Narrator: This podcast is a project of the Mass Cultural Council. We believe in the power of culture – the arts, humanities, and sciences – to enrich communities, advance equity, and foster creativity.
Mandy Precious: I don’t really separate people into silos within themselves. So, the whole person is the whole person is the whole person and that includes every aspect of that person.
Anita Walker: Hi, I’m Anita Walker at the Mass Cultural Council. Welcome to Creative Minds Out Loud. Our guest today is Dr. Mandy Precious. She is Engagement and Learning Director at Theatre Royal Plymouth, as in Plymouth, England, not Plymouth, Massachusetts. Welcome, Mandy, to our program.
Mandy Precious: Nice to be here.
Anita Walker: So, I first met Mandy to talk about something completely different than we’re going to talk about today. She came to Massachusetts as part of the Plymouth 400, Mayflower 400 commemoration of the landing of the Mayflower. I’d actually left where Mandy’s from and came to where we are here in Massachusetts. But as we got to know each other, Mandy really sort of became a teacher for us here at the Mass Cultural Council around some incredible work that’s been going on for some time in England and that’s work around health and the arts. So, to some people here in our country, health and the arts, how do these two words go together? What do they have to do with each other?
Mandy Precious: I suppose the way that I see it and the way that we see it at the theater– I mean, in a way, I’ve always seen it like this– but I don’t really separate people into silos within themselves. So, the whole person is the whole person is the whole person and that includes every aspect of that person including their health. So, if they are alive, I think we have– as human beings, we have a compunction to eat and to look after ourselves and our families and have shelter and to be truly healthy. We build community and when we build community, I think we then build the opportunity to come together as community and then we make art and that’s true right back to the beginning of time. That’s why there are paintings on the cave walls. There was a compunction to tell stories and to do that in a collective way and that made us healthy and smart when we were prehistoric and right to the current day and if you are– got a bit of you missing, then you’re probably not healthy.
Anita Walker: So, for people who might say, “But I’m not an artist and I’m healthy”?
Mandy Precious: Well, maybe I can extend that then a little bit. Rather than let’s– because I think we have a tendency in the arts to think of those in specifics. So, the theater, music, visual arts, maybe digital arts or– but actually, if you extend it to culture, then it starts to include more things and those traditional art forms and I would say most people are cultural and they have cultural strengths and they have things that they can do really well. So, some people are brilliant technicians or some people read cartoons and some people make amazing cakes and so those are all– those have artistic tendencies, all of those things. So, if you take it away from subject-specific, I think most people A) are creative, and B) have skills that are attached to being creative.
Anita Walker: And being creative is actually sort of a human impulse in a human–
Mandy Precious: Absolutely.
Anita Walker: Makes us human. One thing that caught my eye is in the past year, the person in England who is the head of what we would call your Department of Public Health, actually stood up straight and tall and spoke to physicians in your country and he said, “We’re prescribing too many pills. Doctors are prescribing too many pills and you need to do more social prescribing.” What is that?
Mandy Precious: I think social prescribing is a movement rather than– there isn’t any money for these things necessarily, but it’s a movement for change really. Because probably similar to America, lots of people in lots of communities have become very isolated and very disconnected from the families and their communities. People live very far from each other. We all have lots of devices that don’t necessarily pull us together. They separate us. Even within family homes, you might have six or seven people all doing something different, watching a different channel on a different platform and we don’t have– we don’t have church in the way that we might’ve had in the past. Some perhaps here you do, but certainly in England less so and we have fewer and fewer things that bring us together as a community and so in the UK things like depression or things like anxiety are just escalating really and there’s a kind of sense in which that’s an epidemic and you can treat that in many different ways. So, you can– you can move forward with a prescription for Prozac or some other antidepressant or you can try other things. That’s where social prescribing comes in and there’s a movement for change I think around prescribing arts activities or prescribing the arts, I suppose. So, arts on prescription.
Anita Walker: So, you have been working with the human condition and the arts and the positive effect on well-being that participating in the arts can have for quite some time and I remember you told me a story once about your theater in Plymouth and how occasionally homeless people would find their way to the grates outside the theater and would lay down there. What was your reaction to that?
Mandy Precious: So, homeless people would sleep in the doorways and people who had addiction issues would shoot up in the toilet. So– and people would seek shelter who were heavily under the influence of alcohol. There was a sort of outrage about that I guess initially and people– some people kind of responded to it be not the sort of thing that we would be interested in and, “We need to get rid of these things,” and then a lone voice– not mine– said, “Why don’t we just talk to these people and ask them what’s going on for them,” and that began a conversation, a direct conversation with people who had very critical need and the second you start to have that conversation with other human beings, you discover that they are in fact somewhat like yourself but have hit upon hard times and the second we started to converse, then we started– even that very, very kernel of a conversation, it starts the community. You start– you start to say to people, “It’s okay for you to come and talk to us,” and in the long run, I guess we started to then talk to the organizations who were caring for those people. So, the homeless organizations and the addiction organizations and we started to just have a conversation with them about what we could do to help.
