Audio Stories

‘Experts by Experience in the Creative Realm’ by Paul Atherton FRSA

Reported by Paul

Published on Wednesday, June 23rd, 2021

Audio Stories

‘Experts by Experience in the Creative Realm’ by Paul Atherton FRSA

Written by Paul

Published on Wednesday, June 23rd, 2021


In this piece Paul talks about the effectiveness of the arts as a means of communicating the stories and experiences of people with lived experience of homelessness, creating a visceral connection with the audience that is immediately visible.  


Transcription of audio:

It is bank holiday, Monday 31st 2021. It’s been an interesting week, a theatrical week, a week of outdoor and indoor performances. But what that week has taught me is that the notion of lived experience is really only true in the art space.

A couple of weeks ago, Museum of Homelessness brought me to my attention that somebody had posted ‘has anyone had lived experience of renting in Peckham’. You don’t need to put the words lived experience people…all you need to do is write ‘Have you ever rented in Peckham?’ And this is the world we’ve got now.

The language has now been so corrupted as to be pretty meaningless. I still prefer the term ‘expert by experience.’  I think it has far greater weight and it means something more than lived by experience. But working in both, under the banner of the Royal Society of Arts, where I am pretty much the go to lived experience guy and my voice often gets quelled there and across various charities where you just kind of get lost into the mire and never see what happens to anything or certainly never see results from your input.

Theatre is an altogether different ball game. So the weekend before or two weeks ago, I think it is now, I went to Bedford, fortuitously all the performances were outside, [Bedford] being sort of ground zero for the Indian variant of Covid. But we were all appropriately safe and we stayed in the Premier Inn hotel and it was all clean and sort of washed down every five minutes and people brought you breakfast so you couldn’t go collect and all the things you would expect in these current circumstances.

But nonetheless, I’d gone to Bedford to support two members of my museum of homelessness family, as I refer to them. The first being David John Tovey, well known, respected artist whose face is currently on billboards all across Britain for the ‘Fight for Housing’ Shelter campaign. And most of his work, theatrical work, is autobiographical, talks about his attempts of suicide and also the sort of recovery. And this was a premiere of a new work. Very similar, but taking a very different tack and looking at his time as a soldier and how he’s been let down as a soldier and it’s an audio visual piece. It was done outside in the rain and we were all wrapped up with headphones and it all added to the experience of being wet and cold and outdoors, which brought his performance up 10 notches because of what he was talking about and what he was describing.

Not going to give the game away, but it’s a really, really, really interesting ending to this piece, something vastly different to anything he’s done before. But talking to the audience afterwards is that you get an immediate reaction to it, you go, this is the voice of someone who’s had lived experience.

‘How does that make you feel?’  

‘What place does that put you in?’

‘Are you going to change…?’

And as much as you don’t measure the change afterwards, you can certainly measure the impact in the moment and that was phenomenal.

The next day, my friend Gobscure performed his piece ‘Driven to Madness’ by the Brutality of Wealth’, which is an Engle’s sentence. Engles lived in Primose Hill for those who want to know, and again looking at his own experience of being institutionalized in a mental hospital. And that Hicksean line that he received there, that’s a reference to Bill Hicks for those who don’t know is… someone actually said to him.

‘What do you need books for, you’re homeless?’

So Gobscure’s retaliation to that was to go off, read a lot of books, get a degree, create the performance to be able to mock the person that said,

‘what do you need books for your homeless?’

And again, there was an engagement in this performance, a drawing in of the audience, a challenging of of embedded conceits, and you could see literally see on people’s faces the change of attitude almost incrementally as the performance went on, not just in the performance, but it was a piece that involved audience participation. Spectart.. Spectarters… ? There is a term for it, but I cannot remember how to pronounce it, but basically active spectators.

