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Group photo of LEP members and Vita Nova actors.

The power of performance

9 May 2024 | Mohasin Ahmed

The CommonHealth Assets project is looking at how community-led organisations (CLOs) improve health and wellbeing across the UK, in terms of what works, for whom, and under what circumstances. To illustrate this, ‘programme theories’ are being developed which demonstrate and help us understand how CLOs create health and wellbeing in deprived areas and how they manage to operate effectively.

As we approach the end of the project, and as recently described in a blog by the project lead investigator, a refined list of ten preliminary programme theories has been developed. It draws on the existing literature, interviews and workshops with partners, participatory photography with CLO members, and our work with the Lived Experience Panel. Panel members have aided in the understanding of some of the ways in which CLOs provide opportunities and support to their communities, by sharing their experiences of being involved in their local organisations, about what works on the ground, and reviewing and informing the programme theories as they have developed.

Example of a preliminary programme theory:

Power of performance diagram

Image source: Baker, R. Presenting preliminary findings – a high risk strategy?!

From discussions with the Panel, we see that when CLOs provide activities that individuals are interested in, delivered in a supportive way, these activities often act as the catalyst or ‘mechanism’ for the outcomes we see in our theories, such as confidence building, sense of purpose and empowerment.

One of the major mechanisms to improving wellbeing is the choice and sense of control that individuals have over their participation in activities and opportunities at CLOs. They can choose what activities interest them, how they take part and the support they require, and are not penalised for missing sessions, unlike with statutory services which are more prescriptive and can have consequences for late/no attendance.

Staff take the time to get to know participants and their interests and have the space to build relationships with them, which makes them feel supported, valued, and cared for. CLOs have expert knowledge in understanding and responding to the needs of their communities and can create specific and relevant activities, supports and services in response.

Group of people working together, with the person in the foreground writing notes.

At our last Lived Experience Panel meeting in March in Bournemouth, we saw these mechanisms in action when we were treated to a performance of ‘The Nest’, a production by one of the project’s partnered CLOs Vita Nova, an arts organisation and recovery community. Vita Nova uses theatre and expressive arts to support wellbeing, educate others, promote health, and to challenge the stereotypes of addiction.

‘The Nest' follows the lead character Sam in her struggle to leave her nest of addiction to drugs and alcohol. Following the moving and powerful performance, members of the production shared their personal stories of addiction and their journey in joining Vita Nova.

The members of the organisation spoke about the feeling of going to Vita Nova for the first time and being in a place where they felt like they belonged, surrounded by people who understood the issues they were facing, without judgement.

Vita Nova

Engaging with Vita Nova and taking part in creative activities, such as being part of a performance, is seen to give people structure, responsibility, and a sense of self-worth and purpose, as presented in the programme theories diagram above. This provides a vital stepping stone in their recovery journeys.  

The members of Vita Nova also spoke about how taking part in the productions allowed them to use their experiences − with the shield of a fictional story and characters − for something positive: educating others and raising awareness by taking their productions to schools, community groups and public audiences.

Although it can at times be difficult, the actors shared that reliving those experiences on stage is a good reminder of the progress they have made, the effect that drugs and alcohol had on their life, and the crucial role of CLOs in connecting people and supporting health and wellbeing.

The work of Vita Nova is a testament to the power of performance, shared experiences, and community. For its members, it provides a crucial lifeline to people going through an extremely difficult and isolating period, offering a judgement-free and supportive space which focuses on building back confidence and the self-worth of individuals. 

 Visiting different CLOs across the country with the LEP to listen and learn first-hand from Panel members about their personal experiences of being supported by their CLOs, and in turn supporting other participants, has added a layer of richness to our understandings of how CLOs positively impact health and wellbeing, which has strengthened our study programme theories.

As our final LEP meeting in August approaches, we hope to continue to harness the experience, knowledge, and support for the LEP to ensure that the CHA project’s final outputs and recommendations are reflective of the realities of the communities we have been working with and can be used by CLOs to advocate for stronger, more sustained support from funders and local people.

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