Anita Walker: And what happened?
Mandy Precious: So, the thing that happened principally was we devised a project called– it wasn’t called “Our Space”, it was called “My Space” originally and the program was to enable people with addictions or homelessness issues or mental health problems or people who’d been in the criminal justice system to actually come to the theater and see work and participate and we worked really closely with the organizations who take care of those people. We work closely with them and we had about 25 people start. Some of them were in recovery, some of them were not and they just came on a regular basis and dropped into a session on a Thursday morning and some had to be pulled by their– physically into the room because they couldn’t understand why on earth we would want to do this thing. But when they came in, what they discovered very quickly– and this is the gift of the practitioner who’s working with the groups– that they had real fun doing it and in fact, for those people in recovery, it was the highlight of their week because everything else was quite intense. Talking to therapists and writing journals and all about why they behaved in the way they behaved. Whereas when they came into the drama session, they would just have fun. They would just stand up, do daft things and laugh at one another, laugh at themselves and that has a really– a really powerful impact on people who are not accustomed to taking up space publicly. Suddenly they are the center of attention. Suddenly everybody’s looking at them. Suddenly they are making people laugh. Suddenly they are building relationships with people because, the second you open your mouth, that’s what happens and the project has worked with I think in the last 10 years about– maybe about 700 people and some are– don’t stay in the city because they’ve only come to the city for recovery programs, but many people use that as a springboard to other stuff.
Anita Walker: Now, you’ve described Plymouth– your Plymouth, Plymouth, England– as sort of a central hub of human services.
Mandy Precious: Yeah.
Anita Walker: People who are coming out of incarceration, refugees who are coming into the country and I remember you told me a story about a particular refugee who’s now working for you. Tell me–
Mandy Precious: So,this is a guy called Fari Faraidooni [ph?]. So, he’s a lovely man and he used to be a table tennis champion in Iran and he had a really horrific time. He saw– I think his– I think he saw his brother killed at a rally and he rebelled as a consequence of having seen this and had to leave the country and he came to the UK and he lived in London and he got into– he was working in takeaways and he just wasn’t having a very happy life and he sort of– he just sank really without trace in this sort of system and drank too much and became very depressed and he recognized– he’s about 50 now, Fari. He recognized that– maybe six years ago, he recognized that he needed help and he signed up to a program, recovery and he came to Plymouth and he tells it much better than I do, but he said that two of his friends who lived in the rooms next to him– he was in a house with other people in a similar situation– were coming to the drama session and he did not want to come. He really thought, “What a ridiculous idea. Why would I want to do that?” But he wanted to be with his friends. So, he came with his friends and we can’t get rid of him now. He’s now a practitioner. So, he’s training to actually– it’s what we call an assistant practitioner and so he assists practitioners in the room. We always have two practitioners and the other thing he does, which I think is where his real skill lies, he is a creative enabler. By creative enabler, he goes into a session where somebody might have some additional needs and he supports that person to participate creatively. It’s not a support worker in the general sense. He doesn’t take them to the loo or anything like that. He just makes sure that they have all they need to be able to get the best out of the session creatively and he does that brilliantly because he’s such an empathetic sort of guy and we’re super keen to give him as much work as we can.
Anita Walker: So, you’ve actually seen people who have gone through other services, whether it’s therapy services and so forth. But something happens when they come into the theater.
Mandy Precious: There’s something– there is something– I mean, it’s not a magic pill. It doesn’t do it to everybody. But we have enough people who come through the program who tell us this that I’m fairly certain it does it more often than not. So, we have people who– I’ll give you another example. We have a woman called– maybe I should call her “B”. She came to us when she was in recovery. So, she’d had a really difficult childhood, really difficult life, had had children very, very young. She had children when she was 15, 16 and she fell on hard times, really. Children went into social care and she then met a man who was not a helpful person in her life and she ended up addicted to substances and so she too went into recovery and she came along with Fari actually at the same kind of cohort. She came along with Fari. Loved it. She has a special wall in her house where every time she’s involved in any shows that we do with that group, she puts posters on the wall. They’re all there. She tried to steal one of my posters. But she puts them all on the wall and as a kind of celebration of her achievement. But she also applied for and got a job with us. So, she works as a cashier. So, she counts cash in spite of her convictions for various things that would be normally prohibitive. She’s trusted. She goes in to the room on her own. She empties all of the cash out. She counts all of the cash. She puts it all back in the bags. It’s taken to the bank by security. So, it allows people to have a second chance and to restart their lives really.
