Hard Evidence – a theatrical and research legacy

  • 22 February 2023

Thriving Theatre is a new theatre support group for people with lived experience of domestic abuse. It was established by the team behind Hard Evidence, a play about domestic abuse, mutual support and the empowering effect of public involvement in research.

The characters and storyline of Hard Evidence were developed by Shass Blake and Alison Prince in collaboration with Ingrid Jones at Acta Community Theatre. Shass and Alison met during the coMforT (Mindfulness for Trauma) study led by Dr Natalia Lewis at the NIHR Bristol BRC and wrote the piece over Zoom during the first months of 2021.

They wanted their play to show how being a public contributor in a research study can empower women to support each other after experiencing domestic abuse. The play was originally performed in November 2021 and went on tour around Bristol in the summer of 2022.

Collaborating on the project made the team behind Hard Evidence realise that they wanted to continue working together in a creative space. To achieve this Acta Community Theatre fundraised and received a grant from Quartet Community Foundation that allowed them to set up a theatre group for people with lived experience of domestic abuse.

Thriving Theatre offers people with lived experience of domestic abuse a safe space to be creative, but it does not have a specific focus on abuse and trauma. It was established in January 2023 and has been meeting on a weekly basis since then. Members have experience of domestic abuse but there are no expectations that they will have to share their stories.

Ingrid Jones, Associate Director at Acta Theatre said:

“Thriving Theatre is focused on providing an understanding and supportive environment for the women taking part. After Hard Evidence we weren’t ready to give up on the idea of working with people who had experienced abuse. We saw how worthwhile this approach could be and our aim with Thriving Theatre was to establish a safe space which enabled these women to do something creative and fun.

“We are currently in the process of developing a storyline for the show we’ll be putting on in July. Although I’m supporting them with writing the script, it is the women who are developing the piece. All the ideas, characters and stories are theirs.

“Unfortunately, neither Shass nor Alison have been able to take part in Thriving Theatre for personal reasons. However, they are supporting us from afar. Thriving Theatre wouldn’t have been possible without all their creativity and dedication.”

Thriving Theatre will be putting on the show at the Acta Community Theatre on Monday 10 July and Tuesday 11 July at 7pm.

In addition to Thriving Theatre, Hard Evidence also secured funding to evaluate how the play was produced and how it impacted both those bringing it to the stage and those watching it. The evaluation team was made up of Research Associate Cat Papastavrou-Brooks and Dr Natalia Lewis from the Centre for Academic Primary Care at the University of Bristol, and Dr Noreen Hopewell- Kelly.

Cat observed live performances and led group discussions. She used data from questionnaires collected by Acta and interviewed 15 people including researchers, Acta staff and audience members. She finished her evaluation at the end of November 2022 and is currently writing up the results.

Cat Papastavrou-Brooks, researcher evaluating Hard Evidence, said:

“Co-production was a major part of the evaluation. Everyone involved in the project got together and decided what to work on and what to emphasise during the evaluation. We had lots of great engagement from people with lived experience of domestic abuse, healthcare professionals and people working in the theatre industry.

“As a research team, we wanted to create a practical guide for others. Ensuring we weren’t rea-traumatising anyone was a key part of that process. We wanted to answer the question of how theatre-makers and researchers can work creatively with vulnerable populations without harming them. Everyone trusted Acta to keep them safe and it was this trust in the relationships established during the project that made it so unique.

“We will be putting together a guide on how researchers can work with people with lived experience of domestic abuse and how this work can then be expressed through theatre. The guide will be ready for dissemination later this year and our hope is that it will help researchers harness knowledge on sensitive subjects.”

Illustration by Camille Aubry capturing themes discussed during live event
Illustration created live by Camille Aubry during final project event