Oxford School of Nursing and Midwifery

Progress Theatre - the award-nominated midwifery theatre company

Thursday, 08 March 2018

progress theatre2

On Tuesday 6 March, Kirsten Baker (Senior Lecturer in Midwifery) attended the Royal College of Midwives Awards Ceremony representing Progress Theatre.

Co-founded by Kirsten in 1999, Progress Theatre was nominated for an Excellence in Education Award. It’s an exciting recognition for the work they have done in supporting midwives and empowering them to tackle industry problems with empathy and imagination.

What is Progress Theatre?

As Kirsten describes it, Progress Theatre is “a theatre company that makes work about midwives, for midwives”. They produce a kind of performance called ‘Forum Theatre’, a unique kind of theatre which makes the audience’s opinion and imagination the star of the show. A typical Progress Theatre show will present a performance that showcases an evocative situation familiar to many midwives, then invites the audience to discuss it and imagine what the protagonist could do to change things.

As the core members of Progress are all midwives themselves, they have a deep understanding of the issues midwives face. As Kirsten puts it, they’re not just dramatists looking at a situation from the outside, they’re professionals whose connection to these issues runs deep “in our blood and sinews”.

They perform regularly, often invited to conferences by Heads of Midwifery and managers/supervisors in the profession. They’re also frequently invited to perform at student events, for which they operate a flexible pricing structure to recognise the value of their work in education. Their bi-annual marquee event is the Normal Birth Conference, which Kirsten referred to with a wink as “our Glastonbury”.

How did Progress come into being?

Coming from a theatrical background, Kirsten studied English and Drama and first became involved with the healthcare profession via undertaking roleplay and communications training with medics. This experience made it clear to her that “what I really wanted was to be on the other side of this equation”. She began to consider midwifery and, partly motivated to prove some well-meaning naysayers wrong, she made the decision to enrol at Brookes.

As her career began to head more into education, she was invited by Mavis Kirkham - due to her theatrical background - to deliver drama sessions for students. These sessions were well received and had the added bonus of bringing together a group of midwives with passion and skill in performance.

Thus, in 1999, Progress Theatre was officially formed. It’s been going strong even since and its current members are Kirsten Baker, Anna Byrom, Gemma Boyd, Nicky Hargreaves, Radha Wilson, Fallon Dyer and Adele Stanley.

What’s the value of Progress Theatre?

At the heart of their work are the kinds of universal experiences that challenge midwives across the profession. Capturing those moments is incredibly important, as it allows participants to explore those common problems in a new way, provoking new and imaginative solutions.

This also causes the occasional amusing exchange, when members of the audience assume that stories must have been based on their own unit!

Tackling important subjects like workplace ‘horizontal’ bullying, or the potential triggers of midwifery for people who have survived sexual abuse, Progress helps midwives to develop skills that are vital for practice.

As Kirsten recounts, “People often comment that moving from drama to healthcare must have been a big change for me, but to me one led very naturally to the other. Putting yourself into another person’s position, knowing how to empathise and improvise, is a vital part of both drama and midwifery.

What’s next for Progress and for Kirsten?

Recently, Kirsten has been taking more of a backseat with Progress, leaving it in the capable hands of Gemma Boyd and the rest of the team (it was Gemma who secured the nomination at the RCM Awards).

Kirsten recently spent 8 months in Malawi with Maternity Worldwide where, amongst other things, she discovered that the midwives there also very much embraced the idea of theatre as part of education. The limited resources in some areas, especially, highlighted the importance and strength of improvisation in both drama and healthcare.

Kirsten is also working on some exciting collaborations with the Brookes Drama Department and the midwifery and social work teams. And, of course, she’s very excited to be representing Progress again at the RCM Awards.

Meanwhile, Progress will continue to create shows and deliver workshops that support and drive change for midwives. After all, “change is based on imagination.