Mental Health archives and drama at Surrey History Centre

Peer Productions
Peer Productions

Dopamine, serotonin, neurosis, psychosis, bipolar disorder,

electroconvulsive therapy, cognitive behavioural therapy.

These words and phrases are now familiar to the student actors from Peer Productions who researched and developed The Mental Health Project.

Directors Nina Lemon and Jason Orbaum were inspired by the Brookwood Hospital archive held at Surrey History Centre to bid for HLF funding to support a drama tracing the history of mental health treatment and exploring attitudes towards sufferers.

Peer Productions is a unique youth arts training company specialising in peer education through theatre. Based at Woking Youth Arts Centre in Surrey, young people (aged 16 to 23 years) are trained as actors and peer educators empowering them to deliver a series of drama and film projects in the community. Each year the theatre tours education performances to schools, colleges and youth clubs in Surrey and beyond.

This unique brand of peer education through theatre is a powerful tool which can make a difference with even the most difficult to reach young people. Much of the work focuses on topics from the PSHE curriculum and productions are designed to work as an integral part of the school curriculum. The Mental Health Project performance was toured around 33 secondary schools in Surrey in Summer 2009 and filmed during the academic year 2009/10 to be offered to schools outside the County.

For the Mental Health Project a group of about 12 young actors researched the archive at Surrey History Centre, studying administrative records, photographs and patients letters which brought them close to patients and staff who had lived or worked at Brookwood Hospital. They also had talks from experts and held workshops that combined oral history with drama for members of Woking MIND using the facilities at Surrey History Centre. With the information gathered the actors worked with director and writer Jason Orbaum to develop the performance.

The performance linked the history of Brookwood Hospital with the science behind our understanding of mental health. It focussed on four young people and the problems they face. All of the stories were based on fact with names and some details changed. The performance included many images taken from the archive and projected on to on stage screens. The results were a powerful portrayal of some of the causes and manifestations of mental ill health and the very mixed attitudes and misunderstandings of many people and the harm that ignorance and stigma can cause.

The preview performance held at Surrey History Centre in Woking in May 2009 kept its audience engrossed, and at times horrified. In a question session at the end one of the most telling comments came from one of the actors. Asked what effect the play had had the young people involved, she said that using the archive material had brought her face to face with real people in Brookwood Hospital in the 19th Century (Asylum as it was then) and whilst reading the letters in the searchroom had been demanding it wasn’t until she left that the distressing nature of what she had been reading hit her. But it had given her a great sympathy and understanding of the difficulties faced by many people now trying to live in a ‘care in the community’ society. (We were aware that the nature of some of the documents the young people would come across in the course of their research might be distressing and we did have measures in place for counselling should they be needed but the group were very supportive of each other and found discussing the tough issues amongst themselves most helpful.)

This was a great group of students to work with and they have produced a performance to be very proud of. A Woking MIND care worker commented as he left the preview ‘That should be taken to adults as well as schools’.

There were many moments during this project that stand out as special. Seeing the young people completely absorbed and excited by the records, watching them exchanging ideas and construct dramatic and often funny exercises with ex-patients, seeing the first performance before a selected audience and then for real in front of about 200 year 9s are moments that stand out. I felt privileged to have been involved and very pleased that the archive has been used as a core part of this project.


Janet Nixon

Surrey Heritage

January 2010

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