News Story

Here’s a nice thing. We’ve become the first theatre in the country to create a permanent, part-time Creative Therapist role to provide wellbeing programmes and direct one-to-one support to Chichester Festival Youth Theatre members, as well as support and consultancy to freelance acting companies and creatives, and CFT staff.

Shari A. Jessie, who is a US and UK-trained, person-centred therapist, joined us in September 2022. With this new role, we’re acknowledging our increasing responsibility towards wellbeing, in the context of a global mental health crisis which has been exacerbated by the Covid-19 pandemic.

Shari is working to extend our duty of care to Youth Theatre participants through specialised individual support and weekly group creative therapy sessions. Alongside this, she’s developing and delivering wellbeing training and consultancy for in-house and freelance practitioners, pioneering best creative practice and working to create a culture of care across the organisation.

Dale Rooks, our Director of Learning, Education & Participation says; ‘This new role will improve the chances of our participants, artists and staff feeling safe and empowered to do their best work. It acknowledges the challenges young people in particular are facing today. We’re being proactive in offering a safe space for creativity, both within our own walls, and in the community that we serve.’

Shari grew up in New York and studied drama therapy, family studies with a specialisation in adolescent development, and social work. In 2009 she moved to the UK and did a Master’s in Psychology. Having worked as an attendance and welfare manager with young people in pupil referral units in London, she then completed her qualifications in counselling, and moved to Chichester.

Shari takes up the story: ‘I started my private practice here in Chichester but within a few weeks, I went to see The Long Song at the theatre. It stirred something in me: I thought CFT is such an amazing resource, but how can we facilitate difficult conversations that need to be had about what theatre is, matching it up with social issues, and the impact a show like that has on the people watching it? I met the actors afterwards who told me about LEAP and the next day I sent an email and asked if there was a way for me to get involved. They invited me for a meeting and that led to some freelance work at the Theatre, doing CPD with practitioners, and then this position arose and I applied for it.

When things are really painful, being able to create something allows a bit of distance and perspective

‘I love creative therapy. I work with clay, images and collaging, paints, sand, movement, and of course, drama; any kind of methodology that allows a client to be in touch with what’s coming up for them. I’ve worked with so many young people who come from such deep trauma that they won’t, or can’t talk. Or maybe what they have to talk about is so painful that they can’t access it; so for me, creative therapies has always made sense.

‘The other reason creative methods are so powerful is that when things are really painful, being able to create something allows a bit of distance and perspective, and you don’t have to be so overwhelmed by the feeling of it inside of you.

‘I’m so grateful for the amount of autonomy I’ve been given in this job, because it’s not been done before. It’s a really brave, bold, far-reaching thing. Dundee Rep has a longstanding thriving community-based drama therapy programme at, but not affiliated to, the theatre and I’m aware of drama therapists based in London who are attached to specific productions doing phenomenal work with casts. But there’s no one else looking at the expansiveness of a creative space and the support that all the people that engage with it need. Add to that, in particular, the number of young people that CFYT reaches and what we’re trying to do here, I think, is really special.

‘When you have an institution like CFT that is so prominent and so respected in the community, to be at the fore of moving that needle forward a little bit, in understanding and engaging with social issues and mental health, is a really exciting prospect.’

This work is generously supported by the G D Charitable Trust and the Shalit family.