A city of small, safe spaces.

[Guest blog by Mark Hancock]

Recently, working on The Cart, I spoke to a woman who was suffering from a panoply of mental health issues, with a lifetime of façade-building to help her cope. Just being with her for a few minutes it was easy to read, across her face, uncertainty, pensiveness, and fear. Fear of being caught out and revealed as someone who just can’t cope with the world around her.If only she could have known we all live in fear of that. We chatted for a few short minutes, as she wanted to get into town to meet someone. Watching her walk away down the passageway between Theatre Absolute’s Shopfront Theatre and the city centre, the shop windows seemed to loom and hem her in. I’m certain I only imagined it, but she seemed to walk a well-known path right down the centre of the passageway.

As is becoming a regular feature of supporting on The Cart, the day became a continuous stream of amazing conversations with the inhabitants and visitors of Coventry. Like pressing fast-forward on a video, the day becomes a blur and then settles down again into the slower pace of late afternoon in any city. Finally a chance for some cake and coffee (I lie, I’ve probably had at least two slices by now – HMS Cupcake really is that good!). A moment to pause and reflect with the other Cart-ographers.

Minutes later the woman who I had spoken to earlier in the day appeared at my side. Before I’d spotted her, she placed a hand on my arm. “Hello.”

“Hello again.” I replied. “How was your day?”

Often, it seems to me, some people who are struggling with mental health issues seem to have a tension to their posture. A pre-fight-or-flight tightness to their muscles. She had none of that. When she told me about her day, meeting her male friend: “We’re just friends. You know, nothing between us. None of that sort of thing. Just friends,” you could in her eyes that she was broken by just trying to get through every day.

We chatted on for a bit longer, gradually making our way back to HMS Cupcake, because, frankly… cakes and coffee!! Then she began to tell me about her background and why she had come to live in Coventry, moving from Wales because she had found a care home that could look after her. “I’m very nervous, you see. Very nervous.”

“You seem to be doing okay.” I replied.

Then she began crying. Not sobbing like someone who has heard bad news. Not bawling like someone who has just lost a loved one. But, like the start of a soft rain in early spring. Brief tears that have taken a lifetime to learn to bring under control. Later on Facebook I wrote, “I made a woman with mental health issues cry today. How was your day?” My own coping mechanism, self-deprecating, inwardly pointed sarcasm. Funny how different people find a way to cope with the world, isn’t it?

We chatted for a bit longer and she told me about the things that art and theatre mean to her. She didn’t really need to, I could tell that what those things meant to her: moments of social engagement. We loaded her up with some more cake and after chatting some more, she said goodbye, heading home to… I don’t know.

If contemporary theatre and the arts, in places like Coventry can achieve anything for our brief, crisscrossing, lives, it’s surely to help create spaces that allow people like this woman to spend time and share her story with someone. I think the idea that the arts can reflect the lives of everybody is a myth. That the arts can create spaces for everybody, however – that’s a real possibility. I’m for a helping to create city of small, safe spaces for us all to share our own version of whatever we mean by culture and our lived experiences of the world. How about you?

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