuts Theatre Company!'. It was at this point that the realisation that we would have to go up to the stage to receive the Award hit home. We are obviously used to being on stage but this was a different beast entirely, we were having to be ourselves and not characters that we had created. But we did it! En masse! We had bagged ourselves an award for our work and we were so proud of ourselves, and it meant and still means the world to us that our work is being recognised and that all the time, emotion and frankly our souls that we put into every second of our work is worthwhile.
And the praise came flooding in.......
We were featured in the Hertfordshire Partnership NHS Trusts magazine - see link below for full article
And of course the Guardian -
As we were shortlisted for the Health Service Journal Award for Mental Health Innovation we were invited to the awards ceremony at the O2 in London, which were hosted by TV personality Sanjeev Bhaskar. We weren't successful in scooping the award for 2018.....but who knows what 2021 will bring!