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21 January 2021

Theatre for Life’s young actors use film & theatre to reveal their experiences of hidden disability & mental health

Michelle Smith, Theatre for Life
Theatre for Life was one of 87 organisations awarded a grant in our first Arts & Mental Health grants round last year.

Emerge is a collaborative film and theatre project with Theatre for Life and Southampton Children’s Hospital, using authentic voices and shared storytelling to reveal the truths behind hidden disabilities and mental health.

Emerge evolved through our six month emergency creativity and wellbeing online programme, which we ran in response to Covid-19 with the support of Arts Council England.

The programme showed us more than ever it was important that society didn’t revert to forcing young people with hidden disabilities and mental health back into isolation, whilst the rest of the world carried on.

Many of our young people have experienced extensive hospital stays and ongoing medical intervention and are no stranger to time out from education and staying at home. However, many of our young people have felt that Covid-19 has highlighted health inequalities even further and for the first time in their lives they have felt excluded from society and their peers.

Evan Bartlett (14 years old), youth actor said:

‘Both at the start and end of lockdown made me feel isolated, particularly when we got the letter to shield, it reminded me of the fact that I’ve got a kidney transplant and that I’m on medication and I have to be careful. Other than flu jabs every year, I don’t normally feel excluded.’

As a company we wanted to remove this feeling of exclusion by promoting self efficacy, empowering our young people to feel valued and heard. Emerge is about defying the stereotype of ‘vulnerability’ and instead celebrating our young company and their creative individuality.

We encourage open dialogue and co-creation with our theatre makers, working together to create powerful and meaningful theatre with the guidance of professional artists. To capture the authenticity of Emerge we decided to explore the style of Headphone Verbatim.

In headphone the long form interview is used to collect unique and distinctive personal stories. Once interviews have been completed, the chronological edit looks for the “real” story in the interview: the subtext if you like. Artists then perform edited interviews whilst listening to them at the same time through headphones: hence “headphone verbatim”. This technique allows every breath, every utterance, every idiosyncratic detail of the speaker to be captured by the performer and the result is often a series of poignant, unpredictable, tender, funny and honest testimonies.

Kristine Landon-Smith is a theatre practitioner, educator and leading practitioner of ‘headphone verbatim’ theatre. With her colleague Neela Doležalová, writer and theatre maker, they have been working with the ‘headphone verbatim’ methodology since 2016 on a number of projects.

During this time of increased remote learning we felt headphone verbatim would be the perfect match for producing Emerge online during the pandemic.

Kristine Landon-Smith, Headphone Verbatim leader, said:

The process for Emerge is working very well: it is such a generous and creative space that has been developed over time and as the headphone verbatim practitioners on the project we were privileged to walk into that space and begin our work. The group are thoughtful, creative, generous and extremely professional. They know how to work on a creative project and their curiosity and independence and autonomy align so well with the process.

Sarah Shameti, key youth worker from Southampton Children’s Hospital said:“

Witnessing the young people I support through their journey has been really eye opening and a total privilege. The skills they have developed over such a short space of time is outstanding and I can not wait to see the outcome of the passion and the dedication of the Emerge company on this project.


Nurturing self belief at this time is an essential part of recovery, we want Emerge to help restore mental health and wellbeing, allowing our young people and audiences to recognise their own inner strength when faced with challenging times.

Shealyn Caulfield (21 years old), youth actor said:

“Emerge has been a truly enlightening project. It really has been a break in the darkness that shines a light on the power of the arts and the young theatre makers determined to be seen and heard in a year that has forced many of our group (including myself) to shield themselves from society on the basis of survival. Emerge has allowed me to maintain strong hope that we will prevail, we not only have a place within the arts but we have a place with society in which our voices as a collective will be heard and valued.”

Baring Foundation funding has enabled us to look ahead to the future and apply for further funds to continue our community theatre work.


Theatre for Life was one of 87 organisations awarded a grant in our first Arts and Mental Health open funding round in 2020.