8 March 2021 / Grants and Awards

‘You turn up and all’: Valuing participatory arts online

image: The Company with No Name (taken before lockdown)

Dr Aylwyn Walsh (University of Leeds/ Ministry of Untold Stories) received one of our Covid-19 Support grants last year to to research and create a Leeds-based Playback Theatre group with those affected by mental health and the stigma associated with it.

Lockdown has meant that theatre practices have changed significantly, and that is nowhere as evident as the participatory arts sector that pivoted to working online to engage communities in order to keep access to the arts alive for people otherwise facing isolation.

Across the UK, the experiences resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic have drawn attention to structural inequalities (poverty, loss of income and loss of purposeful activity). In due course, there will be emerging evidence on successive lockdowns exacerbating mental ill health; resulting from isolation – feeling disconnected from community. For many, living conditions (including the need for home schooling, or lack of privacy because others are working from home) plays an ever more increasing role in health & wellbeing. People’s capacities to withstand un-ending grief and loss caused by illness, bereavement and lack of hope has also impacted how people engage in creative self-expression. This context involves complex tensions as people navigate working from home, socialising alone and finding connection online, even as the so-called ‘digital divide’ serves to remind that inequalities persist in shaping how people live.

The Cultural Learning Alliance published the following quote from the All-Party Parliamentary Group on arts, health and wellbeing: ‘the time has come to recognise the powerful contribution the arts can make to our health and wellbeing’ (2018). Imagining beyond contexts of lockdown, this statement is ever more urgent as socially isolated people will need to be looped into existing projects or new projects invented to engage those who have borne the effects of months of challenges (ill health, inequalities and social isolation, and for many, grief and loss).

This context was an important rationale for my decision to continue running participatory arts sessions online throughout lockdown – because in the face of uncertainty, it has been a valuable weekly certainty that there will be space for theatre, play and discussions about characters and improvisation with my wonderful participants.

For the past 4 years I have run sessions with people using mental health services in Leeds. Initially formed as a spin off from Converge, we worked with Leeds Mind to recruit people to join short courses co-facilitated by myself and students of the MA programme I lead at the University of Leeds. The central idea is including people usually excluded from higher education in high quality education in the arts. Having completed the initial 9 weeks, I found that a core group of participants wanted to continue, and so with the notion that we might play, devise and learn about theatre-making together for a few months, we set about as ‘the company with no name’. As the theatre-bug would have it, many of the core participants indicated their interest and enthusiasm for continuing to work together, and we retained a core group of players for the 4 years. In that time, we have worked with people recovering from agoraphobia, severe and moderate depression and anxiety, gender dysphoria, eating disorders, personality disorders along with other mental health concerns. However, mental ill health has not been directly addressed in the sessions. We have devised work around source texts that speak to issues many of us experience: self-doubt and anxiety (Metamorphosis); isolation under late capitalism (working with Kate Tempest’s poems); resistant responses to authority (Fahrenheit 451).

The participatory practice derives from volunteer-led weekly sessions. The project has, over the four years since its inception, engaged 90 Converge students, worked with 17 MA students on the MA Applied Theatre and Intervention University of Leeds to host 3 short courses (2017 – 2019). Out of that initial work, we have formed theatre company ‘the company with no name’ (TCWNN) supported by Ministry of Untold Stories to produce 7 public performances, including at the Love Arts Festival in Leeds. At least 4 participants have gone on to further studies in the arts, 1 graduate has proceeded to employment in third sector volunteer support for mental health and addiction. 10 continue to attend regular weekly sessions under ‘the company with no name’ under COVID restrictions since March 2020, meaning they attend online.

In the paper I am completing at present, I draw on notes from sessions conducted weekly over the lifespan of the project (2017 – 2021). In the online sessions, I routinely gather participant reflections in sessions as well as note practitioner reflections. In addition, with the support of STR, I conducted semi-structured interviews with 5 participants lasting an hour each. I used most of the grant to cover zoom costs so that we’d not be kicked offline. I was also able to pay a graduate of the MA Applied Theatre & Intervention to co-facilitate a workshop on playback theatre (Salas, 2007) as she could draw on experience online with international colleagues during lockdown. Together, we then offered a workshop on Playback Theatre as part of Collective Encounters’ Digital Participatory Arts series (November 2020).

