A Spiralling Mind ONLINE

Our volunteer Lauren (above) reflects on the impact she witnessed during our online interactive mental health film workshops.

I’m sure all of us have experienced some form of dip within our mental health during the COVID-19 pandemic, and if not know of someone who has. Statistically at least 1 in 5 of us are affected in our lifetime, and no one can avoid it. Within this blog, I will be discussing challenging issues around mental health so please assure you are in a safe space and mindset before reading.

During Odd Arts’ online interactive workshop, ‘A Spiralling Mind’, we explored what mental health is, how we should be aware that your mood and mental health can change and how it can have many effects on us physically and emotionally such as eating disorders, self-harm, suicide, anxiety, panic attacks and/or depression; as well as the additional physical impact each of these can  bring with them. 

The facilitator encouraged the young people to answer questions and share their opinions with the exercises, ‘Myths and Facts’ which opened a safe discourse space. They were asked things such as, ‘Why is it important to talk about?’, ‘What can be done to help?’ and ‘Men have better mental health than women’ (AGREE/DISAGREE… discuss). This sparked a variety of different opinions such as, ‘Men can hide it well, they want to keep it in’. Odd Arts emphasised that the biggest cause of death for men in their 30’s is suicide’ encouraging people to consider how useful hiding it away is, instead of talking openly or seeking support. The wider discussions also produced questions from the young participant’s such as, ‘If depression stays with you [more than a day], why do people say it will go away? Which enabled the facilitators to normalise feelings such as sadness, grief, fear, ensuring people knew this was ok; explaining the difference between depression and feeling sad, and also reiterating that depression is not necessarily permanent and there are many things that can be done to support recovery.   Young people were asked to remember that thoughts are not permanent. 

Moving on from the discussion, we were shown a pre-recorded film (photo below) about three young people dealing with different types of mental health problems and the issues that surround them within their lives, as we transitioned into a COVID lifestyle and a national lockdown in March 2020. The young people after watching, were asked ‘How do you now feel physically and emotionally after?’ (a common theme through the workshop was to ‘take notice’ of ourselves).  Participants noticed an elevation in their heart rate; felt emotional for the character; tense or slumped – reminding us that our body can react to things we see or hear, and emphasised to the young people that we should be aware of our body and put in extra care for ourselves when we recognise physical warning signs we may be stressed / upset. The young people pointed out the different effects mental health had on the people in the film and they suggested that the reasons a person may self-harm could be to create physical pain so they can feel something, or to take away the pain to make them feel numb. The young people stereotypically thought that for a person to self-harm they must cut themselves, but the facilitator highlighted that there are many other forms including burning, scratching or pulling out hair out for example. 

In the next part of the workshop the participants interacted with the characters, and as they became comfortable they began offering advice and guidance to the character. This was beneficial as the students participating in the workshop not only interacting with the characters, but with each other talking about what they do to keep themselves happy.   They talked about websites and apps available to talk to new people and make friends; student services within the school; meditation; therapy or counselling to talk about your feelings to someone who is outside of the situation. Some of them suggested it felt ‘awkward’ or ‘weird’ to talk to someone and that they would have to  truly trust them. One student offered up music advice to the character, for when they were  in a particular mood; to relieve anger, stress/anxiety, sadness and so on. As the session was drawing to a close, the actors came out of character to remind them that the character’s they were communicating with were acting, so that the participants don’t go on to worry about them and acknowledge that it was acting. The facilitators and actors also reminded students that although these were actors, within the Odd Arts teams they had experience of mental ill health and therefore no judgement was given and the characters were people they could relate to.   A student spoke out emphasising that the session had ‘definitely been helpful’.  My own opinion is that we aren’t talking about this enough in society which is increasing what a ‘taboo’ it is. The facilitator presented various different support lines. The young people were left with a the 5 steps to wellbeing, ‘Be active, keep learning, connect, take notice, give and be open, listen’ and encouraged them to find their own interpretation of this. With all this in mind, I believe we should all try to listen to your body and mind more and prioritise our own ‘positive steps to wellbeing’.

Written by Lauren Bridge, volunteer for Odd Arts


Diary of International Interns during Covid 19

IMG-20200611-WA0015 (1)Katja:  How is it being an intern at Odd Arts during Corona especially when you are from another country? Let me tell you my story.

It all started very smoothly…

It was cold November 2019 in Germany, I was sitting at my desk on my Laptop and my eye came across the name of Odd Arts on my University’s placement list. I looked them up and they caught me right away – I loved their concept and their work so I tried my luck at applying for an internship. Luck was on my side as a lecturer was already in contact with them and said they could take two interns in. I sent my CV over and got an interview with the CEO. On the day of my Skype interview, I was so nervous and anxious but luckily for me the interview was really good and Odd wanted to take me in as an intern. I was so happy I could have jumped through the roof (I didn’t do it though!) and when I heard Oli would be joining me, I was even happier! After that, it was all about doing the paperwork so that I could actually start at Odd Arts in March with the agreement from my university.

Oli: I chose Odd Arts as my internship organisation for several reasons. One of those reasons was to increase my language skills. As I started researching about where I could do my practical semester, which is a very important part of my studies, I also had to think about where I want to work after my studies. Because I do not want to rule out working in the future with organisations which are not necessarily based in Germany, I knew I had to increase my English skills to be able to communicate with people all around the world. I would describe myself as a ‘learning by doing’ person, so for me the best way to learn something new, is to do it. But this is not the most important reason why I chose to be an intern with Odd Arts. I heard about Odd Arts from my university and soon it aroused my interest for this organisation.

Katja:  So the months passed while juggling and struggling to look for a room in Manchester, trying to rent my room in Germany, making lists of all the things I needed to pack, organising my trip to Manchester and of course learning for my exams.   

Oli: During my studies in Germany and through my personal interest in upbringing, education, and the development of associated personality and character patterns, I have an insight of possible ways to change learned behaviours, which are sometimes not fitting or aligned with values and standards of a society. I am very interested in the art of theatre and improvisation, because it is not just art, it can also be a very fun and engaging method to create unexpected and challenging situations. Whether the situations are real or not, is not necessarily important for us to learn from them. Using this framework, with a supportive leadership, theatre can create a safe space to explore ourselves, our viewpoints, and our mindsets. This is exactly what Odd Arts does. In my opinion, the art of theatre in the view of social work in Germany is under acknowledged and not applied enough. A very interesting learning point for me in the UK is that the content from the Odd Arts radicalisation workshops could be perfectly shifted to a German context. So for me it is a great opportunity to work with Odd Arts and have the chance to learn and consider first-hand how it could be done in Germany.


Then the day finally arrived; the day I would go on an airplane and fly to Manchester – 24th February 2020. While Corona had already arrived slowly in Germany, England was still seemingly free from it and so it didn’t worry me. In the days between arriving in Manchester and starting my internship at Odd Arts, Oli and I went house hunting so that we would have a place to live during our internship. It was quite stressful but luckily we found something nice.

Then came the first day at Odd Arts. I was super excited and couldn’t wait to see the office and meet some of the staff. Of course, I was worried that we would not be at Z Arts on time and perfectly fulfilled a German stereotype. At Odd Arts, they were all super welcoming and I felt extremely comfortable right away. We got introduced to how Odd works and participated in a workshop that same day.

Oli:  I can remember how I felt as I applied for the placement abroad with Odd Arts. In this moment I was so excited, because a part of me was so proud and could not wait to receive the email from Odd Arts to say I was accepted, but another part of me was so afraid and knew that it would be not simple at all. Then, a few weeks later, I received an email from Rebecca, the CEO from Odd Arts, who invited me for an interview. Again, part of me was happy, and part of me afraid. I can very clearly remember the day I had the interview with Rebecca. I was never that nervous before. Having an internship interview is one thing, having an interview with the CEO of an organisation based in one of the most important international cities worldwide is another thing, but having an interview with the CEO of an organisation based in one of the most important international cities worldwide in a language you can barely speak is some heavy pressure. I can remember that I had so many mixed feelings, that I don’t even know today where to put them. Some friends gave me the advice that I should say that the signal was bad and ask for Rebecca to repeat questions if I could not understand something, which I think is so funny if I look back now. During the interview, Rebecca introduced me to Char, Odd Arts office manager, and some other colleagues and told me at the end, that Odd Arts is willing to give me a place for my internship. After we hung up, I jumped through the living room and screamed, because I was so happy and could not believe what had just happened.

Oli: At this point it was clear: I will leave Germany and move to England for my practical semester. This meant my first long term stay abroad ever. I was very excited to move to England for half a year, but it was also linked with many work and social complexities. Once these things were clarified; Katja and I started looking for hotels to stay for the first few days in England, and later for a flat to rent.

As I came to England and thought my English skills were not that bad, but soon I felt very disappointed with myself. I could see how people were trying to follow my words to understand what I was trying to say, but in the end they had to guess. It is frustrating to see how people tried not to exclude me, but also how hard it is sometimes for them if they cannot communicate with me. Odd Arts supported me on a high level in this process. Now I have been living here in England for three months and I already can see progress.

