Interview: HandMade Theatre

Words: Ian C Douglas
Monday 30 October 2023
reading time: min, words

HandMade Theatre use live performances and creative therapy to bring wonder and joy to communities around the East Midlands - and now their work with people who have dementia has won a Lottery grant. Suzy Gunn, CEO, shares the next steps on this incredible journey...  


Tell us more about HandMade Theatre... 
It's a charity. It's a business. And it started in 2012. Myself and Amy Nicholson were co-founders, we wanted to create performances that were specifically geared towards children with special educational needs and disabilities. And we created a performance over six months based in a school in Carlton for autism. And after that, we realised there was potential to take it further. And then the family festival scene kicked off in a big way. So, our main bread and butter income comes from touring festivals. So we create work with lots of different performers, musicians, and artists and set builders etc. Something that is ours, that is really kind of the handmade ethic.

About seven years ago, we've started working in places where they're supporting adults with dementia and cognitive impairments. It’s a passion of mine, taking theatre and arts activities to people that can't access it in a normal way. It's about those interactive experiences. It's about a person-centred approach. It's learning from the people we're working with and seeing what their needs are and responding to that.

HandMade Theatre recently won some funding, what's it for?
Well, we've had loads of little bits of funding for the dementia work. But it's been very kind of stop, start, stop start. And we want to tackle their feelings of isolation and loneliness. But if you're starting and stopping, it just wasn't a good enough offer for them. So, I started looking into three-year funding from the National Lottery Community Fund. It's a long process of going through different panels and stages, proving that you're going to have worth within the communities that you're working with. And we've just found out that we were successful with that, which is great! It changes the whole face of HandMade Theatre, because it's the longest amount of investment we’ve had in our company. It feels pretty huge. Now we can say we're coming in indefinitely. Without that constant struggle of raising funds.

How is theatre and creativity beneficial for people with dementia?
Regardless of whether it's music, whether it's craft, whether it's a theatre performance, it's more about the approach of working with a person and where they're at. And understanding that need to change what you're doing moment-to-moment on a daily basis. We were seeing that a lot of people were missing theatre, because they just can't access it. Carers can't get them there. So, what could we offer? How could we take a theatre piece into these settings? That's when we started collecting stories and chats. And we were seeing people in these settings with so many stories between them, like holidays and pets and music. So, we became really interested in what stories mean, and how we can share them. Which led onto creating a performance that was specifically based for care home and community settings.

I see such joy. And that's what I take with me every day

Could you share some examples?
There's one lady that I always refer as Irene, who’s in a care home we visit regularly. She's 93. I think. And she's just joyous. She has this huge smile on her face. She joins in, she can't hear very well. But she tries everything like crafting and, you know, getting involved. And she'll say I wish people could see us. Because you see in the news, it's really negative. Yet look at us. We're here. We're laughing. We're having fun. And I'm just like, yes, exactly. There's this real negativity around, obviously, about how painful dementia can be. But I see such joy. And that is what I take with me every day. When I work with them, I just feel pure joy because they come out and they're smiling. They're chatting, they carry on singing as we're walking out the door, they think about what they're going to do next week. And honestly, there's so much joy to be had. And I think that this is what I want to celebrate through this project. Dementia's hard. Of course, it is. But there is so much joy there. They just need bringing together to a safe space to share it with each other and feel less isolated in their illness.

That is so inspiring. Could you share another with us?
We have another man in his nineties. He came fairly late to the sessions and was very, very nervous. He'd had a hard life until he moved into this setting. And loved to paint. He brought down some paintings to show us and they were amazing. And we said, you need to run a session for us, teach us something about painting. So, the next week he planned everything. He sat and taught the whole group. And now he runs his own weekly art session.

And yesterday, he was telling me about a woman who came along for the first time going, I can't do it. And now, she's going along to these sessions. It's a knock-on effect. And in these care homes and memory cafes, there are so many people with talents, dancers, singers, and it's just plucking those passions out and saying, you can do it. And if it doesn't look perfect, that's great. We were making birds yesterday and we were all in hysterics, because we were just being there together and learning together.

Netherfield Memory Cafe

So, do you find that theatre speaks to people with dementia
Yeah, definitely. For example, animals came up a lot in our chats, and especially the idea of a cat. So now we have a cat in the show, which was made by students we were working with at the time, and he’s just gorgeous. They love him. They believe he's real. We believe that he's real. He is real! Yeah. Many care homes can’t allow pets and people missed that connection. We did the cat performance in a memory cafe recently, and it started a lot of conversations about their own pets.

How does it all work in terms of the creative workers and pay?
We're all freelance. We work with amazing musicians and artists that have worked with us for years, they work with other people as well. But with this three-year funding, another huge bonus is I can say to these artists, if you want the work with us, the work is there for three years. And that yeah, is huge.

What does the future hold for HandMade Theatre?
So the future of HandMade Theatre is trying to continue to grow. And a big part of that is building a team, because we have this amazing team of artists, and we want to support them. So, for Amy and I, it's getting bigger and bigger and bigger, which is great.

That's great. Sounds a little scary as well?
Yeah, we do everything. And, you know, you can't do everything forever, otherwise, you'll reach a limit. For this summer, we had the busiest summer we've ever had with several teams on the ground at each festival. So you know, the demand at festivals is getting bigger and the demand back home is getting bigger. So yeah, it's all about expansion for us.

And how can people support you?
By coming to see our work at festivals, which is the bread and butter of the company. And so if people and audiences come and see us, that helps us get more bookings. Also, people can get in touch if there are opportunities that they'd like to discuss. If they have a care home or they have a community setting where they think actually, this would work great. Then they can get in touch and talk about that as well.

To find out more about the work of HandMade Theatre and how you could get involved, visit the HandMade Theatre website.

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