Mike White writes: Last week I gave a keynote at Health Acts, a conference on applied drama for health at Exeter University’s Drama Dept.  Karen Scott was also there to give a keynote on her research on The Lion’s Face opera, so CMH had a dominant presence.  I was struck by Karen’s observation that good evaluation is not due so much to the measurement tools used as to the tenor of the engagement of the researcher with the researched.  Her talk made me want to experience ‘The Lion’s Face’ again as it failed first time round to shift my aversion to opera. It was interesting to hear that the psychologist advisors from King’s College London were initially unhappy with the character in the opera of the clinician/researcher whose lack of empathy with the central character, the dementia patient, was seen as stereotypical, but the librettist insisted that it worked as a dramatic device to isolate the patient’s condition within the clinical gaze.  The lead advisor now says he values the opera for introducing him to an imaginary patient whose experience, through the phenomology of the artwork,  affects and reforms the way he looks at his real patients.

I was also pleased to experience what some interdisciplinary researchers from the Centre for Cognition at University of Kent described as their ‘immersive installation’ which had been created for and with children with autism as a challenge to the assumption that autistic people lack imagination.   The event involved us being led barefoot through a darkened room along a sand pathway into a large tent-like structure with an illuminated floor carpeted in bubble-wrap which crunched and popped under our feet.  Underwater sounds and bubble machines played vigorously and the project leader Dr. Nichola Shaugnessy, dressed as a trawlerman, introduced us to a couple of the autistic participants and then cued an animated pageant of fluorescent sea-creature puppets – I particularly liked the opening jellyfish made from umbrellas.   From beneath what appeared to be a mound of seaweed emerged a saxophone-playing mermaid to get us in the mood.  The climactic image of a great white shark drew some fascinated attention from  one of the autistic boys, eventually putting his head in the shark’s mouth and smiling while the other boy filmed.  I enjoyed all this but agreed with another viewer that it would be better if the ooh-ah guided commentary from the ‘trawlerman’ were dropped as it imposed an unnecessary dramatic structure on a colourful and anarchic spectacle that celebrated a union of autistic and artistic imagination.  The next showing, I believe, took that advice on board.  I’m fairly sure my own son, who has autism, would really have liked this installation.

t was a pity that the impending royal wedding holiday necessitated a ‘fly in fly out’ visit to Exeter for me as there was much in the programme I would have liked to have taken part in, despite worries beforehand that  I wouldn’t have much to connect with at a drama conference – huh, I need to get out more.  The one other event I did manage to see was a presentation of work in progress by Eleanor Margolies and Brigitte Lambert of Rose Bruford College on a drama about Dr. Cicely Williams, the child health pioneer, which also drew in interesting ideas on the persistence of ‘colonial’ thinking in global health inequalities.  If this work develops into the provocative play it suggests, it would be really good for presentation at a medical humanities conference.

One of the delegates Anna Ledgard, a theatre activist, has asked me to comment on a ‘Manifesto for Relational Arts’   which she has recently produced with Naseem Khan and former LIFT-CEO Lucy Neal and this is now going out to consultation.  Frankly, it’s just another word for what Mary and I have been practising and preaching in arts in health for years, but good to see it going around in wider circles.  Everyone in the art world seems to be doing manifestos at the moment.  It’s a reaction to the times.


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