Katja:  The days passed by quickly and I really enjoyed taking part in the workshops and getting to know all the staff. I especially enjoyed tagging along to one of the Isolation to Radicalisation workshops because the effect on the participants was enormously powerful and good to observe. I also liked to accompany staff to the sessions at secure units as well as the community workshops which were extremely impactful.

Unfortunately, coronavirus took over England and more and more workshops got cancelled so I had to work more from home and wasn‘t able to see the staff. Working from home wasn‘t really a problem for me but not being in contact with people face-to-face and being far away from my family and friends affected me. In addition to this, England had rapidly rising numbers in Corona cases and deaths while Germany was far better off, which really impacted my mental health for the worse. So, I decided to go home and stay with my family in Germany. From the beginning, the Odd Arts team was extremely supportive and always checked how we were doing during these crazy times, so when I told them I wanted to go back home they were really understanding. They assured me it was no problem at all and that I could continue working from home, just in a different location. This was a huge relief and I felt more confident about my decision to go back home.

Oli:  Three weeks after I started working with Odd Arts, the UK had to lock down due to coronavirus. For the first time in my life, I and everyone else was forced to stay at home and only go out shopping for essential items. At the beginning, it felt like a very bad movie and I really thought at this time it would be over soon.  It was not. I didn’t have a big problem with the lockdown to be honest, because I knew I’d never have so much time for myself again, so I really made the best out of it. 

The Odd Arts staff were already well used to working from home. Our Office Manager Char introduced me to everything I needed to know. Unfortunately, the usual work Odd Arts delivers face to face with participants had to stop very suddenly. But Odd Arts decided to keep going with work wherever possible, and also to adjust and expand some bespoke during the isolation phase linked with COVID-19. We started delivering online sessions and I had a big involvement in the Creative Box project (posting out arts packs with materials and plans linked to wellbeing and the Arts Award).  I’m very happy that I could support Odd Arts. I also feel very supported. We have a daily staff meeting together, where we give updates, receive tasks and talk about things in work but also in our private lives. This feels very good to me and I am happy every time I see the Odd staff on Zoom.

Katja:  Between my final decision and my flight home, only two days passed so I needed to pack my things quickly and was on the road in no time. The journey to Germany was long. Instead of flying straight to Germany, I needed to fly to Amsterdam because it was the only flight still going out of the UK. From Amsterdam, I took several trains to arrive at my home in Germany so all together my journey took me about 10 hours, but I was really happy to be greeted by my family at the final train station. 

The day after my long tiring journey, I had my first day in my new home office – so basically, Odd Arts has expanded their company with an office now in Germany! My hometown is not the same city where I study, so I see my hometown more like a chill out space and therefore I needed to get used to actually working whilst I am at my parents’ house. But after I came to terms with that and made myself a work schedule, it all worked out smoothly. Odd Arts now have daily Zoom meetings, which really helps me to stay in touch with everyone and I still feel very included even though I am not in Manchester anymore.

Oli:  Now the lockdown is moving with little steps towards its end and Odd Arts are already delivered a few workshops. It felt very different as we had the first workshop at a school.  So many new things had to be considered. I noticed very quickly that I’m not so used to dealing with people in person anymore. The two months of just talking online with other people changed me somehow. But the more time I spend with people, the more it feels normal again. Recently, we had a filming day with some of the Odd Arts team. It felt cautious at the beginning, but soon I had so much fun and I was happy seeing everyone in person again. Now I’m very happy that Odd Arts has started working with participants face to face again and I cannot wait to see what the future brings.

Katja:  So, I’ve been back in Germany for two months now and my mental health has been far better, but I also really look forward to going back to Manchester!

The Ebb and Flow of Hate Speech

After the Manchester Arena bombing in 2017, Islamophobia was fuelled and religiously aggravated hate crime more than doubled in Greater Manchester. 

This discrimination brought about the creation of Blame & Belonging: Odd Arts’ latest performance and workshop exploring the themes of radicalisation and hate crime through the use of forum theatre – an interactive method of performance allowing difficult conversations to be held in a safe space.

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Leila (me), Paddy and Levi here in rehearsals for Blame and Belonging

During each workshop, when participants are asked who faces the most religious hatred in Britain today, the resounding response is usually a roomful of people mumbling ‘Muslims’ self-consciously. When dissecting where this hatred and stereotype comes from in our society, there is no hesitation in response. The bias coverage woven through all aspects of the media, as well as the hateful language used by people in the public eye to describe minority groups, are often quickly brought up by participants in the radicalisation prevention workshops.

As the young people point out, Muslims are currently the ones taking the brunt of it.

From where I’m sitting, there appears to be a formula showing how the normalisation of hateful and discriminatory language ebbs and flows through, and subsequently out, of our nation’s vocabulary: 

Step 1: There is a bubbling sense of uncertainty about a particular minority group, often provoked by the media or people in power.

Step 2: Questions are asked to or about this group, either from a place of fear, naivety or ignorance.

Step 3: Hateful nicknames, stereotypes and slurs begin to surface. This comes to an ugly, painful and – more often than not – aggressive head, and… 

Step 4: Repeat from Step 1. 

The process begins again, though this time targeting a different minority group. The first group is not forgotten about, but the hatred is diluted slightly, made vaguely less obvious, as we make room for more prejudice aimed at someone else. To end this cycle, we need to nip it in the bud by going back to the roots and planting some seeds of thought. It is only through injecting some understanding, awareness and empathy that we can allow people to question not only where this hatred and distancing comes from, but if it is really necessary, productive or aligned with their own ethics, morals and values.

Since 2016, the radicalisation workshops and performances Odd Arts have been delivering across the UK (and abroad) have encouraged difficult discussions; one of the main conversation topics being the normalisation of hate speech and divisive language. The discussions delve into the roots and causes of both far right and religiously inspired extremism. The hard-hitting language threaded throughout the play is deliberately intended to provoke the audience, as well as being highly realistic, authentic and unfortunately not unusual for them to hear. 

I have a slightly unique position from which I’ve witnessed the rise and fall of discrimination, particularly Islamophobia. Being Iraqi but not appearing to be particularly non-white, raised in a Muslim household but not holding the beliefs myself, I often feel a little like a chameleon blending into the background during frank discussions; people don’t filter themselves around me as they don’t see me as ‘other’. Being present in workshops where participants are openly discussing the reasons why Muslims are facing high levels of discrimination, which are often tangled up with some unintentionally quite divisive and prejudice language and stereotyping, I feel a small internal prod at my heritage and family’s beliefs. Stepping back to see beyond the individual making these comments, back to see where this seed was planted generations before, allows one to see how much work there is yet to be done. 

In some ways, it’s a shame that children and teenagers are now so acutely aware of what is going on in the world around them, but on the other hand it launches a ray of hope at the horizon. Earlier this year, when asked why the character of Chris (a sixteen-year-old white British character living in poverty) thinks it’s ok to voice his prejudices towards Muslims and immigrants, one college student astutely commented on the words of well-known politicians, saying, “[They] act just like him and there aren’t any consequences, so why would Chris think it was wrong?” Monkey see, monkey do. If people in positions of power can say that kind of thing, maybe it’s true. Therefore, it’s ok for me to say it. Right?


Actor Nadia here in rehearsals. In this scene she is reading online hate directed towards her own identity.

If we use divisive language to other people that are different to us in order to feel a stronger sense of identity, perhaps we need to shift what we see as our identity. We are not born with prejudices. We are taught to hate. It is embedded in our culture. Sad as it may be, there is a positive to be taken from this: If we have been taught it, we can unlearn it, stop it in its tracks and rewrite the book we read to generations to come. 

Written by Leila Herandi, Drama Practitioner and Diversity Champion


The Art of Theatre or Thinking?

This blog explores why we feel the need to break the rules of theatre.  We reflect how a performance ‘failure’ can be our greatest success and in fact the most transformative theatre of all.

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The theory behind our theatre

Odd Arts uses ‘non-traditional’, ‘applied’ theatre.  For us this means we value the process of theatre for participants/actors and audiences as much as the final performance.  We aim to empower people to see their own world and the wider world in new ways.  Our theatre-making process and performances are influenced and underpinned by a number of psychological and behavioural theories or approaches.  We are always mindful that we are theatre practitioners and not psychologists.  At the same time, we know that ‘applied’ theatre is at its best when it changes or challenges the way people think, feel and behave, and therefore to ignore the psychology of its process is neglectful.  There is sometimes a conflict over what should be prioritised: The Art of Theatre or Thinking?

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We are heavily influenced by Augusto Boal and his ‘Theatre of the Oppressed’.  In his words this theatre is “located precisely on the frontier between fiction and reality – and this border must be crossed”.  Boal’s forum theatre, a technique we commonly use, brings equality between actors and audience members, where the performance is repeated and can be stopped by those watching in order to fracture and resolve the ‘oppression’*.  Forum theatre breaks many of the rules of traditional theatre, but in order for it to be a new form, it of course needed it’s own rules.  Odd Arts has never adhered to ‘traditional theatre’ rules, but more recently we realised we find it impossible to follow even the rules of ‘forum theatre’.  We find that to have the greatest chance of enabling change in self or society we must forget the needs of theatre and respond to the individual human needs of the audience.

