‘We’ll be connecting communities and mobilising hundreds’
While theatre has always provided a positive experience, helping us reflect on our place in the world, it can also have a profound impact on health and well-being.
As we emerge from lockdown, theatre can use its skills to develop innovative community partnerships that help people cope with loneliness or anxiety, manage long-term health conditions, and build skills and confidence.
As chief executive of the National Academy for Social Prescribing and director of personalised care for the NHS, I’m leading a large national programme to introduce teams of social prescribing link workers into GP surgeries across England.
Social prescribing link workers are a new kind of NHS worker. They take referrals from GPs and other local agencies and support people who need help with their wider social issues.
Based in GP surgeries, they create a shared plan with the person about what community support they need. They then introduce them to community activities and practical support, including taking them to the first session, if a person needs help to connect.
This represents a huge opportunity for theatre and the wider arts sector. We need the arts to team up with these social prescribing link workers to develop community partnerships that help those experiencing the greatest health inequalities.
There are many examples already happening that illustrate what’s possible. In Bristol, the Many Minds charity facilitates online performances to help people improve their mental health, alongside Unique Voice, providing holiday clubs to help children overcome trauma. Misfits Theatre supports adults with learning disabilities to build friendships, skills and confidence and Travelling Light Theatre Company is providing art packs during Covid-19, to help disadvantaged young people and families cope with isolation.
But there is more that theatre can do to engage in this work. The academy is planning to increase connections between the arts and social prescribing over the course of the next year. We do this by supporting innovative approaches, such as the Art by Post initiative launched by the Southbank Centre for people living with dementia.
We need to create widespread opportunities for people to connect, to knit creative partnerships together to help everyone live their best lives, which includes ensuring people from communities most affected by Covid-19 can get involved in local arts and cultural activities to support their mental health.
We want to encourage local partnerships, increase social prescribing funding, spread what works and build a vibrant, ambitious social prescribing movement. We’ll be connecting communities and mobilising hundreds of thousands of people and organisations with a shared commitment to transforming lives.
Social prescribing presents a new opportunity for theatre, and the wider arts sector, to connect better with the health and well-being agenda. It can help theatre amplify and extend the role it already plays in improving the nation’s quality of life. And – at a time when funding across all sectors will be tight and the arts are facing specific economic challenges – it can help strengthen the case for theatre as a public good.
James Sanderson is chief executive of the National Academy for Social Prescribing. For more on social prescribing visit socialprescribingacademy.org.uk
Theatre is in dire straits, and in urgent need of support. We all hope that help is on its way from the government. But whatever support it receives, when theatre re-emerges from this disastrous pandemic, it will look very different. Now is the time to think about what happens next. That is what The Stage has asked people working across our sector to do: to select an issue that can be improved upon when theatre returns. The above article is one of 24 pieces in our ‘Theatre 2021’ series. There are many more topics to cover, and many more ideas to share. This series of articles is the first step in saying that despite this terrible crisis, theatre in 2021 can re-emerge, and in many ways can be better than before.