Anita Walker: She took a leap of faith with you, but you likewise took a leap of faith with her.
Mandy Precious: Well, I think I wouldn’t say that everybody is essentially good, but many people are and there but for the grace of God. We can all– we all know that there were kind of forks in the road when we were walking along it where we could have gone the wrong way. We’ve all encountered that at some point and some people go down the wrong road and it doesn’t mean that they can’t reverse and go up a different one and that’s what I think this program allows people to do.
Anita Walker: So, you’ve been at this work for about, what, 10 years I think or more?
Mandy Precious: Personally, I’ve been at this work for a very long time. Probably more like–
Anita Walker: Okay, that’s more than a decade.
Mandy Precious: Too many. But this particular program has been running for 10 years.
Anita Walker: For 10 years and we have a lot of similar activities here in Massachusetts with our Creative Youth Development Program, working with teenagers and individual organizations across the Commonwealth. They work with individuals in incarceration or other marginalized communities. But through your experience, what do you think are really sort of some of the key pillars that need to be in place for you to be successful as a cultural worker, as a cultural organization?
Mandy Precious: I think we have a rule of thumb actually and it sounds slightly contradictory, but I think it’s actually really important in terms of our health and that’s about understanding your boundaries really. So, we’re not social workers and we’re not health workers. So, what we do is we provide an intervention. We provide arts as an intervention. So, people can participate in that and it can make a difference in terms of well-being. It can make a difference in terms of enabling people to take the next steps in their lives, but it’s not a panacea and we can’t solve all of those other things. So, we understand what we can do and the power of that, but we also understand what we can’t do and we ensure that we have all of the relationships in place with those people who can do the things that we can’t do so that we can then look after the whole person as a kind of collective.
Anita Walker: So, I want to go back to this notion of social prescribing, which I referenced at the beginning of our conversation. Do you have people actually walking into your theater and handing you a prescription?
Mandy Precious: No. <laughter> We don’t, but– and it’s actually– although we talk about it as social prescribing, there’s actually a limited amount of actual doctors who are signed up to that. But there is a movement for change towards social prescribing and I think it’s really about education for doctors as much as anything. So, our health service is in crisis. It’s very expensive and we’re inclined to throw medication at people. It was very different to your health service. So, it’s free at the point of use in the UK for everybody. Even for those people who are new to the country, it’s free. But it’s all too easy to try and solve the problem one way and so we’re educating doctors bit by bit, one by one that there are alternatives to enabling people to feel better about themselves.
Anita Walker: And one other phrase you introduced me to and that’s the funding deficit. I know that’s a phrase that will resonate with many of our listeners who are organizations and follow the Creative Minds Out Loud podcast. You talked about flipping the funding deficit. What does that mean?
Mandy Precious: I don’t remember saying that, but I think–
Anita Walker: Well, I’ve been quoting you for more than a year on that one. <laughter>
Mandy Precious: So, I think what I was talking about was around acknowledging that there’s insufficient funds and just trying to think about how you might use those differently and so, I mean, this may not be the best explanation, but it seems to me that if you work in partnership and you work together to the same aim, your chances of succeeding are improved. Often other people who are– have funding, kind of medical or social partners who have funding but can’t do what you can do, you can partner with them and achieve the aims that they want to– they want to kind of succeed in and that means that you then– you then find a way of doubling, getting more bang for your buck. That you can then– there’s a finite pot of funding, but if you can do more than one thing with that funding, then you can have more success.
Anita Walker: But I think it’s also about recognizing that your work, theater, is still work.
Mandy Precious: Yeah.
Anita Walker: And it still costs to provide that. So, you may not be a mental health counselor. You may not be a medicine practitioner, who obviously get paid. But in the world of the arts, that’s still work, that still has impact, that still has value and sort of getting that, “We do the work. Isn’t it lovely what we’ve done? All these great stories. Now will you please fund us after the fact?”
Mandy Precious: Yeah. But then if the funding is the funding and your ambition is to ensure that people are well, it doesn’t make any sense not to work with all of the people who are able to contribute to that person’s wellness. That just makes good sense. It doesn’t have to be separate. We put in– in Plymouth, for example, we work with at least 12, probably nearer 15 organizations who are working with people who may be in crisis in one way or another and it doesn’t come free. But if you can have a big impact on somebody using something like the arts, then you need less funding for the other stuff and that’s kind of where it gets to be smart. Let’s be smart about it. Let’s contribute to the pie. I’m just one slice of this pie, but we can all be a slice.
Anita Walker: Mandy Precious. Engagement and Learning Director at Theatre Royal in Plymouth, England, another one of our Creative Minds Out Loud.
Mandy Precious: Thank you.
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