Odd Arts works with both ‘actors’ and ‘non-actors’.  We create performances addressing challenges in society, such as radicalisation, domestic abuse, cyber-bullying, mental health (anxiety & self-harm). We deliver performance workshops to 1000’s of ‘non-traditional’ theatre-goers and venues, including:  Trainee construction sites, secure units, prisons, homesless shelters, schools, youth centres and religious institutions. It is in these spaces we have felt most compelled to forget what we know about theatre and focus on what we know about people.


Knowing the rules before you can break them 

The 5 rules of theatre and forum theatre we struggle to obey:

  1. Watch and listen to the first performance in stillness and quiet:  Before intervening with potential solutions, the audience should stand or sit in one space, without distracting the audience or actors.
  2. Acknowledge the beginning and end of the performance:  The beginning often acknowledged through quiet and stillness; the end by applause, comment, movement or conversation.
  3. Facilitators should not manipulate the audience interpretation: The facilitator of a forum theatre workshop should put aside their own agenda completely so people can think freely.
  4. The performance should be identifiable:  The audience should know what element is theatre and what is not.*
  5. The Main Oppressor should never be replaced: In forum theatre, an audience member** should never replace the main oppressor, because in real life, to magically change or remove an oppressor is unrealistic.

*Invisible theatre an exception

**Boal calls actors AND audiences members both ‘spectactors’

If the rules aren’t broken, why break them?… 

We disregard the rules in order to push our own agenda.

What is our agenda? A society and people with less hate, less risk, and more acceptance towards themselves and others.  

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What happens to the 5 rules when broken?

  1. Watching theatre is no longer quiet and still:  Throughout some of our performances, the audience will – without invitation – shout at the actors and one another; call out for clarification of the performance or character’s intentions; discuss the performance content in real time; and move around the room.  For an actor, this can feel demeaning, insulting, embarrassing, confusing and off-putting – it is certainly not something you are trained to ‘work with’.  This, I would argue, is not necessarily an insult to theatre or actors but can be an authentic response from a ‘non-traditional’ audience when theatre is invading their world.  It also does not necessarily mean that the audience are not engaging with the performance deeply – in fact often it means the opposite.  Insults, comments, shouting and moving around the audience space can be a reaction to a piece of theatre that we have purposefully designed to cause unrest and compel people to respond.  An example of this is when a group of young people in a late night youth setting watched our performance ‘Blame and Belonging’ based on hate and radicalisation.  The performance explored the cause and manifestation of hate through it’s characters. Most young people began shouting at the characters, one called him “Nazi”, others laughed, gasped and talked and even moved across the room to one another, some left the room to watch from a kitchen hatch.  At the end of the play the actors looked despondent, believing the play and characters had not ‘got through’.  However, when analysing the play, the audience had picked up on all the minute details of the story-line and its nuances, and had a deep understanding of the characters, some able to repeat exact quotes.  The responses had not been an insult to the play, they had been an authentic gut reaction that this ‘non-traditional’ audience did not feel obliged to repress.
  2. The drama begins and ends when the audience decides – not the actors:  I always mark clearly the moment the performance begins, asking for quiet and explaining what is to come.  It is not uncommon that this norm is dismissed.  Another example came from the same audience and setting described above.  We had explored a number of realistic ‘solutions’ to overcome some of the isolation, hate and harm within ‘Blame and Belonging’, we had come to conclusions, made some impact, run out of time.  The actors had stepped out of character and chatted to the audience as themselves.  One young person spoke up, ‘No, we need to see him, that bit right at the end, we need to make them speak to one another’.  Her peers joined her, until 5 of them were in the space that was previously ‘stage’ and forcing the actors back into character. All the young women said their piece, brought the characters together and wouldn’t leave it until the situation was resolved in the way they had hoped.  It didn’t matter we were packed up to go, this was important.  I believe these young women were using this moment to stand up not to the characters but to themselves, their friends, their world.  The urgency went beyond resolving a fiction, in that moment it was a chance to challenge real life.  The same thing happened again, in an Islamic Girls School, where actors were drawn back to the stage after evaluations were completed and coats were on, and one-by-one a group of young women said their piece to both challenge and help a character who showed hatred towards their religion, Islam.  It did not matter to them the play was over,  these issues affected them deeply and this was their chance to challenge it in a place that felt safer than real life.
  3.  Not all interpretations are safe:   It is imperative we never leave an audience or individual at greater risk than they started, and if delivered without real consideration this could be possible.  For example, ‘Blame and Belonging’ shows the grooming and exploitation of vulnerable people.  More than 9 times out of 10, those watching recognise the warning signs and risk, but for some (often more vulnerable) people this is not always evident.  On these occasions someone might see grooming as a form of ‘care’ or ‘love’ from one character to another (in a way they themselves are being groomed by the character).   In these cases we MUST ensure that the ‘right’ interpretation has been completely understood, in this case – that the character is a danger not a friend.  Screenshot 2019-02-02 at 9.22.23 PM
  4. Staging a play is not necessarily obvious:  Whether or not we say “what you are about to see is a play”, people still ask “is this real?”.  In these cases we try not to mislead, but at the same time allow people to continue to connect (a difficult mix).  Often people see the actors post performance and cannot separate them from the character they played.  The line between fiction and reality is blurred, it is our job to keep trust but challenge – in order to do this we must read people, not rules. Screenshot 2019-02-02 at 9.23.43 PM
  5. Replace whoever you want to make change:  In forum theatre the main oppressor/oppression should not be replaced, altered or made to disappear because in real life this is not realistic.  An obvious example would be that you cannot simply make a blind man see.  However, more and more often, the oppression that people face is that of an internal one, where mental ill health, doubt, lack of confidence, or loneliness is their biggest barrier.  In these cases, we believe the oppressed and oppressor can be the same person. On these occasions the rules must be broken so people can try out a new way of being and seeing themselves!

So what does this all mean?

Odd Arts believes, in order for theatre to be completely transformative the only rule we must adhere to is this: If it empowers and enables, it’s OK. 



The unexpected outcomes of providing (ethical) paid internships

What’s this all about?….

We were thrilled to have been accepted as one of the Trailblaze Employers.  For those of you that don’t know much about this scheme, in short it is an offer to give young people the opportunity to gain valuable part-time paid experience in a role that is tailored towards their needs and aspirations.   The programme is organised by a partnership between Curious Minds and MMU. Let me be honest, not only was this a fantastic opportunity for us as we felt the additional guidance and partnership with the other agencies meant the ‘risk’ of a paid internship seemed lower; but also, a small part of money was contributed to the hourly rate of the individual placed with you.  This made the offer one that we were really keen to be accepted on: An opportunity to build skills inside and outside our organisation; a target towards BAME young people; financial support to enable organisations like Odd Arts.  

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Be clear on your intentions…

We always strive to adhere to our company values not only in the way we work with ‘participants’ but the way we engage with the world more widely… staff, volunteers, partners etc.  It was important we reflected on why we wanted to be a part of the Trailblaze placement. There is the risk that a part funded ‘work experience placement’ could turn to opportunistic ‘cheap labour’!  To ensure this isn’t the case, we checked:

Can we achieve what is being asked of us?

Does what we intend to provide sit within our own values system?

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We had to be sure that what we were providing was yes, a benefit to us, but also offered the genuine career progression it should.  This type of reflection has been explored more recently within the last 12 months. Odd Arts is at a time of growth, where it becomes too easy to ask freelancers for one off work ‘opportunities’, and volunteers for last minute support.  Although this gave people an ‘experience’ and an element of ‘enrichment’ it didn’t offer people the majority of our company values:  Empowerment; Freedom to explore; Equality of expression for all; and Learning from and within everything we do. I can confidently say that these were met time after time for the ‘participants’ of our programmes, but we had to ask ourselves:  Why not those we work with, who add such value and capacity to Odd Arts? Soon after this reflection we developed an accredited volunteer training programme, as well creating a ‘process’ of what the experience should be for new people engaging & contributing to Odd Arts.  The programme is also offered to freelancers as time to reflect on the aims, theories and values of our organisation.  This Trailblaze placement was a perfect opportunity to put some of our work in to action and also knew it had to offer:

  • Development
  • Experience
  • Increased employability
  • Support
  • Opportunities

Because we are a growing organisation, the offer of employment at the end of the placement was also always a real potential.  

Finally we checked:  Will this placement help us?  However much we would like to offer long term support to all developing artists, often the time inputted comes at a cost to the organisation.  From discussions with the team it was agreed that: Yes we can help, and yes this will help!

What did the placement entail?

The placement we offered was very hands on.  It was about gaining practical experience and techniques to facilitate creatively with the least heard groups.  It offered mainly workshop supporting, planning and preparation as well as an insight into to project management aspects behind the work.

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Photo of event supported by the first individual on placement with us

Understand that success might come in unexpected forms…

Our vision and idea of success for the placement was simple…  Develop an individual to be a fulfilled member of the team contributing to the outputs of Odd Arts, who might then continue long term employment within this role. This did not happen!