And again, that was great. And then last week It was my turn. I had been working with the reaction theatre makers up in Malvern, the director /writer of the piece, Tiffany Hosken, had asked me to…commissioned me to write a piece about 20 minutes explaining how people get trapped in bureaucracy, which I did, and entitled 20 ‘Encounters to Nowhere’.  Her piece has then drawn on that and my personal experience and produced a two hour full work called ‘Outside In’ which got its first four Salak previews at the Malvern Cube Theatre. And again being in that audience was spectacular because my narrative is actually direct, so there’s a couple reading about my story in the Metro and discussing how they feel about this and how I ended up there. And then we had a Q&A with the audience afterwards.

And again, it was a direct loop. I did something. Somebody else did something. It gets performed, we get a response. And it was joyous. It was really, really joyous because people came up to me afterwards and they were like

‘I didn’t know.’ And that’s the biggest thing usually you get is

‘I did not know that this could happen.’

I did not know that all it takes is a credit file error.’

I did not know the charities out there do not offer the support we think they do.’

We give money to Shelter. surely they Shelter people?’

and you go

‘No, what, Crisis? They rush to your aid in a crisis?’


‘But the the welfare state pays you?’


And so it goes on.

And this was what was really fascinating about it was it was totally brilliant. And you get that reaction back from a public. And that’s what I consider the lived experience or expert by experience brings to something. They bring a truth and an honesty that, if delivered correctly, affect immediate change. And and the theatre and the arts seems to be the best places where this works. And for a long time now, I felt like my voice has just been getting thrown out there or used, worse still going

‘oh, let’s bring Paul in as the lived experience person and once he’s done, we can tick the box and go back to doing whatever we were doing.’

But I think one of the most seismic moments was one of the other lived experience person who has…was in fact, still experiencing homelessness, said the question I really want to ask everybody is I want them to come back a week later and tell us what you’ve done differently. And I think that that would be a really, really fascinating piece of research to see if these things have the impact that we feel they do.

And we know theatre changes and we know art changes people and we know cartoons change people. We’ve seen it historically time and time and time and time again. But to actually see a direct correlation between the reaction you get within the audience and then how that affects their actions a year down the line, I’d be really, really interested to discover that. Maybe a degree in there somewhere, I suspect.

Anyway, yes, more positive this week than for a long time. Because of that, I’ve been creative. I’ve been involved. I’ve seen my story seen through someone else’s eyes, then put in to actors mouths and performed to an audience and then found that reaction come back. And those kind of moments, yeah, those kind of moments want to keep me staying alive.

This is the tweet about “Lived Experience” of growing up in Peckham (not renting as I said)


My RSA Blog that I struggled to get through the editor at the RSA


Me introducing myself as the Lived Experience section of an RSA lainch event, which got a good laugh


Bedford – Indian Variant now renamed Delta


David J Tovey – Billbaords – Fight For Housing


Unknown Soldier




Bill Hicks – What You Readin’ for


Tiffany Hoskin’s Play “Outside In” inspired by my story includes parts I’ve written and parts I workshopped. Made by Reaction Theatre Makers. Preview performances in Malvern Cube.


Malvern Cube


The Metro Article in the play

Written by Paul

Paul Atherton FRSA is a social campaigning film-maker, playwrightauthor & artist. His work has been screened on the Coca-Cola Billboard on Piccadilly Circus, premiered at the Leicester Square Odeon Cinema, his video-diary has been collected into the permanent collection of the Museum of London, he is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts and was selected as one of the London Library's 2021/22 emerging writers during covid lockdown, where he is currently writing his memoir.

He achieved most of this whilst homeless, an ongoing experience that has been his life for over a decade in London. In the last two years he’s made Heathrow Airport Terminal 5 his bedroom and became part of what he coined the #HeathrowHomeless before being moved into emergency hotel accommodation for the duration of Covid-Lockdown in Marylebone on 3rd April 2020.

In the past ten years he’s experienced every homeless initiative that Charities, Local Authorities and the City has had to offer. All of which clearly failed.

With the end of “Everyone In”, Paul has no idea where his next move is going to be, but he expects he’ll be returning to Heathrow.

Read all of Paul's articles