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PCMD Medical Humanities Conference 2016

18 Apr, 16 | by cquigley


Ian Fussell

Community Sub Dean UEMS


In 2002, The Peninsula Medical School (now Peninsular College of Medicine and Dentistry (PCMD)) became the first UK medical school to integrate the medical humanities as core curriculum.

Every year since, year four students engage in a six-month project alongside and mentored by an artist. The culmination of the project is a conference organised by the students displaying and presenting their work.

The work thus created has become increasingly sophisticated over the years, as evidenced by the 2016 conference that just took place in Truro (April 2016). In fact, it was probably the highest quality of work seen to date and would not be out of place at any international medical humanities conference.

The morning session was opened by Professor Alan Bleakly, the current President of the Association for Medical Humanities and a leading world expert in the field. This was a particularly poignant conference as 2016 is the final year that it will be run under the auspices of PCMD following the disaggregation of Exeter and Plymouth Medical Schools. It may have been this, or the unsettled future that the current students are facing, that gave this year’s presentations an extra edge.

Following a superb talk by Alan that encouraged a political voice, we were treated to three songs written and performed by “Dull to Percussion”, a band formed in the “Medical School of Rock” module. The songs were indeed political, satirising the split between the universities and included a protest song aimed squarely at our Health Secretary. Search iTunes or Spotify to listen for yourself, and watch “A Song for a Hunt” go viral.

The day was then jam-packed and it was impossible to experience all that was on offer. The range of skill and talent was breathtaking. We were lectured on the human cost of the western desire for sweetness by students from the anthropology module, and invited to debate “Do Christians make better doctors” by the Christian ethics students. This year a number of new Special Study Units (SSUs) were run. They were also extremely good and included a collaboration with Truro’s Hall for Cornwall team.

The students worked at the theatre, but more impressively wrote a play on mental health in medical students. We were treated to a premiere performance – “Permission to be Human” should be performed at every medical school in the country. There was also a monologue by a shy mature student who helped us understand alcoholism and PTSD in war veterans. The mood was lifted by a hilarious stand up routine; how can dislocating your shoulder be so funny?!

There were a number of writing modules, including poetry. The audience was encouraged to write poems in a short workshop. Another new module was “Writing the Knife”, which generated superb short reflections on memorable clinical incidents. One piece called “Quayside” was outstanding and deservedly won a prize. Read it here and add your comments.

There was so much more to the students’ work, and this short piece cannot cover everything. However, I do want to mention a some other excellent pieces: working with clay exploring the professional masks doctors wear; pottery boxes representing the mess that doctors get into as they progress through their careers; moving and uncomfortable films that depicted a child’s journey through a hospital; the doctors strike shown as a frightening political movement; dopamine photography; a project on how we smell; and life drawing in conjunction with Falmouth Art School. At the end of the day we were “kettled” into a small room, and forced to party…

The aim of this SSU is to develop student’s tolerance to ambiguity. But the SSU achieves much more than this: it helps students develop a community of practice; it also fosters development of resilience and peer support; and importantly, the students have fun while exploring other perspectives on life and illness. I am extremely proud of our medical students and feel very privileged to work with them in this way. I hope that both Exeter and Plymouth continue with medical humanities in their developing curricula.




Birkbeck Centre for Contemporary Theatre: Sheree Rose and Martin O’Brien

25 Nov, 15 | by cquigley


Love is Still Possible in this Junkie World?
A conversation between Sheree Rose and Martin O’Brien on sexuality, love death, pain and art.  

Birkbeck Centre for Contemporary Theatre, with support from BiGS (Birkbeck Gender and Sexuality)

  • Friday 27 November, 5-6.30 pm, G10.

