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Research inspired stage play challenges stigma of hearing voices

A rehearsed reading of Dialogues from Babel, a new stage play about how we all live with the voices in our heads, will take place in Newcastle upon Tyne next week.

The play is based on Durham University research into auditory verbal hallucinations and incorporates the spoken words of mental health service users from the North-East of England, as well as those of literary writers.

The performance will take place at Northern Stage, Barras Bridge, Newcastle upon Tyne, on Monday 7 March 2022 at 7pm.

Up to one in ten people hear voices that others don’t. It is an experience that is commonly associated with distress, with mental illness, and shame linked to social stigma.

But many writers also report vivid experiences of “hearing” the voices of the characters they create and having characters who talk back to them, rebel, and “do their own thing”.

Dialogues from Babel explores the connections between these different experiences, weaving together conversations with novelists and personal stories from voice-hearers to illuminate the experience of hearing a voice that no one else can hear.

It is one of many Durham University initiatives that aim to increase public understandings of voice-hearing, challenge stigma, and let people know that if they are struggling with distressing voices support is available to help them cope.

Seven actors have worked alongside director Mary Robson (Creative Facilitator, Durham University), dramaturg Philip Howard (former artistic director of the Traverse theatre, Edinburgh), and Fife-based sound designer R J McConnell to create a unique theatrical experience.

The 90-minute rehearsed reading will be followed by a 30-minute panel discussion. There will also be a wine reception at the Northern Stage from 6pm.

Tickets are £5 and available from the Box Office at Northern Stage (tel 0191 230 5151 between 12pm–4pm Monday to Friday).

A rehearsed reading of the play will also take place at the Traverse Theatre, 10 Cambridge Street, Edinburgh, EH1 2ED on Friday 4 March 2022 at 7.30pm. Tickets are £10–£12 and available online or from the Box Office (tel 0131 228 1404).

Dialogues from Babel is the result of a collaboration between Edinburgh International Book Festival, two NHS mental health trusts in the North-East of England, and Durham’s Hearing the Voice – an interdisciplinary study of voice-hearing funded by the Wellcome Trust.

The conversations that inform the play come from research with writers at the Edinburgh International Book Festival and forty interviews with Early Intervention in Psychosis service users from Newcastle upon Tyne and surrounding areas.

The service users were participants in the Voices in Psychosis study, which ran for three years and explored how their experience of hearing voices changed over time.

The researchers worked closely with all of the participants, some of whom generously gave their permission for their experiences to be shared in the play.

The research was a collaboration between Hearing the Voice and the Cumbria, Northumberland, Tyne and Wear (CNTW) and Tees, Esk and Wear Valleys (TEWV) NHS Foundation Trusts.

Dr Ben Alderson-Day, Associate Professor of Psychology, Durham University, said: “Voices, visions and other unusual experiences are highly stigmatised, rarely talked about and often hidden from public view. We’ve been working with CNTW and TEWV for more than a decade now, trying to get a better understanding of these experiences and help people find ways to live well with them.

“Bringing the voices of local mental health service users to the stage so they can be publicly heard is one of the most exciting aspects of this collaboration so far.”

Mary Robson, Creative Facilitator at Durham University’s Institute of Medical Humanities and Director of Dialogues from Babel, said: “Our work at Durham is based on listening and learning from people’s lived experience. What is really unique about this play is that it brings the experiences of voice-hearers from the North-East, described in their own words, into dialogue with the experiences of writers from all over the world.”

Professor Angela Woods, Director of Durham University’s Institute of Medical Humanities and Co-Director of Hearing the Voice, said: “We’ve known for a long time that voices vary in terms of what they sound like, the things they say and their meaning to the voice-hearer.

Dialogues from Babel reflects our growing understanding of these differences, challenging the common misconception that voices are always loud, commanding and dangerous and that voice-hearing is always a symptom of mental illness and poor prognosis.”

Philip Howard, the scriptwriter who wrote Dialogues from Babel, said: “Working on this project has been a rare opportunity and a privilege. I soon learned how familiar, unremarkable and ‘normal’ experiences of hearing voices can be.”

Stephen Groves (a local singer/songwriter who hears voices) said: “Voices don’t have to stop you from doing the things you love. They’re something you can live with. It would be great if we could normalise voice-hearing, so we can have more of these conversations without people wondering if people who hear voices are safe. Education and improved understanding are really what’s needed, so that we, the voice-hearers, can feel included and not excluded from society.”

Stephanie Common (Clinical Lead, Tees, Esk & Wear Valley NHS Trust Early Intervention for Psychosis Services) said: “The research-collaboration that informed the play is part of a wider programme of work with Durham University to improve the way we understand and provide intervention for distressing voice-hearing experiences”.


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