Creative Gymnasium

Creative Gymnasium

Aim: To examine the benefits of drama and arts activities for improving and maintaining the health and wellbeing of people living in Coventry aged 50+

Funding: Esmée Fairbairn Foundation

Timescale: 12 months

Description of the arts activity

A drama intervention was delivered in stages over 12 months, by The Belgrade Theatre.
Stage I – Recruitment and convening of the groups of 50+ participants
Stage II – 10 week developmental workshops
Stage III – Public Performances at the Theatre and on location around the city

Details of the project participants

Participant engagement and recruitment: The project was promoted widely through local media, Age UK networks (a UK based charity) and community groups, sheltered residences, churches and charitable organisations, where ‘taster sessions’ were offered which led to the weekly developmental workshops. The recruitment and convening of all the groups and facilitation of the workshop programmes was led by the project manager. Assistance in this task was provided by a Support Worker from Age UK Coventry.

Evaluation methods and findings

The evaluation was undertaken by researchers at Coventry University. Arts-informed inquiry was selected as a means of evaluating the project from both participant and stakeholder perspectives (including staff from Age UK Coventry, Coventry Health Improvement Programme and Theatre artists.) The research team’s methodological approach was based on participatory methods in striving for shared understandings and locating shared values, using creative means in the widest sense to explore participant experiences.
Data was gained from four participant groups, female and male, with ages ranging from 50+ to 80+, namely:

  • A city centre group, who met for 20+ weeks at the Belgrade Theatre
  • A sheltered residential home, workshops delivered over 10 weeks
  • An Asian Women’s group who met for 12 weeks in a local suburb
  • A group of out-patients receiving dialysis treatment (3 workshops)

Quantitative data was collected via the Warwick-Edinburgh Mental Wellbeing Scale (WEMWBS), a health outcomes framework tool, recommended by the NHS Confederation (2011), administered at the beginning and end of the workshop programmes to gain statistical data to measure population-level progress for wellbeing.
Qualitative data collection strategies included use of photographs, participant focus groups and interviews, observation of workshop sessions, poetry and creative writing.
Outputs from the study were made accessible and shared via live performances, an arts installation at the Belgrade, and via conference events.
The findings from the study indicated six important features:

  1. Engaging in drama and arts activities provided forms of creative encounters and processes that were valued by participants. Examples included the development of a new and broad set of relationships which encompassed peer to peer, individual and facilitator, individual and family as well as between audience and the wider community. Such interactions amongst participants extended beyond the creative process and influenced the roles, relationships and routines of participants’ everyday lives.
  2. Participants’ skills and confidence improved through taking risks, for example in sharing personal material, public speaking, and generally doing things that previously individuals did not think they could do, or had opportunity to do. Such risk taking was fulfilling and rewarding.
  3. Participants believed they gained a greater sense of agency, voice and presence in their community.
  4. The skill set of the professional artists was a core contributor to effective participant engagement. For example, participants valued the facilitators who were generous, considerate, encouraging, with expertise in interactive and participatory performance encounters, and who demonstrated the ability to encourage and value participants’ ideas and contributions.
  5. The connection with the respected theatre company added both kudos and value to the drama and arts activities.
  6. Participant gains were evident from both an immediate and medium term perspective, however, due to the short time frame of the project it was not possible to give clear indications of possible long term benefits.

Key messages

  • Participants’ engagement in an artistic occupation was self-validating; individuals realized that working in groups through the arts was valuable and brought a sense of community cohesion.
  • Participants expressed that being involved provided an opportunity to address and influence a range of physical and psychosocial issues, for example, achieving personal goals, becoming better at public speaking, improved levels of confidence, shifting routines, reducing pain, and enabling participation despite disability.
  • Social isolation was recognized by the participants as being greater than they had initially realized, and that being valued by others not only increased their self-esteem but also helped them to value themselves and their role in the project.
  • The role of the professional artist as facilitator was valued in terms of the support and guidance offered, which enabled participants to feel both safe and confident in the activities in which they engaged.
  • Participants believed they had become empowered through both storytelling and story sharing. The impact of being heard, valuing other people’s and their own voices were recognized by participants as having personal benefits in relation to well-being, enabling them to experience pride, accomplishment and presence.
  • Transition was seen in the participants’ awareness of their own strengths and future potential: to accomplish, develop skills, and take on other activities outside the group.

Evidence and recommendations, in combination with new partnerships established, has contributed to the Belgrade’s future delivery of arts activity to the older adult population, with this group becoming a key part of the delivery infrastructure of the city.

Supported using public funding by the Arts Council England