The first person placed with us gave some beautiful additions and creativity to some existing projects, offering their professional typography skills and event management to enhance showcases and workshops; they fitted in with the team and showed potential.  This lasted less than three weeks! The placement came to an end when the individual gained full time employment in the creative industries. Oh…. Hang on… This isn’t what we expected.  However, reflecting on the aims we had (increased employability, experience, support, opportunities, development) then this is surely the greatest success?!  (May I also note here that we can’t take full credit for the full time employment after just 3 weeks in our presence… But you never know)!

                       Photo of mural Ibukun helped develop as part of youth outreach project

We were lucky enough to gain a second individual, Ibukun.  Once again Ibukun threw herself into the experience, offering beautiful visual arts ideas and supporting mural projects with young people in secure units and community settings.  Giving time to reflect on the experience with Ibukun showed us that she had big dreams in the textile world, with plenty to gain from the ‘accessible, values based, applied’ approach to our work.  Ibukun hoped to start her own fashion business working with disadvantaged groups, training them to make the products and gain employment in doing so. It was exciting to hear about her plans. By the end of the placement Ibukun had gained support for the company, been granted a work space, and was ready to go….

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Once again, the idea that the placement would lead to future work (with us) was flawed, but once again this is by no means a failure!  Ibukun is building her own start up in the creative industries, we remain in contact offering set-up advice/mentoring, and Ibukun is continuing as a freelancer to complete a mural she started in a children’s secure unit.  The experience showed us that we had both the need and capacity for a new staff member and Odd Arts is currently at the final phase of recruiting 1, possibly 2 new staff members for the organisation.

Reflecting on the Trailblaze experience has been really interesting.  Neither candidate progressed in the way we envisaged, yet both offered different skills & creativity to us, and found outlets to turn these skills into a career.  By being clear on our intentions, objectives and values we have been able to see the benefit the process has brought to us and those individuals involved without needing to put people into a box or being too prescriptive of exactly what success should look like.  Well done to both involved and thanks to all you contributed to Odd Arts. For anyone interested in our freelance or volunteer programme or finding out more about Odd Arts please contact info@oddarts.co.uk or visit our website www.oddarts.co.uk


Forum Theatre and Stigma in the UK & Uganda: Is it Mad if it works?


What’s this all about?

I have recently returned from a trip to Butabika Hospital for the “mentally ill”, not far from Kampala in Uganda.  The trip was part of a project set up by Sharing Stories – in layman’s terms, a small group of UK & Ugandan psychologists and mental health service users dedicated to improving well-being for people experiencing and working with mental health issues.  The idea is that both countries are on an equal footing, neither is more important or knowledgeable than the other, but both have lots to give and learn.

Odd Arts’ partnership with Sharing Stories was a natural and obvious one – both passionate about innovative & creative approaches to mental health.  Our specialisms are of course different (one applied theatre, the other clinical psychology) but complimentary. The project we have just delivered in Uganda was first delivered in Manchester to mainly UK participants, but those Ugandan members attending were keen to take the approach back to their own country and peers.  The rest, as they say, is history.

The Theatre of the Sitgmatised

The project was an intensive 3 days of delivery, heavily influenced by and authentic to Augusto Boal’s Theatre of the Oppressed and Forum Theatre.  As someone interested in Odd Arts, you will know that the interactive Forum Theatre approach is favoured by us in schools and prisons to tackle radicalisation; abusive relationships; anxiety and self-harm, to name a few.   Forum Theatre asks the audience to become the ‘spectactor‘ in which the spectator and actor become blurred.  The performance is created by the ‘oppressed’, developed by involving them in games, discussion, role-play, mime or imagery to explore their feelings and experiences and the challenges or ‘oppression’ they face.  The performance concludes often with an unsolved ‘problem’ which is posed to the ‘spectactors’ as something they can then influence and change.  This is done by inviting them to stop the performance in order to try out solutions as a ‘rehearsal for reality’.  As opposed to the traditional cathartic approach where theatre ‘cleanses’ the audience, Forum Theatre relies on audiences taking an active role and gives responsibility to all those watching to make change.  In 2004 Odd Arts founders interned and learnt from Boal in Brazil and his work has influenced us continuously for the last 15 years.

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Odd Arts working with Augusto Boal, 2004

In the UK we commonly manipulate Forum Theatre, using an inauthentic (but effective) approach where actors perform a pre-scripted play, with intended intervention scenes.  This allows us to tackle the contentious issues many of our participants face, in a timely and cost appropriate way which has proved to be highly effective at changing attitudes and behaviour.  It gives people the chance to think critically and explore complex themes.  However, a pre-scripted performance takes away the important journey, ownership and authenticity that traditional Forum Theatre allows when made by those who are themselves oppressed.   Our project in Uganda went back to basics, we delivered in a format that reminds me of that which we saw in Rio 15 years ago.  At that time Boal was practicing most Forum Theatre as a Politician, tackling oppression around homosexuality and mental health stigma:  Some of the laws that Boal introduced were around these themes (including the banning of both Electro-Convulsive Therapy and higher prices for homosexuals in hotels).  I was struck by some parallels with Uganda. Right now my understanding is that Ugandan anti-homosexuality laws have become much stricter and in some cases aggressive approaches are used within the community in the name of ‘treating’ homosexuality. Similarly with mental health, more aggressive interventions are adopted in an attempt to cure people. This latter oppression was the focus of the trip and we set about exploring mental health stigma. The group of people we worked with at Butabika Hospital were both health practitioners and mental health service users at different places of recovery.  The oppression faced by this group was apparent:  Lack of resources and money (both professionally and personally); ostracisation by wider society; lack of access to support.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAStigma was thought to be a key cause of oppression for people experiencing mental health challenges, as well as hindering their chances of recovery and reintegration back into their community.  We began the week with no idea of what would be told, created or performed, but knew every game, exercise and role play would be exploring wider themes of stigma.  The performance that was created told the story of Gody (31) who struggled with depression, and Susanne (19) who had bipolar.  Throughout the performance we see Suzanne’s boyfriend leave her, and her friends and college exploit and abuse her.  Gody brings shame on his family and is left isolated and unemployed after his employer sacks him after finding our he had received treatment at Butabika Hospital.  We rehearsed until the performance was stage ready, and shared the facilitation techniques in a Train the Trainer session to increase likelihood of lasting impact.

Same but different: Stigma & mental health in UK & Uganda

As a non academic and having only participated in Sharing Stories once in UK, once in Uganda, my experience is limited – however, it has highlighted some key themes that are strikingly similar:

  • The widespread avoidance of discussing mental health:  Whilst here in the UK, the understanding and profile of mental health is growing, there is still a real fear and avoidance of discussing mental health in the same way we do with physical health.  Mental health is still seen as a danger or failure and something we like to describe as ‘other’.  Likewise, in one scene created by our Ugandan participants, they depicted a family desperate to hide their son’s depression from their neighbours, removed him from sight and lied about where he was to avoid judgement.Hiding mental health from the community
  • A struggle of acceptance:  Acceptance and understanding in work, families, and communities is an ongoing battle for people in both the UK & Uganda and something stigma contributes to greatly.  Self acceptance seems a more complex issue to breakdown.  “I am enough” and “This is me” were statements by members in UK & Uganda following the forum theatre participation.  The teamwork, confidence building, shared experience, safe space, trust and acceptance from others was key to enabling self acceptance for participants and to realise that they were good enough.
  • Judgement on wider capabilities:                     p7100555.jpgIn the performance created in the UK & Uganda, the academic / professional capabilities of people experiencing poor mental health were part of the story-line.  Both stories also saw personal and romantic relationships breakdown, where partners were no longer seen as suitable.


  • Never letting go:  Being allowed to recover is often a desire of people who have previously experienced acute mental health problems.  I noticed no difference in the experiences of those people in the UK & Uganda; they described other’s inability to forget them at their worst moments, where they are referred back to even years later often causing feelings of shame and humiliation.


  • A feeling of dis-empowerment:  Not being listened to; lack of control; being spoken down to and having things done to them rather than with them is a common frustration.

We saw differences as equally striking:

  • The concept of contagiousness:  The idea that mental illness can be passed down, caught or damage future generations seemed much more widely believed in Uganda than in the UK.  This also influenced the breakdown of relationships and the idea that people who had mental health challenges should be avoided as a partner.  Many service users had been rejected and deserted.  
  • Causal and recovery beliefs:
    OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAIn the UK, people we know have different theories on the why and how of mental ill health, but these seem very different to beliefs widely held in Uganda.  Traditional healers (which you may have heard people refer to as ‘witch-doctors’) are commonly used to remove spirits, and sometimes it is believed it mental ill health is the result of a previous life or behaviour, which adds to and changes the stigma, blame and isolation faced by people in Uganda.  In the Ugandan play, a traditional healer diagnosed a young man (who the performance creators knew had bipolar) as experiencing a punishment by his step-mother’s jealousy.   Traditional healers and rituals are a well accepted treatment.  Talking therapies are much less widely available in Uganda.  Medication is used widely by UK & Uganda, but interestingly in the UK where I feel the battle is to empower people to be less reliant on medication; in Uganda, the health sector is trying to encourage people to use, trust and rely on it much more for psychological problems. 

