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InterAct Stroke Support: Theatre of the mind



InterAct Stroke Support takes professional actors into hospitals to read to stroke survivors.

Stroke Rehab Times had a chat with Chief Executive and former actor/writer Nirjay Mahindru to find out more about how creativity and the arts can motivate and inspire stroke survivors.

How does your work help stroke survivors?

We believe it makes an appreciable difference to a stroke survivor’s rehabilitation by alleviating depression and stimulating memory and language.

Many stroke survivors have told me that they would much rather deal with physical paralysis than not be able to remember the name of their partner or child. I would feel exactly the same way.

A number of occupational and speech therapists have commented that stroke survivors are far more likely to engage in other hospital activities after an InterAct reader has gone in and read to them.

What makes a good InterAct reader?

A good InterAct reader would try to find out, who is the human being in front of me? What are their likes and dislikes? You might say in conversation, I really love dogs, a good InterAct actor will use that information to choose and tell a story.

What they don’t do is sit down and grandly pronounce ‘here’s my Henry the fourth scene’, because the recipient might not be interested in that.

I’m really looking for actors that have a lot of empathy, sympathy and sensitivity.

I’m more inclined to interview a recent drama school graduate who has already encountered stroke within their own family than a more established actor who has no personal experience.

So what kind of feedback have you had from clinicians and patients using your services?

Oh, very positive. But one of the issues that faces not only InterAct but other similar organisations is, how do you clinically prove that delivering our reading services has benefits?

What we do have is anecdotal evidence from the stroke survivors themselves, who say things like, ‘this is good food for the brain,’ or ‘this is better than four months of medicine.’

We do want to look at developing quantitative and qualitative clinical research to explore the efficacy of our work.

Two of our trustees are professors of stroke, Dr. Anthony Rudd and Professor Marion Walker. I’ve been talking to them recently about whether they could help me make some proposal to a PhD student to look at developing a clinical research project for InterAct.

How has the pandemic affected your work?

When I took over it at InterAct, I decided I really wanted to commit to developing our service regionally. So we expanded to places like Birmingham, Newcastle, Manchester, Brighton, Glasgow and Cardiff.

I had just then come back from talks in Belfast, which would have made us a truly United Kingdom charity, when Covid came along put a spanner in the works.

Because our core work is in hospitals, everything was put on hold. So we developed our online InterAct at Home, where professional actors deliver readings directly into people’s homes using Zoom and Teams.

But there are many people who aren’t confident with computers, so we’re also using the good old fashioned telephone. That has been really popular with a particular group of stroke survivors.

They really love their phone calls from the professional actors who then read them various stories.

You also work within the community…

We started various projects where we were encouraging stroke survivors to come together and do something creative. It could be anything. The purpose of working with the actors was act as facilitators to enhance their creativity.

We had a group do Desert Island Discs, so the actor sourced the music and then interviewed each person about why that particular piece of music meant a lot to them.

We had another group do an oral history project about how they used to make parachutes for the RAF during World War Two. It was fantastic.

What other creative projects can the community get involved in?

We’ve run a short story competion every two years since 2008. The deadline for last year’s competition was December.

The initial judging panel have whittled the short stories down to 24. They’re going to meet again at the end of February, and they’ll whittle it down to about 12. Then it’s up to Dame Margaret Drabble to decide on the top three stories.

Before Margaret Drabble it was the late Ruth Rendell, in whose name the short story competition is given.

The winner receives £1000 and is commissioned to write a further four 1000-word stories for InterAct over the course of the year.

How are the stories used?

We use all these good stories as material for the actors to read on the hospital wards. It’s a really good way of making sure that our material is never stale.

We want the stories to be short, because stroke survivors in hospital may not be able to concentrate for very long.

They will read to six or seven people over a two-hour timeframe. If someone doesn’t want to be read to, that’s fine of course. We don’t want to deny the stroke patient their agency.

We often have people who don’t want us to read stories but would like us to read the Bible to them. That’s absolutely fine. We will read what is of joy and comfort to that person.

What is your podcast all about?

We interview people from across the arts, culture and health sectors. But I’ve also interviewed politicians, such as former health secretary, now author, Alan Johnson.

I didn’t want it just to be interviews with stroke survivors because I just think that becomes a little bit repetitive after a while.

We’ve interviewed plenty of stroke survivors and we will certainly interview more. But we wanted to widen the profile so that we can reach more people and introduce them to the charity.

What do you have planned for the rest of 2022?

I would really like to restart at all our 19 hospitals, while keeping InterAct at Home a permanent fixture. I want to expand to Belfast and then other areas in the country where we don’t yet have a presence, like the south-west, Yorkshire, possibly Liverpool.

Hopefully, COVID-permitting, we’ll have an event sometime in late spring, early summer, to celebrate the short story competition. Ideally, in a theatre venue.

I also want to continue to encourage particularly socially-isolated stoke survivors to come together and develop their confidence through a creative project working with InterAct actors.

Finally, if I could have everything, I hope we can finally get up and running on some clinical research.

That is very important to use as we move forward from a fundraising point of view.