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Feature: Praise for arts project taking steps to prevent domestic abuse and coercive control, offering solace to survivors

Image: Photo of All In Your Head founder, Lucy Dear.
Lucy Dear is an applied theatre practitioner from London with sixteen years’ experience of working on arts and social change projects. She has worked in hospitals, prisons, museums, and homeless shelters, using theatre as a tool to connect and share stories with different groups of people.

Here, Lucy outlines her recent work, All In Your Head – an applied theatre project working with communities to encourage conversation and awareness around coercive control and domestic abuse. You can find out more about the project on the website and get involved with the conversation on Instagram and Twitter.

I’ve always had an interest in gender and how it shows up in both personal and political spheres - I found myself getting fired up by feminist theory at university, inspired to design projects using theatre as a tool to challenge gender roles in relationships, in the work place and in society, so imagine my surprise when I found myself in a support group at Solace Women’s Aid, realising I had been in and survived an abusive relationship - sat amongst other survivors sharing their stories for the very first time.

This is where All In Your Head was born. Out of the importance of needing to have silenced stories heard.

1 in 4 women will experience domestic abuse in their life time (source: Refuge) but as abuse can be isolating in it’s nature, it is often only when a victim speaks to others who understand the nuance and complexities of abuse that they can begin to understand and process what has happened to them.

Add lockdowns in to the mix and victims are further isolated with the pandemic seeing a 10% rise to reported cases of domestic abuse (Source: BBC). There is no hierarchy when it comes to forms abuse (a key take away from attending support groups) and abuse operates on a spectrum - small acts of abuse often lead to bigger ones - it’s not just violent or non violent, it’s more complex than that, it’s about power and control.

In abusive relationships - after the ‘love bombing’ stage has passed, what can be seen as controlling or changeable behaviour or short tempers, often develops into singular aggressive and threatening acts against property and then later towards victims. This can happen over months or years and like a boiling frog under the right conditions (of victims being told to they are ‘too sensitive’ or that the perpetrators behaviour is ‘all their fault') a victim learns to adapt, endure and placate to survive.

I couldn’t get away from the monster in the room so I learned how to keep it tame” Verbatim account from All In Your Head written by Safaa Benson Effiom.

However without physical evidence of violence, coercive control (which was only made illegal in 2015) can leave survivors with all the effects of abuse without physical 'proof' which can fuel further gaslighting by perpetrators, and quite often well intended support networks - friends, family and the medical profession - who claim without physical evidence it’s ‘All In Your Head’.

Being in support groups saved me. Looking round a room in an anonymously addressed refuge to see women of completely different ages, backgrounds, classes and abilities all with carbon copies of stories to my own made me realise I was not alone. The smiles, the healing and lives that have been saved from women feeling supported and part of a community once again made me realise as a theatre maker that these stories needed to be told, not just to their supportive community but to the wider public.
Without knowing what the end product was I started asking survivors to write about their experiences, based on the following prompts:

'The beginning of the relationship was...'
'The smallest detail of control showed...'
'The affect it has on me was...'

I expected the women to be nervous or hesitant about sharing their stories in what could be a very public platform, but everyone wanted to talk – and not only that, they fed back that they found it cathartic and empowering in doing so.

The collected stories and the women’s experiences were harrowing, beautiful and complex – they needed to be shared.

Fast forward to a lockdown and the project received Arts Council funding. I recruited a brilliant team of women with Cheryl Ndione as producer and Safaa Benson-Effiom as the writer. Safaa had the huge task and responsibility of curating these women’s stories into a one woman show to be understood by wider society. The online play was performed by the exquisite Naomi Sparrow to a live virtual audience of 350 households via Camden People’s Theatre digital programme on Valentines day 2021.

The all-female creative team was made up of those with lived experience, affected others and those who wanted to celebrate women’s voices. The project was supported by Wellbeing Practitioner Lou Platt (I May Destroy You) who provided crucial wellbeing support to the team so we could safely work with challenging and potentially triggering content.

