Bringing academic expertise to the arts

Tony Machin with the castand crew of Wet House 1 Re-sized

Tony Machin (4th from left)with the 2013 cast of Wet House.

Tony Machin, Director of Programmes for Public Health & Wellbeing, has been working with Newcastle’s Live Theatre, to explore themes of homelessness and addiction raised within Wet House – an award-winning play written by Northumbria graduate Paddy Campbell.

Here, Tony discusses how the themes of the play relate to academic disciplines and perspectives studied on courses here at Northumbria University:

Prior to becoming a university academic, my background was in mental health services, as a specialist nurse working with people with problematic alcohol and substance use. I worked with a range of service users addicted to a variety of substances such as alcohol, cannabis, amphetamine and heroin. I also interfaced with a range of services set up to help alcohol and substance misusers.

In the autumn of 2013, I was asked to become involved with a new play being staged at Live Theatre, which drew on aspects of my professional and academic background.

Wet House, written by Paddy Campbell and directed by Max Roberts, both Northumbria graduates, is based upon Paddy’s experience of working in a ‘wet house’. These homes are basically last-ditch accommodation provision for people with alcohol and substance issues who are not at a stage where they can stop their problematic use.

In public health services terms, this provision is classed as ‘harm reduction’, given that offering such an environment at least prevents homelessness and its associated problems.

I worked with the cast and production team during rehearsals to ensure the accurate portrayal of alcohol and substance misuse and its management within the play.

Paddy and the team had crafted a production which very realistically captured the atmosphere and ethos of the setting, and the play went on to win several awards within subsequent months.

As an academic given the chance to observe actors ‘plying their trade’ in my area of specialism, I was struck by the opportunity to reflect upon the complex interplay of factors inter-woven within the narrative. This covered topics as diverse as homelessness and related poverty, addiction to alcohol and drugs and how this addiction can overlap with mental health problems, criminal activity and social problems more generally.

There were also interesting links with how we provide treatment for these substance misusers and the societal attitudes to those within this particular group, as well as the sheer difficulties we face within the health and wellbeing professions of working with these individuals, many of whom are in a very damaged state, both mentally and physically.

Our practice-based disciplines within the area of Public Health and Wellbeing, such as Social Work, Occupational Therapy and Nursing, all play critical roles in the effective treatment of such addictive conditions. At Northumbria we also offer other programmes, including Psychology, Sociology, Criminology, and even the likes of Housing, Built Environment and Education, that all have relevance to the complex interplay of themes raised within this dramatic production.

Although the University’s partnership with Live Theatre has offered a truly innovative insight for me as an academic and practitioner to look at these issues in a new light, perhaps the University can create opportunities to collaboratively examine complex issues such as those raised within Wet House in a way which can inform more affirmative health and social policy? Whatever your academic discipline, I can thoroughly recommend seeing this play as an entertaining and thought-provoking experience.

Wet House returns to Live Theatre in October, after being named one of The Guardian’s top 10 plays of 2013.

Tony will be joining an expert panel at the Live Theatre on Sunday 5 October to explore, with the audience, questions relating to the themes of the play.

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