Arts workshops can help service users and socially excluded young people to blossom

The chance to make art, in any form, can be hugely valuable to service users. Learning a skill and using it to create a piece of work to be proud of, as a group or individually, builds self-esteem, helps with communication, presentation and team-building skills, and broadens horizons.

Service users often only meet professional adults in a medical, therapeutic or legal context. A privilege of my job as a theatre director, who works on a broad range of plays and theatre projects across the world, is to meet many interesting professional people from many walks of life who are passionate about what they do.

Arts workshops can offer service users a chance to interact with others equally. And it is far from a one-way arrangement; workshop leaders also have the chance to interact with interesting individuals whom they may not otherwise have met.

Recently, I worked on performing with young people at risk of offending and on playwriting with women recently released from the forensic mental health system. I am currently working with young people excluded from mainstream education on drama and stand-up comedy projects.

In my experience, there are specific skills which can make arts outreach work as rewarding as possible. Communication between service users, care workers and artists is crucial in ensuring the workshop is pitched correctly – each will have particular skills and knowledge which they can contribute to the effective planning of a project or event. Artists want to give good workshops, so feel free to ask for what you need, and explain the specifics of a certain situation.

Even the most experienced workshop leaders are not social care experts – please don’t be afraid to spell out even the most basic of clients’ requirements as it’s better to hear stuff you already know than to miss crucial information. Good workshops also need an investment of commitment from service users. Projects, therefore, need to be relevant, challenging but achievable and enjoyable in order to be worth service users’ commitment.

The best projects are chosen with imagination and realism. Do check which core skills participants need. For instance, a Shakespeare workshop for asylum seekers with little English may not be ideal, but something involving physical theatre or a project with a multilingual element could work well and even include a fun element of building English language skills.

It’s also important to make clear to visiting artists the educational abilities of the group – for instance, attention span, or whether it is feasible to expect participants to improve on a task over time.

However, imagination is important too. I have done many rewarding workshops on opera and classical music for excluded young people who initially professed no interest in the subject. I also know of a brilliant participatory project introducing older people to rap and stand-up comedy.

We all lead busy lives and it is often difficult to fit in extra meetings, but time spent communicating in order to get the best workshop possible is never, ever wasted. In my opinion, the same goes for the resulting workshop.

  • For more information about Critical Mass workshop programmes and to discuss ideas, e-mail

    Sarah Chew is a theatre director and artistic director of Critical Mass

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