Sheree Rose was born in Los Angeles, CA. She obtained her Master’s degree in psychology in the late 70s, and was extremely involved in political activism and The Women’s Movement. She received a second Masters Degree in Studio Art from UCI. Rose and Bob Flanagan met at a Halloween party in 1980 and began collaborating in life and on artwork. Together they explored issues of pain/pleasure, illness and death though profound works involving sadomasochism. They performed and exhibited throughout the world over a 16-year period and became one of the most significant performance art collaborations in history. Flanagan died of cystic fibrosis in 1996. Since Flanagan’s death, Rose has exhibited new work ‘Bobaloon’ in Tokyo, Japan, as well as other works at The Tate in London. She created a performance piece entitled ‘Nailed Again’ at Arizona State University and Galapagos in New York. Rose continues to explore and collaborate with performance artists, particularly with the UK based artist Martin O’Brien with whom she has made several pieces of work in London and LA. Martin O’Brien has been commissioned and funded by the Live Art Development Agency, Arts Council England, Arts Catalyst, Midlands Art Centre, and the British Council. He has presented work throughout the UK, Europe and the USA. He has often collaborated with the legendary performance artist Sheree Rose. He was artist in residence at ONE National Gay and Lesbian Archives, LA, in 2015. He curated the groundbreaking symposium ‘Illness and the Enduring Body’ in 2012. Martin received a PhD from the University of Reading and his work has received critical attention in publications such as Contemporary Theatre Review and the book ‘Access All Areas: Live Art and Disability’. He co-edited, with Gianna Bouchard, a new edition of the journal Performance Research ‘On Medicine’. He is a lecturer at Queen Mary’s University of London and a Fellow of Birkbeck Centre for Contemporary Theatre.

The Reading Room: A review of ‘Performance, Madness and Psychiatry’

4 Feb, 15 | by cquigley


Performance, Madness and Psychiatry

Isolated Acts

Edited by Anna Harpin & Juliet Foster


Reviewed by Femi Oyebode

National Centre for Mental Health

25 Vincent Drive

Edgbaston, Birmingham B15 2FG


In the spring of 1836, John Clare (1793-1864) visited Peterborough and accompanied Mrs. Marsh, the bishop’s wife, to the theatre to see Merchant of Venice. At the beginning of the fourth act, Clare became restless. In the scene where Portia delivered judgment, Clare stood up and addressed the actor performing the part of Shylock: “You villain, you murderous villain”. Frederick Martin 1 wrote

“Great was the astonishment of all the good citizens of Peterborough…Such an utter breach of decorum was never heard of within the walls of the episcopal city. It was in vain that those nearest to Clare tried to keep him on his seat and induce him to be quiet; he kept shouting, louder than ever, and ended by making attempts to get upon the stage. At last, the performance had to be suspended, and Mrs. Marsh, after some difficulty, got away with her guest”.

Soon after that event Mr. Skrimshaw, a surgeon, saw Clare and declared “what, indeed, was obvious to all the persons in the house – that the poor poet was a lunatic”.

This book, edited by Harpin and Foster deals with many of the issues that are raised by the account above: What is the nature of mental illness? How do we come to recognize it? What is the right (morally right) stance to take in respect of it? In what way can theatrical (P)erformance be distinguished from (p)erformance in everyday life? And, so on. We can and do denote a theatrical space as a place designated for performance and this is not necessarily merely a building. In traditional society it might very well be a clearance in the forest first encircled by trees and then by a circle of people. The theatrical space in this arrangement is literally centre stage and the theatrical performance is encircled (What Elias Canetti terms “The Crowd as a Ring”) as it is in an arena. Think of the Roman Coliseum or the Grand Amphitheatre in Ephesus, or Congo Square in New Orleans. In contemporary European tradition, the stage is at an elevated focal point, usually at one end of an oblong building. Convention determines where the actors play and how the audience behaves and this is always being re-defined by playwrights. There is a sense in which the distinction between being a spectator or an audience is itself a commentary on the implicit rules governing what is expected in theatre. We go to see a play but sit in the auditorium as part of an audience whereas at a football stadium we are spectators. To return to John Clare, one could argue that in performing from the audience’s space, Clare was making of himself a spectacle and this breach in the usual conventions of behavior was a social signal that all was not well with him. In essence he had breached the implicit rules that governed how theatrical space is utilized.

Harpin and Foster write in the afterword to their wonderful book

“This is a book about madness, space and performance. In it we have paused over these three concepts and their interrelations in order to try to better understand the cultural politics and meanings of madness. The diverse, even clashing voices in the collection evidence how far this remains fiercely contested terrain”.