The radical in the mundane

Strong and trusted relationships, where open and supportive conversations can take place, and problems can be shared are overwhelmingly what increases chances of long-term recovery, but stigma stifles.  The ability to hold meaningful and non-judgemental conversations about mental health seems so simple, yet so difficult for either country to achieve.  Both Forum Theatre performances saw the ‘spectactors’ step in to try out holding difficult conversations; negotiating ways to sensitively support people in need, and challenge others to rethink damaging stereotypes and stigma.  The outcome on the characters was massive.  Characters who were isolated, humiliated or feared, became able to be involved, valued and with purpose.  Talking and treating others with empathy and respect, even at times where this might seem most difficult, seems an obvious, almost mundane answer to overcoming oppression, trauma and stigma.  However, the Forum Theatre showed us these conversations could be life changing.  One person’s words influenced not only those characters who were in times of inner turmoil, but reduced wider societal fear, increased understanding, and impacted on the way other people acted:  This is when the mundane becomes radical.

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I would like to end this blog with the words of Uganda’s Health Minister Dr Hafsa Lukwata, who not only attended the Forum Theatre performance, but who was an active spectator, stepped onto the stage and took responsibility for the experiences of the vulnerable characters… Characters who were in essence the same as those people who were acting them.

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With thanks to Butabika Hospital, all the participants and Sharing Stories

Applied Theatre – Measuring What Works And What Matters (and really believing it).


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Believe me… 

I know, I feel and I see that what Odd Arts does – works. It changes people’s way of thinking and seeing the world; it opens up new opportunities through self-belief and realisation of personal ability; it empowers people to find ways to challenge the things or people that harm us.  Proving this is another matter.  Of course, we should have to prove we make a difference.  There is ever growing scepticism of charity morals and we are at a time of national austerity – proving our impact is necessary and right.

Within its 15 year history, Odd Arts has of course evaluated it’s work.  We have used a lot of techniques: Before and after questionnaires;  Case-studies; Recording indicators for change (all the usual suspects).  Often showing a journey of real change and impact.  However, there have been a few things happen in 2018 that made me really question how authentic this is, resulting in a complete shift in attitude towards data collection, evidence and evaluation.

Did I always believe what our data told us?  No.  Did it mean we did our job better and served our beneficiaries better?  No.  Did it help us tick boxes and gain funding?  Yes.  Our past response:  “It’s out of our hands” 

This response is not reflective of the values of our organisation.

This is why we have changed.

Telling us one thing, but knowing another…


Let me explain.  Recently I took part in Social Value UK’s Impact Management Training.  It gave me a little time to sit back and think about the WHAT and the WHY of evaluation and reflect on some of our findings.  It made me think in particular about a recent project and the data it produced:

In this project, we worked with men in a community rehabilitation unit (Langley House Trust) delivering workshops around issues relating to resettlement.  The male ex-offenders all developed their own interactive forum theatre piece based on their lives and experiences, in order to re-imagine their future and resolve past issues.  The project was everything we hope for as applied theatre practitioners:  Meaningful; personal; supportive and with the capacity to be life-changing.  However, the questionnaires from the men told me that they had less confidence; fewer employment skills and a reduced ability to work with others.  I knew this simply wasn’t true.

Similarly, I have worked on projects where participants on paper show a zero to hero transition, suggesting they had no ability at the beginning of a project, yet on completion were now demonstrating exemplary employment skills and sky high confidence, when you really know this journey was no where near as black and white and was, in fact, far more subtle.  The self-evaluation questions we have used for years rely on the ability to honestly and effectively reflect on our personal state of being, participants mark themselves between 0 and 6 on their skills in different areas.  But what if, at the beginning of a course, the participant has never reflected on their well-being and confidence, and has no idea what critical thinking skills are?  Surely by participating in a project that builds these skills enables them to understand what they mean.  Surely part of that journey is the forming the ability to effectively and realistically evaluate their own being and behaviour.  Sometimes we complete evaluations at the end of a performance and presentation, when spirits are high and participants are buzzing…  But what about 5 days later when they are alone in their prison cell, would the answers be the same?

What does this tell us about the traditional questionnaires?  Maybe they’re meaningless.  Maybe they’re not.  Definitely they’re unreliable as standalone evidence.

This is why we have changed.

It’s out of our hands…  Or is it?


Another experience influencing our shift in attitudes in responding to data was being part of two research reports (with Manchester Metropolitan University and UCLAN).  The researchers from UCLAN’s The Psychosocial Research Unit recognised real benefits to the participants involved in our Creative Leadership programme including:

  • ‘Raised self-esteem, enabling re-evaluation of past ‘failures’ and future opportunities; Developed awareness of imaginative approaches to life and problem-solving; Demonstrated to participants that creative activities offer opportunities for self expression and peer recognition; Enabled participants’ voices to be heard through theatre increasing their ability to communicate; Enabled participants to share and reflect upon apparently intractable issues that might otherwise have remained unexpressed; Developed a feeling of empowerment and personal authority, highlighting aspects of leadership other than rule-bound discipline; Increased appreciation of the nature and benefits of teamwork; Provided an opportunity for pleasure, freedom of thought and a sense of release that was obtained through being able to participate in the creative process’.Screenshot 2018-03-29 at 14.27.18

HOWEVER, they also raised points regarding things they thought could be better or were providing potential setbacks in the programme, these being:

  1. The style of how we encouraged participants to complete accreditation was in complete opposition to the creative, inclusive and exciting style of delivery we pride ourselves on.  We always aim to make learning fun and experiential embedded completely in the creative process.  Our partners asked us to use workbooks they provided to take participants through an accreditation module.  It was evident in our delivery we didn’t ‘believe’ or ‘buy in’ to the workbooks we used. Odd Arts facilitators often tried to persuade learners to complete them through statements like “just write this out quickly and then we can do something fun”…  The underlying message:  Education and qualifications are dull. How did we respond to this feedback? “It’s out of our hands, their books have nothing to do with us” 
  2. Partner staff often posed challenges and could even hold back the achievements of our programme by making obstacles, negative or destructive comments or mocking the young people when they joined in (an experience many applied theatre practitioners are up against).  How did we respond to this feedback? “It’s out of our hands, their staff have nothing to do with us”
  3. Partners often banned particularly contentious discussion topics, whilst allowing others.  To be more specific, in one unit where we were working with children who had been victim and perpetrators of sexual violence we were told to under no circumstances talk about this issue.  We were however allowed to discuss issues such as gang violence, drugs, bullying and other offending behaviour.  Everyone (including the children) knew we must know about the sex-related crimes and we all knew no-one would bring it up…  It became the elephant in the room, especially when discussing issues around ‘personal barriers’.  The underlying message:  This is something to be ashamed of and that should never be spoken about, and that other violent or gang related behaviour was more acceptable.  How did we respond to this feedback? “It’s out of our hands, their policy has nothing to do with us”
  4. Partners might feel threatened or fearful of our work:  Will it damage the young people they work with?  Will it show them up?  Will it mean their job or role has less meaning?  How did we respond to this feedback? “Nothing to do with us…”

Our response to all of the above points is not ‘restorative’, is not ‘strengths based’ and is  absolutely not reflective of the values of our organisation.   This is why we have changed.  

“It is in our hands and has everything to do with us”…

So, we say we have changed.  Here’s how.

Accreditation:  What do we do now?

  • Follow the approach we have to wider learning which throws out of the window traditional desk based learning and use experiential, visual, audio, and creative ways to measure and record the criteria needed for gaining accreditation
  • If the qualification can only be achieved through desk based write ups then it’s not for Odd Arts
  • We have created a series of art-work postcards that help participants complete the evidence based element of the accreditation.  They are nice to touch and look at and something to be proud of and keepScreenshot 2018-03-29 at 14.28.35

Evaluation:  What do we do now?

  • Don’t evaluate anything we believe is meaningless or box ticking
  • Record things we feel are meaningful but may not be obvious
  • Evaluate to better ourselves and our service and not only for funding
  • Don’t promise to ‘prove’ change beyond our means
  • Scrap a ‘blanket approach’
  • Select data collection methods from a series of evaluation mechanisms that can swap and change to meet the needs of our participants
  • Ensure evaluation is inclusive, embedded and creative
  • When we know we can’t provide evidence to the level needed, stick to what we’re good at (delivering the programme) and find funding for external researchers
  • Ensure our staff understand the aims of Odd Arts and their projects so that data collection can be steered towards answering these
  • Be open to learning things we didn’t anticipate:  The unexpected outcomes
  • If we don’t care we don’t record it
  • Be open to change in response to what the data tells us (we will make mistakes and from this, get better)Partnerships:  What do we know now?


Before delivering any key programme of work we now incorporate an introductory training and vision sharing session with partner staff.  The aims of this are to:

  • Build trust and positive relationships with partners
  • Outline expectations and roles from both sides
  • Include partners in the programme plan, value their experience and knowledge
  • Listen and respond to the needs of partners
  • Be willing to learn from partners
  • Provide an experiential understanding of how we work and the theories behind it to reduce fear (with the view that we might even be allowed to address the elephant in the room and reduce risk of reaffirming shame and stigma)
  • Allow space for potential challenges to be discussed and find potential solutions to it
  • Inspire creativity with partners

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Why did this take so long?

