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NIDA Design students volunteer skills to bring NSW Health vision to life

Three NIDA Design for Performance students are investing their own time outside of studies in an innovative design project, to create a performance stage at the Forensic Hospital – a mental health facility operated by Justice Health & Forensic Mental Health Network, who are part of NSW Health.

Photo: (L-R) Damien Egan, James Dalton, Charlotte Mungomery, Christopher Baldwin

Three NIDA Design for Performance students are investing their own time outside of studies in an innovative design project, to create a performance stage at the Forensic Hospital (the Hospital) – a mental health facility operated by Justice Health & Forensic Mental Health Network (the Network) who are part of NSW Health.

The project, entitled ‘Into the Wild’, has its roots in a NSW Government initiative launched in April 2016, which focuses on increasing the integration of the Arts in the state’s healthcare system as a whole.

The partnership between the hospital and NIDA was initiated by Christopher Puplick AM, Board Chair of the Justice Health and Forensic Mental Health Network and former NIDA board member. NIDA Directing graduate, James Dalton (2010), who is currently researching the connection between performance and health in medicine at the University of Sydney, is overseeing the project, in conjunction with the Hospital’s Art Therapist, Oleen George, and Rehabilitation Coordinator, Glen Charlesworth.

‘For NIDA and its students, the aim of the project long-term is to expose students to other fields where their work can excel, and to ideally foster an ongoing relationship with bodies such as NSW Health and other organisations outside of traditional settings,’ commented James.

‘In this case we’ve combined performance and drama with health. We’re taking practical skillsets from the pool of skill and discipline that NIDA Design students have and applying it into a practical field outside of what they would normally get to experience.’

Aside from the incoming performance stage, which will be used primarily for dramatic art, the Hospital already actively encourages various forms of Art Therapy – an evidence-based form of therapy that has been used globally for the treatment of mental health.

‘We have large grounds, and as a secure facility, we need to have a range of different services provided in here,’ said Glen. ‘There’s a big appetite for different arts programs. We have a rap group and art therapy, along with people singing and doing live poetry readings at various Hospital open days.’

‘With all of our work in arts, we didn’t have much happening in terms of theatrical art, so we decided to expand our programs and contact NIDA who we know to be experts in the field,’ commented Oleen.

‘As an arts therapist, it’s absolutely crucial for me to find a way to communicate with patients,’ added Oleen. ‘There’s less confrontation when using the arts. The arts allow you to use a traditional therapy space to help patients find themselves, so they’re able to learn, reflect and grow. And all of these things together help with their rehabilitation.’

‘The NSW Arts and Health Framework really highlights the benefits of the arts in health and wellbeing – not just for patients but also for staff and carers,’ said Glen.

As part of this framework, the Hospital won a NSW Health award in 2016 for ‘Enhancing the Patients’ Experience Through the Arts‘, for their hip hop therapy program.

‘We usually hold our arts events in the recreation hall, but we thought it would be great to take that outdoors with an open air performance stage and that’s where the inspiration for ‘Into the Wild’ came from,’ added Glen.

Third year Bachelor of Fine Arts (Design for Performance) students, Christopher Baldwin and Damien Egan, and Master of Fine Arts (Design for Performance) student, Charlotte Mungomery, volunteered for the project.

‘Projects of this nature really drive home the feasibility aspect of designing performance areas, mainly because our work is going to be constructed for use in a real world environment,’ said Christopher, who already has a background in undertaking projects such as this, having collaborated with indigenous dance school, NAISDA, in the past.

‘We’re working with people who have no experience with Australian theatre and we’re getting fresh perspectives. Collaborating in this way helps develop us as students and professionals,’ added Charlotte.

The project is much more than just a drive towards the end product though. It is, in fact, forming part of the very Art Therapy that the Hospital and NSW Health are routinely highlighting the benefits of. As well as staff at the facility, NIDA students are working closely with patients to design the performance stage.

‘It is important that the patients are a big part of the project and are involved in the development, the design and delivery of the performance stage,’ commented Glen. ‘So the final product is one thing, but we are really keen that NIDA’s intervention is a collaboration with them in the design stages.’

‘There’s a lot of ownership of it from the patients and I think that’s critical to the whole project,’ added Damien. ‘The fact that they need to be invested in the design and production of the stage, rather than have something installed ready-made, is a major factor to the project.’

Over the past several weeks, the NIDA students have been attending consultations at the Hospital and exchanging ideas with the patients. In certain sessions, the team and patients discussed how they wanted the space to function and how they saw themselves using it.

The next stage involved taking patients’ preferences and delivering three draft concepts incorporating their views, with the intention that this will boil down to a final design.

‘At the moment, Damien, Charlotte and I, separately and together, are starting to form a visual for this design and are starting to sketch and 3D sculpt that to present to the patients,’ commented Christopher.

The process itself may be integral to the project, but the final design is also essential to the overall success, as the performance stage will provide an important contrast to the institutionalised architecture typical of these types of facilities. The finished article will be a haven where patients can perform and see performances, and they’ll also use it as an informal space, as well as an escape from what is otherwise a very domineering building.

‘The architecture of the place is so dominant. We wanted to provide some relief with an area of real intrinsic beauty and a focal point,’ added Damien. ‘The stage will incorporate organic shapes and materials, such as timber and stone, to offset the institutional materials that the patients see all day.’

There is also life after the project is completed, in that the space around the stage will be maintained by patients as part of a horticultural programme.

This partnership demonstrates NIDA’s support for health services in Sydney and our ongoing commitment to expanding into fields outside settings typically associated with NIDA courses, which is adding new dimensions to students’ studies.