Last month, The University of Salford was visited by the MaD Theatre Company — a Greater Manchester based charity that offers drama workshops as a means of educating and engaging its audience. On this occasion, they performed Black Eyes & Cottage Pies for students, a production that blends together film and live theatre performances to explore themes of sexuality, adult domestic abuse, sexual consent, sexting and the power of positive peer relationships.
It was originally commissioned 18 months ago by Greater Manchester Police who were looking for an innovative and effective way of tackling intimate partner violence and abuse in the city, and the fact that people aged 16-24 are most at risk from domestic abuse. Black Eyes & Cottage Pies has now been performed at schools, colleges, prisons and work places throughout Manchester.
The play tracks the intertwined lives of a series of characters – of mixed ages and sexualities – who experience different forms of manipulation and abuse at the hands of a partner or family member. The stories are based on true events, drawing upon the anonymised experiences of women and men who have contacted Salford Women’s Aid.
The relationships depicted are both moving and unsettling, encouraging the audience to reflect upon and recognise unhealthy behaviours in their own lives, or imagine how they might react in a similar situation. The format also allows the actors to show the arc of abusive relationships, including the subtle early warning signs that might be overlooked or dismissed, focusing on early intervention and prevention of abuse.
Many victims of abuse experience feelings of self-blame that may compel them to keep quiet and not seek out or accept available support; Black Eyes & Cottage Pies voices these hidden thoughts and emotions. Indeed, following the performance, the room was opened up for discussions – in a relaxed and inclusive atmosphere – around the issues raised. This involved the organisers, the actors, a representative from Salford University Students’ Union and the audience members, a number of whom were prompted to share their own experiences of abuse. The session concluded with the organisers drawing the audience’s attention to the support services and options available – for both victims and perpetrators – should they wish to access them.
The performance and following discussion highlighted just how important peer mentoring is given that young people will often go to their friends for help. Louise Allen, who was involved in developing the performance, explains how vital it is to equip people with appropriate advice and to educate them on support options: “People don’t know what to say [when confronted with these issues]; We can help them to find the language to ask if someone is ok, as well as to voice their own concerns if something is happening to them.” The whole process places an emphasis on encouraging people to look out for one another, raising awareness and facilitating conversations between family members and friends who may be suffering abuse.
Future plans for the project include a documentary film with the play’s actors, allowing them to further discuss the issues raised in their performances, and to offer their own responses and experiences.