The remarkable achievement is that the editors, despite the extent of the contested and disputed territory, have managed to produce a text that sticks to task, that is thematically unified, except for the first chapter. Richard Stern in his chapter “Smart’s Authority and the Eighteenth-Century Mad-Business” focuses on Christopher Smart, a poet and Dr. William Battie who may have treated him. We are told that Smart was admitted to St. Luke’s where William Battie was Head Physician in May 1757 and discharged in May 1758. He was later admitted to Potter’s private madhouse in 1759 and discharged in 1763. He was arrested in April 1770 for debt and died n prison in May 1771. Stern’s approach is to examine the use of language in Smart’s poem Jubilate Agno and Battie’s A Treatise. There is practically no reference to the nature of theatre nor is there reference to the problematics of performing madness, of representing madness in language, or of the true dilemma of what one does when challenged by obvious anomalous experiences and behaviors that cause concern.

Stern writes

“I want to conclude this chapter by firstly celebrating Jubilate Agno as a poem. At the very least, it is a voice from the madhouse at a time when many other people in similar circumstances were silenced. The content of the poem challenges psychiatry to justify its terminology, its methods and the language that it is using. It represents the richness of felt experience and warns against a rigid determinism. It also shines a light on confinement as seen of the perspective of the confined, where there can be a sense of double-suffering, or of suffering played out again and again: suffering as mental disturbance, alienation, isolation, social death, and the suffering under the fact of confinement…”

This is all very well, but the superior tone of admonishment of an abstraction termed “psychiatry” does little to sketch out what Stern’s own contribution would be in a complex area that demands more than merely clever and righteous statements. John Perceval’s (1803-1876) A narrative of the treatment experienced by a gentleman during a state of mental derangement; designed to explain the causes and the nature of insanity deals comprehensively with the facts of confinement and makes a clearer, more directly eloquent and, fulsome case against unnecessary confinement. For a description of the subjective experience of severe delusions and hallucinations including a legal argument against incarceration Daniel Schreber’s (1842-1911) Memoirs of My Nervous Illness is unparalleled. And, if it is poetry written under conditions of incarceration that one seeks then John Clare’s poetry written whilst he was at Northampton Asylum or Ivor Gurney’s (1890-1937) poetry written whilst at the City of London Mental Hospital speak to the distress, the emotional turmoil and the desolate inner landscape that is mental illness.

Juliet Foster, in her chapter “Performance in Bethlem, Fulbourn and Brookwood Hospitals: a social psychological and social historical examination”, deals with theatrical performances in psychiatric hospitals. This is a reminder of what has been lost with the closure of Asylums. This is not to glorify asylums but rather to say that community care has not fulfilled all its promise and the idea that communities will embrace the mentally ill was just that, idealistic. The paradox is that there can be even more isolation and alienation in wider society than in asylums. Theatrical performances were only one of the variety of entertainments put on in asylums, dances were another popular form of entertainment. John Burnside’s poem “The Asylum Dance” and Patrick McGrath’s novel Asylum take the asylum dance as a centerpiece of asylum life. Foster concludes that

“Entertainment…is centred around the idea of providing a diversion or a distraction, or even a link in some way to the world outside of the asylum, and to everyday experiences and practices”.

It isn’t often that the literature on asylums recognizes and acknowledges the desire to do good, to alleviate suffering in the residents, and to harness the humanity of the staff in the service of their charges.

In the section titled “Applying Performance”, first Susan Cox in her chapter “Reflections on autonomy and ethics in research-based theatre and then Sarah Rudolph’s “Whose mind is it anyway?: Acting and mental illness” deal with the intricacies of ‘acting mad’ in theatre. There is here an assumption that theatre has an implicit educational if not moral purpose. Cox talks about

“When applied theatre is successful in opening us differently to experiences of mental illness…we may reflect from a new vantage point, on the implications of our own forms of engagement with mental illness, such as through understanding what it might be like to live with dementia…”


“Challenges include the ethics of fictionalizing the real life experiences of research participants and the problems that can arise when participants and/or audiences over-identify with the physical or mental health conditions being performed, perhaps even becoming re-traumatized by a highly convincing theatrical performance”.