Reflecting on the impact of the external factors influencing your work is something many of us (including myself) rarely find the time to do.  With the best intentions we focus on programme content and learner needs.  But if the impact of external partners, accreditation and data collection is done in a way that is detrimental to our delivery then we need to find the time to respond to this.  We also need to be honest about which data has the potential for real impact.

Odd Arts is an organisation that prides itself on a restorative approach, creativity, innovation and inclusivity.  As long as we extend our values to every part of our organisation – even the boring bits 😉 – then we create more opportunities for ourselves, the people and the organisations we work with.


Isolation to Radicalisation… What do we know now?

As someone following Odd Arts you are most probably already aware of our project  ‘Isolation to Radicalisation’.  Over the last 6 months we have documented our journey ‘posting’  quotes, pictures and daily reflections of the workshops online.

As noted in much more detail in our previous blog: ‘Manchester & Boston Radical Exchange’, the workshop includes a theatre performance highlighting authentic divisions around race, religion, and politics between 3 vulnerable college students.  These issues are not dealt with, and the result… all the  characters end up in grave risk of social isolation and radicalisation.  Within the performance we highlight warning signs and triggers; and characters follow a common process seen in the route to radicalisation:

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The performance looks at far right and DAESH inspired radicalisation.  *We try to refer to ‘DAESH’ rather than ‘Islamic State’ to avoid it being confused as something reflecting Islamic practice.

The workshop uses an interactive theatre technique to bring in audience members to try and influence the outcomes and prevent the harm being done.

Now we do not profess to be specialists in terrorism and extremism, nor do we understand fully all the vast and complex international and internal politics that underpin much of the dangerous extremist behaviours and attitudes that exist.  However, we are highly experienced in holding difficult conversations, we have worked for over 15 years with vulnerable, excluded and isolated groups, and we have a good understanding of safeguarding issues and vulnerabilities that make people more likely to take part in high risk behaviours.  In the past 5 months we have worked with over 4500 young people, exploring issues around radicalisation, and wanted to share some of the key findings from doing so.

Our top ten tips for effective work around radicalisation:

  1. Stop avoiding the difficult and awkward conversations: 

    We all know when it’s going on:  Racism, Islamophobia; Anti-immigration attitudes, in other words ‘blaming the other’.  Often we can find a way to avoid dealing with it:  “I don’t know enough about it”, “They don’t mean it”, “People are entitled to their own opinion”, “I wouldn’t know what to say”…  All valid concerns BUT who said you need to have answers.  We don’t need answers, we don’t need arguments but we do need to to talk to one another.  The more we listen, the more people are willing to open up and the more we understand about why other people (and ourselves) think the way we do.  Are they / we angry, upset, fearful?  Understanding the way each other feels means we can unpick attitudes, increase critical thinking and encourage new ways of seeing the world.

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We were blown away by the young people’s willingness and openness to change.  Notably more than many adult groups we work with, many of the young people would accept they had understood something wrong, critical of their own behaviour and honest about what they had learnt.

2.  Preaching and shouting doesn’t work:  

Often our gut instinct to tackle divisive, hateful or opposing attitudes to our own is to point our all the reason’s why we think THEY’RE WRONG.  But ask yourself, have you ever witnessed this:

a: (to b) “You’re racist”

b: (in response) “oh yeah sorry I will stop being a racist now”

Although we want to ‘call people out’, often this approach is ineffective.  Instead of             blaming, shouting or pushing people away, can you find a different way to really                 challenge them?  “Why do you think that?”,  “Tell me more about what you mean                   there”,  “I hear what you’re saying, you’re angry, I can see why, but I think…”  This will           once again open up a conversation and give more opportunities to challenge in a               meaningful way.  Which leads me on to my next point…

3. Validate people’s feelings: 

People that are compelled to ‘do something’ be it ‘good’, or ‘bad’ are usually responding to strong feelings.  Anger, hate, grief, injustice, jealousy, shame, sadness.  When we try to gloss over negative feelings, it does not make them go away.  A good example of this is when I say to my husband “That upset me” and his response is “well that’s stupid, you shouldn’t get upset about that”.  Often I’m not looking for an answer, but simply to be acknowledged:  “I can see that would upset you” *

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If we want people to be less of a danger to themselves or others don’t deny their feelings, validate them.  Acknowledge, without judgement what turmoil they may be going through and see if this makes them more open to talking, and eventually possibly more open to new ways of thinking.

*Note to self, send this to my husband 🙂

4.  Be authentic:

Our first attempts at the performance were difficult.  We felt the well know ‘fear of offending’ that often accompanies work around radicalisation.  During one focus group someone pulled us up on one of the characters…  “I don’t believe in him.  This isn’t genuine.  It isn’t enough for me to invest or care about him…” .  Straight away we knew what was missing:  An authentic voice.  We had avoided some of the most upsetting and political voices out of fear of upsetting someone, but without these the performance was pointless because it didn’t hit that nerve, it wasn’t authentic.  We went back to the drawing board and wrote into the script what deep down we knew already, and we voiced the elephant in the room.  This was one of the best decisions we made.  Young people who watch the performance time and time again said: “this is me”, “this is true”, “it’s real” – and it’s this authenticity that has enabled some of the most meaningful conversations.  One young person disclosed: ‘I think I am being radicalised’*, something that was discussed in our workshop was real, relevant and relatable to them.

*All necessary safeguarding was put in place

Above photo, Odd Arts & actors trying to overcome initial challenges at rehearsal stage…

5.  See radicalisation as a safeguarding issue:

Often people feel confident in addressing a young person at risk, with increased vulnerabilities.  We aren’t frightened to discuss issues around drugs, sex, truancy, offending behaviour because we know we must respond with positive interventions and refer people to specialists or agencies who can prevent further harm.  This is no different to a young person at risk of radicalisation.  Approaching radicalisation as we do any other safeguarding concern makes it something many more people understand and have the confidence to deal with.

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6.  Teach skills:

After reading over 4000 feedback forms you really do get a feel for what’s needed!  An unexpected outcome from this work, is the value young people themselves gave to learning new conflict resolution, restorative and critical thinking skills.  The interactive theatre performance asked them to think outside of the box, question why we act and feel like we do, be aware of the media influence, and find new (less aggressive) ways to challenge and combat hate and division.

Teachers and youth workers, as much as students, were enthusiastic to learn techniques and tactics for dealing with conflict and responding to challenging attitudes.  Investment in these skills would hugely benefit community cohesion and resilience.

   7.  Avoid reaffirming stereotypes:

Muslim women are like this….

Immigrants are like this….

Middle class white people are like this…

Young black men are like this…

Teachers are like this…

See people as an individuals, with their own story, their own personality and their own identity.  The more buy in to the idea of the ‘other’ the more likely we are to creative a divisive and more dangerous society.

   8.  Question yourself, question your concept of the ‘radical’:

Try to be aware of your own perceptions.  Your take on the world is neither wrong or right.  Are you  Corbynite?  Are you a Brexiteer? Are you a strict vegan?  Are you very religious?  Are you a sports fanatic?  Could YOU be seen as extreme or radical?

Radicalisation is not a static state, it is a continuum people can drift up and down.  At the lowest stage you have VERY STRONG OPINIONS, and right at the other end you have EXTREMIST TERRORISM.  Do you sit on this continuum with any of your views?  Is there a line where things go to far?  Don’t be scared of any radicals… After all Manchester is known for the rebel and radical Emmeline Pankhurst, and where would we be without her!

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9.  Know your job is never done:

This isn’t a one off conversation.  Dealing with radicalisation needs to be a community wide approach.  We need to hold these difficult conversations, question one another, and think critically long term.  Dealing with the risk of radicalisation means dealing with isolated and vulnerable people.  This does not mean daily discussions about extremist views, instead we should be normalising conversations about feelings, attitudes, justice, inequalities and how we understand the world.  ‘Dealing with radicalisation’ is not something we can ever tick off as ‘done’, rather it is an approach to life and the way we interact with one another and society.

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10.  Deal with the issue before it’s an issue!:

The process of radicalisation (as drawn above) is complex and abstract.  We will never know for sure if a someone was going to be exploited, groomed, or radicalised.  Why wait?  If you see signs of isolation, vulnerability, sadness, loneliness, fear, disengagement with society, or someone merely struggling to fit in, then deal with the issue you face.  We can all take more responsibility and be more socially active by communicating more, and helping people feel safe, giving a greater sense of belonging, greater self worth and improved well-being.  THIS is the first stage to tackling radicalisation.

With huge thanks to Manchester City Council who supported this programme of work, and the development of it.









