Rats in the sofa: involving theatre made by ‘real people’ in safeguarding policy

In our latest blog Paul Hine, co-director of Made By Mortals, gives his take as a theatre maker and social entrepreneur on the benefits of using ‘real-people’ when considering safeguarding policy. By ‘real people’ we mean community participants with a diverse range of lived experience. 


For the last 15 weeks or so I have been creating a show about safeguarding with a group of extraordinary community participants from The Johnny Barlow Theatre Company (a group who use music theatre to improve well-being and bring about social action).  We have had access to a range of real case studies and have used these case studies to create characters, music, lyrics and drama.


The Johnny Barlow Theatre Company


Creating a more empathetic approach

I think one of the things our piece does is humanise the case studies. I was struck by the lack of humanity in the case study documents we were presented with. What I mean by that, is not that the people involved in helping the service users in question didn’t care or were inhumane in any way – that definitely was not the case. I was taken aback by the level of care and the amount of interested parties involved in each case. I guess what I mean is, that the cases didn’t give you a picture of a real person. You didn’t learn anything about what they liked or what they were good at or what made them laugh. I suppose when someone’s health and, in some cases, life is at risk those details are thought of as frivolous or too time consuming to include. However, from the point of view of theatre and making an audience care about the protagonists in your work those details are what make audiences care- much more than the disasters that befall them. Those are the details that bring a person to life and help people connect with their plight. The danger as a theatre maker is that if an audience member doesn’t care they switch off and do not engage in the work. I believe our piece gives the audience that sense of humanity, it challenges people to help a real person and not just a case study. It does this because the group have invented personal details based on their lived experience and their imaginations, and it also does this because the performers themselves are in many ways examples of who those people can/could be. I hope that our audience when faced with such powerful humanity can empathise as much as sympathise with the people they are challenged to help.


‘There’s a difference between sympathy and empathy’.

John, community performer, aged 71



Person-centred solutions 

When asked to think about the case studies and consider solutions, the group members always start with relationships and people. A big focus of these discussions are around finding people to trust and helping the people in that position of trust to give the right messages and/or do the right thing at the right time. They quickly question how the protagonists can be supported to extend their social networks (my words not theirs) and how their existing networks could be supported to help with the situation the person has found themselves in. Group members often use their own experiences of doing just that to offer advice on what to do and often offer insight to how they had been failed by services in achieving this approach. Prevention in many ways is the go-to instinct of the group when trying to help – and to them prevention is all about people – more, better informed, people. Much of this information is threaded into our piece so others can benefit from hearing it and question the language and thought processes they use when considering safeguarding going forward.



Making music 

The music that has been composed by the group with the help of my fellow director (the excellent) Andy Smith is also crucial in helping people feel and connect with each case. The paper case studies we were presented with at the start of the process are obviously one dimensional. The piece, however, includes music, song, recorded audio, movement and drama. This will help people emotionally connect with the work and put themselves in the shoes of each character. This process inspires people to open up, share their own experiences from a place of strength and consider more deeply and freely what could help the characters involved.


Beneficial to audience and participants

Finally, I suppose the most important thing is that the process benefits both the audience and the performers involved. This project will help professionals working in safeguarding put their work into context and consult with ‘real people’ in a meaningful and accessible way. This will hopefully lead to better services for all. This process will also help ‘real people’ experience a sense of authorship over their lives and the world in which they live. Recently at a conference event, the group was asked- what do you get out of it? I was very pleased to hear that this question was one where the group had a lot to say: ‘confidence’, ‘new skills’, ‘making friends’, ‘feeling of worth and purpose’ (their words not mine).


Rats in the Sofa is a people-powered music theatre show and workshop exploring safeguarding issues by Made By Mortals. It has been created through a co-production between Oldham Safeguarding Team, Oldham Healthwatch, Age UK Oldham, Action Together, The Fire Service and The Police Service.

Rats in the Sofa will be performed in St George Street Chapel in Oldham on the 19th September to an already packed house. It will also be performed at Guide Bridge Theatre on the 21st November at 2pm. Free tickets are available to book through the theatre’s website https://www.gbtheatre.co.uk

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