Image: The All In Your Head team in rehearsal.

The play is a 1-hour 15-minute, one-woman, site specific show, set in a London flat. It's layered with pop music about romantic relationships we’ve all sang along to, and video diaries of the protagonist Leanne to her abusive boyfriend. This is all interrupted with verbatim accounts of real women’s experiences of domestic abuse. The 4th wall was Zoom where the audience took the role of voyeur, best friend, perpetrator, counsellor and silent witness – watching the abusive relationship evolve through all of its stages.

The performance was followed by a panel discussion made up of survivors with lived experience, and professionals in the field: Dr Emma Katz (domestic violence researcher at Liverpool Hope University); and representatives from woman's support organisations: Sistah Space, West Mercier Women’s Aid and the Haven Network. Questions were taken anonymously via social media encouraging audience members to become part of the conversation.

All In Your Head was reported on BBC London, as well as highlighted by Kelechi Okafor on the Say Your Mind podcast and received 4 star reviews in inews where it was described as “candid and courageous… this is important work”. All In Your Head also featured on the Dash Arts podcast series, Breaking Silence.

Since Valentines day, All In Your Head  has been on a mission – to keep sharing stories and to continue the conversation around domestic abuse and coercive control.

A really exciting arm to the project has developed which has seen the team delivering creative wellbeing workshops to survivor groups through Southall Black Sisters, and Solace Women’s Aid, where applied theatre approaches are used in workshops with survivors alongside clips of the play to encourage conversation and self expression.

For want of a better word, this is the 'cure' side of the project. Working to create safe communities for people with lived experience to unite, process and continue to heal.

Our 'prevention' work is also taking place in schools, colleges and universities where young people are being encouraged to discuss and unpick what healthy and unhealthy relationships look like, what red flags might be – all the while using drama exercises as a rehearsal for real life.

The newest project to develop came from a school approaching the team to see if we could do anything to combat 'toxic masculinity’ – I jokingly responded ‘how long have you got?’ – arguably most women and men have been battling it their whole lives. You can read how excessive masculinity is linked to high suicide risk for men, here.

After some discussion with the school about how young men as young as 12 to 13 were displaying very problematic misogynistic behaviour towards female students we designed a three hour intensive workshop for a small group of students. We brought in spoken word artist Patrick Evans, and used creative writing as a way of encouraging young men to express themselves on their identity, and gender roles in both relationships and society.

As Patrick performed his own spoken word to the young men with both power and sensitivity, modelling vulnerability and strength at the same time - the group of young men physically lent in, ears pricking up as each line of Patrick's poem landed and seemed to resonate: “I’m more of a man if punch not cry, I’m more of a man if I shout un-shy, I’m more of a man if I don’t ask why.

After a lot of groundwork through trust and ice-breaker activities the students wrote their own group poem (featured below). The project returns in 2022 to continue to encourage conversation young people and older people on gender roles and healthy relationships and will continue to support participants to creatively express themselves on their journeys - and amplify conversations that shouldn’t only be heard in rooms with private addresses.

Men are human,
Don’t force your masculinity it has its limits
Men are strong…
Men “should not” fear, “should not” cry
Men can be emotional, weak
Be whatever they want – it’s their opinion
Men can be anything.

This poem was created by Year 8 students as part of an All In Your Head Masculinity workshop.
In the spring of 2022 All In Your Head will work with Big Creative Academy with young people who will devise their own performances in response to the show and facilitate peer led workshops on healthy and unhealthy relationships. We want to run training for the police, creatively educate young people on healthy and unhealthy relationships in schools through PSHE curriculums and bring applied theatre approaches to the Violence Against Women and Girls sector.


To get in touch about a project old or new, email

Become part of the conversation on Instagram and Twitter.

All In Your Head is an Arts Council Funded project led by Lucy Dear.

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