Manchester & Boston Radical Exchange: Shared approaches to tackling radicalisation & extremism

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You may be wondering why Odd Arts, a theatre & arts organisation is writing about a U.S. Embassy exchange between Manchester & Boston on ‘countering violent extremism’ – unless you are already aware of the type of work we do.  For those of you who don’t know, in short, we use theatre and the arts to challenge attitudes & behaviours, increase opportunities, reduce people’s risk and increase community cohesion – and have done for 15 years now.  More recently and relevantly, we have delivered work specifically around ‘radicalisation’, to 1000’s of young people and also to 100’s of professionals in partnership with Manchester City Council and Manchester High Schools.

Radicalisation is a complex, vast and contentious issue.  Society has generally been sceptical of the Home Office PREVENT strategy, and often people avoid the subject matter out of fear of offending or worsening a situation, and sometimes because they simply don’t know what it means…  And this is understandable!  In a nutshell, the approach we take to tackling radicalisation is:

  • Allowing people to explore the meaning – understanding that being radical can be a good thing, and understanding when radical views might become dangerous, and in extreme cases, potentially terrorism
  • Encouraging difficult conversations, where people voice their fears, prejudices and perceptions of the world especially around issues such as politics, religion, immigration and race
  • Promoting critical thinking so that people can understand where their own and other’s viewpoints come from
  • Challenging & exploring hateful or divisive attitudes without blame
  • Supporting people to become active citizens that promote inclusion and social cohesion
  • Highlighting the vulnerability or risk factors that make individuals more susceptible to being groomed or radicalised


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The work we deliver to do this includes a theatre piece and interactive workshop that involves three characters:  One young man with far right involvement; another DAESH inspired young man; and a female  Muslim also struggling to ‘fit in’ due to the society she lives in and wider Islamophobia.  The ‘forum theatre’ piece (inspired by Augusto Boal’s work) later invites the audience member to intervene and try out solutions they feel will help to support the young people in the performance and prevent them leading dangerous or harmful paths.  The audience practice conflict resolution, negotiating skills and empathy – transferable skills we hope will support them in ‘real life situations’.  The response has been fascinating – perhaps another blog once the full evaluation of around 3500 participants has been completed!

This project, alongside other work we deliver around identity and belonging, is how we received our invite to participate in the U.S Embassy’s exchange between Manchester and Boston to Counter Violent Extremism.  We went alongside representatives from Greater Manchester Police, Manchester City Council, Levenshulme High School, Manchester Central Mosque, and Community on Solid Ground.

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Below I have written diary like notes of my learning journey in Washington, then Boston, and finally tried to summarise the main things I have taken away from this exchange.

Dec 4th, Melrose Hotel:  Federalism Briefing

Fascinating overview and context of U.S. Government.  Emphasis on States encouraging ‘individual initiative’ and ‘bottom up’ approach.  Strategies have to be formed by civil societies themselves – never from Government.

 “No law can be made against freedom of speech” meaning hate laws cannot be made.  Government is forbidden to say what religion is and always separates Government from Religion (in order to protect interference)…  I think this explains a lot about Trump’s ability to share certain ‘religious hate’ views that some here in the UK feel would be illegal.  

85% work in the private sector and therefor strategies always have to involve business.

Federal states is the equivalent to 50 flags – 50 different sets of laws.  No National Curriculum, no NHS, and 1000’s of Law Enforcement Agencies.

Key learning / questions:

  • U.S. approach to radicalisation cannot be directly compared to UK due to such hugely differing Governance

  • Could we extract more of the ‘bottom up’ approach into our work?

  • Could UK ever have such integrated involvement with community, society and the business and private sector?



Dec 4th, U.S. Dept of State’s Office of Countering Violent Extremism

Reflection on programme aims, content and context

Dec 4th, George Washington University, Program on Extremism 

Researcher suggests there is no real concerted effort to deal with the issue of CVE in U.S. and that central Government is not pushing it and the FBI is not prioritising prevention.  No mention of ‘Neo-Nazi’ or White extremism.  Suprised to hear how little researchers think is being done in ‘soft terrorist prevention’.

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Dec 5th, World Organisation for Resource Development and Education

A good example of ‘prevention’ work that reflects many of our UK approaches, including work around ‘vulnerabilities’ and ‘inclusion’, ‘community engagement’ and a ‘whole community approach’.  It aims to: Connect – Engage – Intervene – Educate

Clearly work IS being done, but it isn’t part of a wider Government strategy.

Dec 5th, Dept of Homeland Security

Interesting to hear how the DHS has recognised that embedding RESPECT and RELIGIOUS ACTIVITY UNDERSTANDING is critical to ensuring people’s civil right’s should not be impinged.  They have introduced ‘Cultural Competency Training’ to security staff.  Interesting to hear that 96% of Washington people VOTED AGAINST the current U.S. president.


Key learning / questions:

  • The overriding values of ‘respect, inclusion, acceptance and diversity’ came across – the absolute opposite to that of their current President (I personally believe).  Interesting to see how people have managed to maintain these values under the current President Trump – perhaps a sign of Federalism in action – never giving too much power to the Government.

  • The 50 State laws and local governments means that a wider knowledge of one another’s work seems impossible.  While Washington University says prevention work is not happening widely or strategically, clearly many pockets or individual States and people are taking a lead on this.

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A picture here with me, my youngest child (who the Embassy kindly let go on the trip as still nursed by me, along with some of the other delegates).

Dec 5th, Center for Islam and Religious Freedom

We met with a previously convicted terrorist who had been released Dec 2016 following a 13 year stint in prison.  Fascinating to see how he as a ‘reformed’ individual understood and analysed  his ‘former’ self.  It gave a real insight into the mindset of a convicted terrorist.  Also really interesting to see how he see’s himself as more of a “80’s, 90’s freedom fighter” and separates himself entirely from the DAESH inspired terrorists who “wage war against all humanity”.

Dec 6th, Travel from Washington to Boston

This was not an enjoyable or restful flight with my baby!


Dec 7th, Boston Police Dept



Totally inspired by their work.  Really progressive dept.  Fantastic multi-agency ‘out-of-the-box’ approach to tackle gun crime.  The Boston wider Policing picture is quite unbelievable (when compared the Manchester).  The City has 260-280 shootings per year (mostly within a 2 mile radius).  They were at an all time LOW last year of 40 homicides through shootings!  The City is comparable size to Manchester, but the gun laws mean the picture is hugely different.  We came in to the meeting following a night where 3 young people were shot, 1 fatal.  Within the City they estimate 120 different gangs  or groups.  

Partnership work with social workers, youth leaders, sports and education organisations is critical.  Massive effort to deal with post traumatic distress.  They recognise that the CHRONIC EXPOSURE TO MULTIPLE FORMS OF VIOLENCE needs addressing.  They try to LIFT UP NOT LOCK UP.  Businesses very supportive in funding (with tax break) many of the services that support young people in gang related areas / situations.  

Key learning / questions:

  • We NEED to deal support young people in South Manchester who have witnessed violent / traumatic incidents, and not only with those immediately impacted.  Whole communities can suffer from PTSD when a murder / violent episode happens to the people they know and community they belong to.  I think Boston is way ahead of us in multi-agency working and effective response to trauma.

  • Boston clearly understands effective and progressive way to  deal with ‘gang related’ and ‘violent young people’ but not specifically with potentially radicalised young people.  This is probably because the gun laws and homicides make it a matter they cannot ignore.  The subject of ‘radicalisation’ seems somewhat ignored.

Dec 7th, Emergency Services and Resilience

Like Manchester, the people of Boston were resilient and the city was proud of the emergency service response to the Boston bomb.  


I shouldn’t have, but I did…   This is me above determined (and successful) in getting on the big screen an a basketball match we went to one evening!

Dec 7th, One World Strong Foundation

Survivors of Boston bomb come together to support victims of other terrorist acts.  Clearly this is hugely beneficial to the ‘survivors’ who are part of the group, and many people they visit.  My concerns are that not all survivors of a terrorist attack would want this initiative.  For those who state individual choice to receive this support it could be fantastic.  I would be interested to hear more about how they know people want this intervention and how they safeguard the people they visit as they want to see them at times of extreme vulnerability and may not be trained to deal with this.

Dec 8th, Rebuilding Every Community Around Peace (RECAP) 

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Meeting with the inspiring Baptist Minister Rev Jeffrey Brown, known to be responsible for the ‘Boston Miracle’ which saw a 79% reduction in homicide through gang shooting over 8 years.  He spoke of the strong and authentic partnership with Boston Police and how this was built over many years.  Spoke of the difficulty but importance in not working solo and bringing together all agencies.  Over the years he has set up midnight basketball sessions, peace walks every week, being on the scene following every murder, having young people call him at any time.  He spoke of listening and not preaching to the young people and not expecting them to attend his Church as part of this relationship.  The Church stopped looking at youth as a problem to be solved.  

As violence goes down it UNLOCKS ECONOMIC POTENTIAL.  Rev Jeffrey is trying to engage more business and real estate in the area.  

What an amazing man.  His Church was one that Martin Luther King was heavily involved with and preached at!  Fantastic to see the pictures of Martin Luther around the Church.


Key learning / questions:

  • Do more!  Give your all!  Never become complacent.

  • Could we deliver workshops through the night?  Midnight sessions?  Create safe havens?  This is when young people are out on the street with often least safety but most danger.  How would we safeguard this?

