Marissa Green and Jamie Rycroft are creating a new space to provide welfare support through the medium of dramaRob Eager

It’s evident that Cambridge University needs to improve its welfare provision, but what is the best way to support students? The efforts of college Welfare Officers are certainly helpful, with events providing tea and cake, creating social spaces and encouraging of self-care – however, this may not be enough. Recently, CUSU’s welfare team have organised some excellent initiatives which facilitate artistic creation to give students enjoyment and an outlet for their emotions; for example, 2016’s ‘Art for Mental Health’ events. A new organisation, called Open Words hopes to similarly tap into students’ creative potential – with a dramatic twist.

Open Words is a theatre and well-being group, external to the University, which uses theatre as a space for students to explore their emotions and personal experiences. It was set up by two former Cambridge students: Marissa Green, a dramatherapist, and Jamie Rycroft, a playwright. Marissa and Jamie are currently running sessions in association with Clare College’s Welfare Officers, and they hope to expand into working with more colleges in the future.

The drama scene in Cambridge involves a huge number of students in Cambridge, and there are often plays exploring mental health issues (for instance, the recent Bromley Bedlam Bethlehem). However, there are few examples of drama being used in a therapeutic way.

Open Words’ intention is to provide a space to play around with dramatic techniques, to write scripts that aren’t meant to be perfect, and to not worry about the end result.

“The sessions are based on a form of dramatherapy which I trained in called the Sesame approach,” Marissa explains. “From Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves, ‘Open Sesame’ opens doors, and we’re similarly trying to get participants to open themselves up to the idea of self-reflection, self-exploration and self-support through theatre. Open Words has adapted the Sesame structure to allow students to warm up through dramatic exercises, progress to a main theatrical project, and then reflect on what participants have learned about themselves over the course of the session”.

“Typically, dramatherapy sessions are based around movement and other non-verbal kinds of drama,” Jamie adds, “which is beneficial for lots of people, but we feel that a lot of Cambridge students would appreciate an element of writing. Every week, a typical arts student at Cambridge has to produce thousands of words on various topics. This academic pressure can lead to impostor syndrome, a lack of motivation, and a whole host of other welfare issues. But what if people were given a space where they can write things that aren’t being judged or supervised, writing which can just exist on its own terms?”.

You don’t need to be a writer, actor or at all ‘arts-y’ to attend an Open Words session. Marissa and Jamie stress that there’s no such thing as ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ in their group. Instead, attendants are encouraged to write short dramatic scripts, and to share these with others. Open Words attendees are taught the fundamentals of scriptwriting, from plot structure to character development, and through the process they may gain insight into how they treat situations in their own lives.

“When you’re watching a play,” says Marissa, “we are witnessing. We have a sense of dramatic distance from which we can view the lives of others unfold in front of us. There is an abundance of value in recreating our own lives in these spaces. With Open Words, we hope to give people an amount of distance from which they can assess their own emotions and personal issues”.

“It’s early days for Open Words, which is scary but also very exciting,” Jamie continues. “The fact that we’re already being supported by a college’s welfare team is wonderful. The sessions that we’re running are here to help students. We want people to learn skills that will mean that they can write their own plays if they want to, but in the process we are offering them a safe, relaxed and confidential space to understand themselves and each other.”

Theatre is an interesting form for welfare because by definition, one must open it up to other people – actors to perform it, or an audience to watch it – and hear their responses and feedback. Someone can write a poem or make a painting based on how they feel, but then never share it with others. Playwriting is an inherently collaborative process, and the means by which a script changes as it goes from page to stage demonstrates that there is no such thing as perfection, only constant refinement.

Students at Cambridge University can have a tendency to frame their lives in terms of productivity and a quest for perfection, an attitude which the academic establishment can reinforce. While this attitude leads to stunning research and academic achievements, students need to be understood and supported. Open Words aims to supplement existing welfare efforts to provide a breathing space for students where, for a short while, grades don’t matter, and your words can be your own.

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