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Focus: Arts with benefits

March 01 2015
Herman Stephens at Benefit rehearsals. © Richard Davenport Herman Stephens at Benefit rehearsals. © Richard Davenport
Cardboard Citizens’ new play asks whether the benefits system is working

Craig suffers from a sex addiction that is destroying his relationship, Rosa is haunted by the history of her Chilean family, and Patrick is near-speechless in the face of the Kafkaesque world that is the support system in the UK today.

Welcome to Benefit, a new production by theatre company Cardboard Citizens, who have been making theatre with, and for, homeless people for over 20 years. Next month, it starts its UK tour of the production, deliberately programmed in the months leading up to the general election in an attempt to provoke debate about whether our benefit system is working.

As with all their productions, the audience is invited to watch the play and then discuss how it might have been different; what changes should be made, can they come on stage and show how it should have been done? And there is another difference: all the actors on stage have been homeless themselves and though they audition and are paid Equity rates to take part in professional performances, most have come through the workshops and community shows that are at the heart of Cardboard Citizens.

“We’ve been doing this for some time and I think we can tell these stories with an extra punch because our actors have a connection with the material,” reckons Adrian Jackson, director. “It’s more powerful because of that. We believe that the fact that our performers know what they are talking about makes the difference.”

And it’s not just looking for credibility in its theatre audiences, but also in those who come along to the day centre performances. It is about inspiring people to take part and kickstart a new journey.

In terms of the positive impact of the arts, the evidence is pretty conclusive. Be it acting, music, performance, painting, singing, film, writing or other forms, engaging in creative projects can help people rebuild their lives.

The latest research into this comes from Homeless Link, which found participation had a therapeutic effect and not only helped people recover from issues including mental health problems and addictions, but also helped them develop new skills.

Katee Woods, of creative arts charity Create, which works with homeless and other excluded people on a range of projects from visual arts to music and dance, agrees.

“From the outside, food or shelter may seem like more important priorities, but addressing issues like isolation, self-esteem, and confidence help to break cycles of homelessness,” she says.

Before Jack started attending Create, he had lost all his confidence and was struggling with alcoholism. He says: “The workshops helped me get the difficulties of my life in perspective. They showed me that I am a valid person and that I’m allowed to have a point of view.” Jack has now started running his own music workshops at the centre and is training to be a counsellor.

“Taking on a new activity can be part of facing and meeting small challenges; small steps that result in facing bigger challenges in people’s lives,” says Ellie Raymont, of Streetwise Opera. “Coming to a session here, singing, tackling opera, and singing a solo are all small challenges that can show people what they are really capable of.”

Whatever the creative pursuit and the artistic output, this is the real advantage of participation in the arts: the self-belief and realisation of achievement. Pride in work and a sense of purpose are hugely important in envisaging a successful future and working towards that future.

Back at Cardboard Citizens, it’s time for the actors to get back to rehearsals. When they open this month it’s not just the critics they are hoping to wow. It’s also a chance to plant a seed in someone’s mind that it could be them up there; maybe it could even be you.

Read Adrian Jackson’s interview:

Find out more

Cardboard Citizens:
Open Cinema:
Streetwise Opera:

Art on a mission

Caroline McCue, from our Word on the Street team, will this month see her art work displayed as part of the Glasgow City Mission’s exhibition. She explains why their art classes are so important.

When I first got into art, it was just for fun and to help me relax. I joined an art class at Glasgow's City Mission with other budding artists who had been homeless, ill or had mental health issues. I didn’t have high expectations to begin with as my confidence was low. Even if I was told my work was good, I didn’t believe it.

But art helped to lift my depression – I felt like I’d just missed the last six months of my life because of my illness. The art class, where I looked forward to meeting people, was the perfect antidote.

I find I am a lot more creative and positive in my outlook after an art session at the City Mission. The class is warm, welcoming and supportive; it’s ‘me time’.

In the last year I’ve found I have a passion for art and love anything from abstract work to still life studies and landscapes. I especially love making mixed media work using acrylics and watercolour ink, and textiles.

One of my favourites of my own art pieces is a large work of art of runners,  in bright colours, blue, orange, yellow. I was inspired by the Commonwealth Games, which I loved, and also by my brother who won many trophies running.

I’m beginning to believe in myself now, though I’ve still got a lot to learn: I have never worked in oils and I haven’t done many watercolours – that’s my next challenge. Who knows? One day I may produce a masterpiece!

I’ve learnt about contemporary artists – Joan Eardley is a favourite – and I’m now doing a module in Expressive Art at another nearby charity, the Marie Trust.

I feel everyone should have the same chance to pick up a paintbrush and find inspiration from other artists and the world around them.

The City Mission’s exhibition is really the icing on the cake for me, and I’ve been working hard to prepare as much work as possible for it. Hope to see you there!

Glasgow City Mission’s new art exhibition features work by homeless and socially marginalised participants. Open 15 March, 2–5pm, and 16 and 17 March, 12–6pm, at Glasgow City Mission, Crimea St, G2 8PW.