Screenshot 2017-12-19 at 11.32.35.png Boston snow.

Dec 8th, InnerCity Weightlifting (ICW)

A fantastic youth organisation based at a secret location.  It engages people still involved in or associated with gangs through weightlifting, and provides wrap around support and signposting as well as training them up to become professional, paid, personal trainers.  A different centre is created for each gang (or those that can be associated with one another), so that rivals will not end up in the same centre.  They have someone (an ex gang member out of prison) committed to understanding who is and is not safe to be allowed in and security is high.  Their professional clients become friends with the trainers and they become involved in parts of society they have never really engaged with before.  It is very much about trying to break down the hierarchy in society.  Many private organisations fund the work (costing over $1M per year)

It’s main theory follows:

TRUST – HOPE – SOCIAL CAPITAL – ECONOMIC MOBILITY and acts as a social leverage to other opportunities.  To complete the whole journey it would usually take 6 and a half years.

Key learning / questions:

  • Would the UK accept a centre whose rehabilitation programme takes 6.5 years and fund an initiative that took this long?  It should do as this is realistic!

  • The safeguarding seems less ‘conformed’ than in UK – Would / should we ever encourage gym clients in the personal lives and problems of the people who are training them (that are associated with very dangerous gangs)?

  • I know about many sports organisations working with ex-offenders or prisoners, but I love the building of these participants into professionals and bringing in private clients – does anywhere do this in UK?

  • Could a rehabilitation community organisation ever be fully privately funded in the UK?  Or does our whole system make this unrealistic.

8th Dec, Islamic Society of Boston Cultural Centre

Busy, vibrant community engaged Mosque that delivers many community programme including how Islam sits within modern society.  This sort of conversation is imperative for reducing the risk of people disengaging from their Mosque to become radicalised. 

8th Dec, Northeastern University, Global Resilience Institute

In U.S.  if they have a National disaster there is no formal process (each State will have their own).  

This dept researchers the wide International approach to Global Resilience – including the holistic approach to managing these events including how we successfully manage the aftermath, resources and internal reaction to the events.

11th Dec, Police Commissioner for Boston Police Dept

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Hugely inspiring, approachable and informal man who reflects and clearly steers the wider approach of his whole force.  

They want to make it clear they will protect immigration, trying to build more trust in communities.  If the Police have to enforce or act on someone in the Muslim community, meetings are held to ensure the community understand why and to make sure it doesn’t damage relations.   

Boston has over 25% of residents born in a different country.  

The force has an ice-cream / hot chocolate van to hand out free refreshments to communities in crisis in order to hold conversations and build relations.  The force gives our Christmas presents and Police have shopping trips with the people from the most deprived communities.  The staff play basketball and football with the same people they may have arrested the night before.  Real ‘on the ground’ relationships.  

Key learning / questions:

  • How do we build this level of communication and trust within our communities and GMP?

  • How could we pull in the same sorts of funding to Policing in UK when Boston receives huge amounts from private businesses?

  • Will the values of this force remain when this commissioner leaves?  They seem to be embedded within all levels / teams within Boston Police and not just one dept.

11th Dec, Medical Intelligence Centre

“Envisions a resilient Boston through healthy, informed and connected communities”.

It trains people in communication skills to deal with public health disasters or issues and equipping young people with ‘what to do’ in these emergencies.  They have Neighbourhood Trauma Teams and also train people to deal with PTSD.  Young people can request psychological 1st aid – it is voluntary.  It includes 8 core actions for dealing with PTSD as well as stabilising and resilience techniques.

Key learning / questions:

  • We must do more to deal with PTSD within communities

  • Can we train young people, communities, youth workers in ‘psychological first aid’ or the equivalent of this?

  • Can I find PTSD / psychological first aid training for Odd Arts staff – we must do more in this area!

11th Dec, Urbano


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An arts exhibition and engagement centre working with professional artists and communities for ‘transformation, community cohesion and social change’.  Lovely use of art to explore identity, immigration and belonging (very related to our conversation around radicalisation and the vulnerabilities that lead to it), using suitcases as the canvas.  Also an exhibition of melted down amnesty guns to create spades that were used to rebuild / replant areas of the city.  

11th Dec, Boston Children’s Hospital, Refugee Trauma and Resilience Centre

Another example of what I would call a radicalisation ‘prevention’ programme working with minority communities, vulnerable people and holding difficult conversations – run by a clinical psychologist and clinical social worker.  They highlighted that discrimination is as much of an indicator as trauma to mental ill health.  Their approach reflects the approach we take in Manchester and the ‘Radeqaul’ programme and Prevent strategy.  This seemed the most similar to the way we work – but a one off / small example (working with only 12 people on their current programme).  

11th Dec, Cocktail Reception hosted by British Consulate-General of Boston

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12th Dec, Commonwealth Fusion Center

A Nationwide Suspicious Activity Initiative (where equivalent UK channel referrals would go – but U.S. has no equivalent – they were very interested in how our PREVENT strategy worked).

12th Dec, Massachusetts Emergency Management Agency

Based in a bunker designed to withhold a Nuclear War!  Includes full ‘preparedness’ policies.  Shows how many more ‘natural disaster’ emergencies U.S. deals with compared to U.K but less on public perception / viewpoints.

My Summary.

So, reflecting on all these experiences, what have I learnt?  I do believe Manchester (and in some ways the whole of the UK) does have great partnerships, communication and a shared vision around tackling hate crime, radicalisation and extremism – in a way that would always be more complicated for the U.S. and Boston due the the size of the Country and set of of their Government.  Gun crime and gang violence is such a real issue in Boston and U.S. that radicalisation seems to be ‘less urgent’ an issue for them to explore, especially when “those at the top aren’t interested”.  Manchester has a lot to share with Boston around a wider city approach to trying to increase community cohesion and engage communities with the ‘difficult conversations’ needed.  We have a lot to learn and take from the innovative and in many ways daring approach that Boston takes to engaging young people involved in gangs and reducing wider harm.  I don’t have many ‘answers’ following the trip, however I do have many things I will definitely explore with the view to change the way we work for the better in the future, which include:

  • How can we incorporate more ‘Psychological 1st aid’ training into our sessions

  • How can Odd Arts and the community help young people in areas where youth violence is high, deal with PTSD.

  • Would it ever be safe, feasible or useful to deliver workshops through the night (midnight – 4am) when young people are potentially at their most vulnerable?

  • How can we have a more ‘bottom up’ approach to our work and involve the community and individuals from the start and at every stage?

  • Partnership, shared learning / vision, and multi-agency working is key to tackling radicalisation.  We must all  “leave our ego’s at the door” and work together to make Manchester a safer and more cohesive City.

With huge thanks to the U.S Embassy, Cultural Visitas and World Boston for organising such a fruitful trip.  We look forward to hosting the Boston delegation in January.

odd arts

My experience with Odd Arts

Welcome to The Odd Arts’ blog, I am Selina and I will be blogging about my experience. Odd arts develop and deliver issue based drama and arts programmes for vulnerable and hard to reach young people around The North West and mainly work with the criminal justice system.

I took part in Project8, This was held at a Local Youth club Powerhouse in Moss Side. Odd Arts collaborated with Rathbone to do this workshop around Mental Heath and to help us learn about Leadership skills which the goal was to help work on presentation skills, team work, coping with problems and to help with confidence and creativity of the young people.

On the project not everyone knew each other at first. we began with icebreakers and games to begin the sessions and to get to know each other more. As the sessions moved on we were introduced to the day to day issues that may effect our/ others mental health.

We then did this really interesting activity which I enjoyed. As a group we created a person, where we all wrote down day to day issues that teenagers may face around this picture of the girl that we named Naveah who was 18 and had just left college. For example, Some of the issues where that; she fell into a controlling relationship with a drug dealer, she felt isolated from all her friends and family and was lured into the world of drugs which she relied on.

We created a story by putting all these issues on a timeline where Eventually we created a story about Naveah and the others characters who were involved in her life. Each of us picked a character who we created. For Example I chose Naveahs Mother “Jackie” her husband was in jail, the mother was stressed and had a responsibility of a new baby. Naveah and the mothers relationship wasn’t great as Naveah had left home because of the arguments etc.

I really liked doing the review of characters because I felt I could slightly relate to the character because some of the issues related to people I knew and life events which were slightly similar. We did this activity to get into more depth with the Characters. We then devised our own short performance. (Non scripted) we improvised our own knowledge into these characters.

During these few weeks we also went to watch a performance about Knife Crime at Z-arts which was created by a group of young people in Manchester called “Raising Aspirations “. We then expanded on our characters while creating this performance.

After a few weeks of creating this performance we then performed it at Manchester Metropolitan University to the other group of young people, we followed our performance with workshops that we Planned in groups to raise mental health/ drug awareness to the young people.

Part taking in this project has helped me gain some work experience with The Odd Arts where I have been looking at how they plan there projects as well as helping with some similar upcoming projects looking at scrips. I will also be looking at there social media websites and I’m looking forward to doing photography and filming during a workshop next week with The big music Project.

Selina Ali