This view suggests that a special duty of care exists towards the audience when theatre tackles sensitive issues. This is on the face of it a thoughtful and caring position. But, it can also be read as assuming vulnerability in participants and audiences in special settings that inexorably results in self-censorship. The implication is that there are matters that are too sensitive to be enacted. Or, that there are particular enactments that will be more troubling than others. All audiences bring with them, into theatre, inner life of varying composition. Blanche Dubois in Streetcar Named Desire or the Tyrone family in Long Day’s Journey into Night depending on the sensitivities of the audience have the capacity to provoke disquiet in individuals who have been raped or whose parents have a strained marriage, etc. One could argue that the power of theatre resides precisely in this confluence between what is being played on stage and what is jostling for resolution in the mind of the audience. To make the point again and in a different way, I hope that a mobile library in a psychiatric hospital would have books of all kinds, not a list of the most supposedly innocuous texts so as to protect patients from troubling texts.

Rudolph’s chapter is a must read for anyone with an interest in the use of theatre in psychiatry. It examines the pitfalls as well as the triumphs of this area of work. It makes the point, that ought not to need making, that mental illness is not a metaphor, it is a real lived experience. Schizophrenia or dementia does not stand in for other matters, they are not symbols infused with meaning with the goal of speaking about a world in schism or a degenerate world, etc. And, mental distress is multifarious in presentation. The experiences are manifold. It may be true that ‘dramatic’ enactments in which florid gestures and violent outbursts occur are easier to comprehend but in fact life is more subtle, more nuanced, and hence representations that recognize that agony is best suggested than caricatured would ultimately be closer to the truth of mental illness.

The final section “Theatrical Maladies” is a tour de force. Bridget Escolme takes Ophelia and analyses different productions of Hamlet with a view to discovering the underlying motifs, the rationale for the varying portrayals. She traces “how different historical epochs have mapped their fears and wishes around children onto their fears and wishes around the ‘mad’…Questions of how ideas of insanity produce Ophelia and how Ophelia produces ideas about insanity…”. Hers is a feminist reading but her conclusion that there is a tradition of “calming and confining Ophelia and her representation” can just as easily be read as a fear of madness per se. Greek theatre kept mad actions from view and the Roman theatre only rendered visible the mad fool, innocent and funny, and thereby unthreatening for the audience. There is a way in which madness is hidden from view but it may be true as Escolme argues that madness is the more malignant, “embarrassing and disturbing” in a woman. Harpin’s final chapter “Dislocated: Metaphors of madness in British theatre” addresses the question of what it is, metaphorically, to be mad. This is quite distinct from using mental illness as a metaphor, a symbol for matters unconnected to it. It is examining what it is like, metaphorically, to be mad. This understanding is important because it gives a handle on the experience and allows it to be accurately represented in art. Harpin starts by saying that in relation to madness

“First, there is the recurrent sense of journeying that attends on madness. Secondly, the dominant notion of place renders ‘mad’ experience an inherently geographical encounter. Madness, then, is figured as a location, as site…To be mad is to be…displaced, dislocated, gone”.

She goes on

“Juliet LH Foster’s study of mental health service-users’ representations of their experiences argues that mental illness frequently figures as a place (woods, clouds, traps, prisons, abyss, pit) or journey (mountain, tightrope, maze, tunnel)”.

The challenge then is how to embody the metaphor, how to concretize what is beyond language, that which is unspeakable. That, after all, is what drama is.

To return to John Clare, his performance at the theatre during the production of Merchant of Venice signaled a dislocation within. And, this dislocation was made visible in his speaking from the auditorium to the actors on stage. Theatrical representation of madness could learn from this event, that speaking from the ‘wrong’ place is a possible expression of madness. And, this might involve shifting the balance of where the audience is in relation to the stage and emphasize that the person sitting next to you in theatre, that is your neighbor, like you is liable to emotional turmoil.

I will leave the last word to Anna Harpin

“Plays locate madness precisely along a spectrum of human experiences without ever flattening out the particularity of the encounter…dramatists encourage a political reflection on the nature and boundaries of ‘health’ and ‘illness’.



  1. Martin, Frederick (1865) The Life of John Clare. Gutenberg Ebook no B470 [ and]


Ayesha Ahmad: Forthcoming Symposium ‘Activating Theatre: people participating, performing politics’ at University of Leeds

13 Feb, 12 | by Ayesha Ahmad

Activating Theatre: people participating, performing politics

A practice-based symposium examining how theatre and performance work to change people and society

Tuesday 6 March 2012, Stage@leeds Building, University of Leeds


James Poskett: Storytelling in the theatre

18 Aug, 11 | by James Poskett

Telling the Patient’s Story details a theatre company’s attempts to develop medical students’ case presentation skills. Workshops, covering everything from improvisation, personal monologues and body language, had a marked effect on the students, with all participants agreeing that the training improved their delivery of patient histories.