The article moves towards defining an ethos of practice rather than deploy them for the customary approaches in arts and wellbeing which can seem to value clinical needs and measures (Rowe & Reason, 2017), rather than engage with the forms, experience and values inherent to the processes themselves, which is what Elanor Stannage calls ‘the intangible (2017). This can render untold tension with practitioners being compelled to monitor and evaluate in entirely different register from the rest of the session.

Some of the considerations I am working on are how this mode of participatory arts relies on:

  • Creation of ‘Safe space’ (Rohd, 1998) – and how that works online
  • mental health in common but not a focus of direct discussion
  • lack of judgment but still setting standard
  • Empathy, giving and being vulnerable (Larkinson & Rowe, 2003)
  • Space of being heard and respected – a sense of being listened to
  • Feedback focused on skill, technique and craft
  • Identifying people’s strengths in performance
  • Being in a group/ points of connection

In a recent reflection, our eldest participant praised the others saying ‘you turn up and all’ – highlighting the achievement of being present in a moment where presence, co-operation and collaboration are that much harder than before.  I am look forward to sharing the article in due course, with its focus on the form, aesthetics and content of the sessions ‘Tethering: Stories of Knots in participatory performance in mental health’. Many thanks to STR for enabling this opportunity to reflect on participatory practice and honour the work and play of these participants.


Aylwyn is Associate Professor of Performance and Social Change at the University of Leeds’ School of Performance and Cultural Industries. She is programme leader of the MA in Applied Theatre & Intervention and artistic director of Ministry of Untold Stories. Her book Prison Cultures (Intellect, 2019), maps performance, resistance and desire in women’s prisons. Her artistic work has been staged at London’s National Theatre Studio, at the Berlin Biennale and at the National Arts Festival in South Africa.


My thanks to all participants of The Company with No Name for their generosity with each other and their courage and fortitude to keep going during lockdown.

Pics by Fenia Kotsopoulou and Daz Disley (taken in studio prior to COVID)


All-Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) on Arts, Health and Wellbeing (2018). Creative health: the arts for health and wellbeing. Perspectives in Public Health. 138(1): pp. 26 27.

Collective Encounters (2020). Delivering Participatory Theatre During Social Distancing: What’s Working? Available at:

Larkinson, L., Rowe, N. (2003). A ‘playback theatre’ project with users of mental health services, A Life in the Day, 7(3): pp.21-25.

Raw, A. & Robson, M. (2017). Beseiged by inappropriate criteria: Arts organizations developing grounded evaluation approaches, In N. Rowe & M. Reason (eds.) Applied Practice: Evidence and Impact in Theatre, Music and Art. London: Bloomsbury Publishing Plc,  pp.123 – 138.

Rohd, M. (1998). Theatre for Community, Conflict & Dialogue: The Hope is Vital Training Manual. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.

Rowe, N. & Reason, M. (eds.) (2017). Applied Practice: Evidence and Impact in Theatre, Music and Art. London: Bloomsbury Publishing Plc.

Salas, J. (2003). Improvising Real Life: Personal Story in Playback Theatre. Third ed. New Platz, New York: Tusitala.

Stannage, E. (2017). Capturing the intangible: Exploring creative risk-taking through collaborative and creative methods, In N. Rowe & M. Reason (eds.) Applied Practice: Evidence and Impact in Theatre, Music and Art. London: Bloomsbury Publishing Plc, pp.109 – 122.


Is there anything that you are currently working on that might be eligible for one of our Research Grants? We welcome applications from all kinds of theatre researchers – academics, practitioners, independent scholars.  Closing date for 2021 applications is March 26th.
Full details and application form here.