We hear a lot about the healing qualities of art but Margot Politis has seen firsthand how real this can be.

Politis is the associate director at Milk Crate Theatre, the not-for-profit company in Sydney that uses the performing arts to change the story of homelessness and work with people with mental health issues.

Milk Crate grew out of an informal series run by Darlinghurst Theatre 16 years ago, where groups of actors performed pop-up-style shows at Edward Eager Lodge, a temporary housing facility for people in need. These days, professional arts facilitators run weekly drop-in style workshops in both Woolloomooloo and Parramatta, and the organisation produces two public performances each year.

Politis has seen a range of people take part in the free workshops, from those who have experienced homelessness, trauma or domestic violence to others who have mental health support needs. Traditionally the majority of participants are men over 40, so Milk Crate has created a number of outreach programs specifically for women that will run later this year.

“There’s a social aspect to it but also an underlying skills development aspect,” says Politis, who has worked in the community arts and cultural development space for 15 years. “We help people engage socially, develop some skills, have some interaction with the wider world, maybe have a reason to get out of the house that day. Then those skills become transferrable for applying for jobs or entering study or pursuing a career as a practicing artist.”

Politis says although the workshops are casual and there is no pressure to attend, behavioural issues and other incidents do arise. “In any workshop or if we’re putting on a show people turn up with whatever they turn up with. We’ve had situations where people have had mental health episodes and those situations can be quite upsetting, especially if they have a great energy and want to be a part of the creative process.”

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Nevertheless she says the response is overwhelmingly positive. “We’ve created a really strong social support framework. We have a social worker on our core team, we’ve put in a lot of boundaries and guidelines and all our staff are trained in mental health first aid to make sure none of our participants ever feels they’re at risk.”

This year Milk Crate has produced two productions: That’s the Spirit, an interactive theatre show performed for schools at Riverside Theatres in Parramatta, which explored the overwhelming incidence of depression and helped people better understand and support their friends and family who might be suffering. The second was Turning Towers, a pop-up show that aimed to help the residents of Waterloo get a grip on the challenges they were facing as the NSW Government revitalises the area they live in, resulting in many of them being relocated.

The shows tend not to have scripts that need memorising, and production values may not be particularly sophisticated, as Politis says the focus is on impact.

“Different people relate to different forms of expression,” she says. “Some projects we do are very community-oriented, there’s not necessarily a high production value but it might have a really strong social impact. I just love exploring how the arts and community can integrate.”

That’s the Spirit was performed by four Milk Crate Theatre participants and directed by renowned choreographer and performer Kay Armstrong. Armstrong was keen for the production to have a lighter side, given the serious nature of the subject, but the students (years 9 to 12) felt it could have been even darker.

“They’re not as fearful of the topic as I had imagined,” Politis says, adding they included a section on mental health first aid so audience members could take away tools to help friends dealing with mental health issues.

Politis says Milk Crate’s impact has been profound, with around 80 to 90 per cent of participants surveyed indicating the workshops or performances had helped expand their skills and increase their confidence.

“People who stick with the program do develop a great sense of self-awareness, and some of our success stories are people who have gone on to pursue further study, which makes us a bit sad because we miss them,” she laughs. “I also think something changes for people socially as well. Any art program, especially the performing arts, is inherently therapeutic. It allows people to be part of a community, and that helps us all – participants, staff and artists – learn to engage with each other respectfully and listen more.”

Milk Crate Theatre is supported by CafeSmart, an initiative that unites the community over coffee to help fund local homelessness services. CafeSmart returns August 4. Find participating cafes here. Roasters can become a partner here. Cafe owners can sign up to CafeSmart here.

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