So, the arts and humanities can help medical students improve their case presentation skills thereby, in theory, benefitting future patients. Sounds like convincing evidence of the value of the humanities within the medical curriculum. Everyone happy? Well, not quite. One student offered the following feedback:

“[There is] too much focus on how this relates to medicine. We will realise that later.”


Simon Callow in Being Shakespeare, Trafalgar Studios, London.

21 Jun, 11 | by Deborah Kirklin

Living in a big city isn’t all fun and games. The number of young people killed and injured using knives and guns in London over recent years being just one, particularly disturbing example. But there is one huge advantage of living within travelling distance of many big cities, and certainly one like London: the positive cornucopia of theatres, museums and galleries within tantalising reach. Some of these have wonderful online collections, thereby bringing their pleasures to audiences far and wide ( Others tour either nationally or occasionally internationally, although their favours are still only conferred on the fortunate few. And it is with this latter truth in mind that I apologise upfront to those of who who won’t make it to see Simon Callow being Shakespeare, but something this good is simply impossible to keep to yourself. more…

“Medicine Unboxed 2010: Stories, Language & Medicine” Cheltenham Saturday 9th October 2010

26 Jul, 10 | by Deborah Kirklin

Cheltenham’s ‘Medicine Unboxed’ is a series of conferences for NHS staff, exploring a view of medicine that aspires to more than the technical and which necessarily refers to values, uncertainty and human understanding – to art as much as science. This year, in partnership with the Times Cheltenham Literature Festival, we engage the interface between medicine, language and stories. more…

Dr Ciraj A.M. writes about ‘An Unusual Annual Day’ in an Indian Medical School

16 May, 10 | by Deborah Kirklin

This write up will share the experiences of an educational intervention with a difference.  It narrates the story from a medical school located at the southern tip of the Indian peninsula. For the annual day celebrations of this school, the faculty used to host a cultural show as a mark of their love and reverence to the students. The cultural performances used to take different forms, ranging from songs, skits, dances and a lot more. On this year’s annual day, they decided to perform something unique. The movement was spearheaded by microbiologists who incidentally had many of their members involved in medical education research and cultural coordination committee.  A meeting was convened and the medium of theatre and dance was finalized to depict certain educational themes.  As usual, the process gained momentum just two days before the event. more…

Jeanette Glasser on “The Pains of Youth”

26 Feb, 10 | by Deborah Kirklin

Intense and challenging, the National’s recent interpretation of “Pains of Youth” (which ran from October 2009 – January 2010) at the Cottesloe, under the skilful direction of Katie Mitchell, has the audience gripped throughout. It is a fast-paced play about medical students in Vienna in the early 1920s – their fraught, turbulent psyches trying to make sense of a world that was indeed itself troubled and traumatised in the aftermath of the First World War. The seven discontented and conflicting characters, entangled in searching, questioning, taunting relationships with one another, play out the diagnosis of ‘sickness/disease’ (‘Frankheit’ from the original title in German) that has been here attributed to youth (der Jugend) whilst serving as a metaphor for the sickness in society at large. more…

“August: Osage County”, a play not to miss: London November 21, 2008 – January 21, 2009

4 Sep, 08 | by Deborah Kirklin

There are some plays that leave you, quite literally, breathless with awe.  Osage County is one of them. At 3 hours and 20 minutes, this remarkable play is longer than average, and so it’s a tribute to the brilliance of the script, staging, direction and acting that it nevertheless rushes by. Watching Osage County in New York this summer, I can’t have been the only member of the audience who would have happily stayed put, there and then, to watch it all over again.

Sex, drugs, and a dysfunctional family to rival any Tennessee Williams gave us, are all on offer in this Pulitzer and Tony Award®winning American play. Written by Tracy Letts and directed by Anna D. Shapiro, Osage County comes to London from Broadway for just 8 weeks. Its reputation precedes it so doubtless it will sell out fast.

So, if you’re lucky enough to be nearby, visit and book your tickets fast.

See you there!


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