2. Don’t Smile Co-production theatre and debate – Innovation in research dissemination addressing health literacy and reach to vulnerable at risk young people


 This pilot project (referred to as the COHESION Pilot) offers an exciting new way of working to build innovative theatre and pioneer new partnerships. It brings patients, dentists, scientists, dental students, performance art students and theatre practitioners from Theatre of Debate working in ‘an artist in residence-style’ approach together to develop an inspired piece of theatre that is a vehicle to publicise research findings and through debate raise awareness of oral public health knowledge and dental research with the public and local community.

In a part of England where nearly half of all 12-year-olds have decaying teeth, this highly inclusive and inspiring project was launched. It uses drama as a means of sharing sometimes difficult messages for the good of teenage oral health. It proved an effective way to spread research findings from the University of Leeds directly to the audience that really mattered - the teenagers of Yorkshire. Co-developed with the people who they hoped to engage, the pupils were inspired by what they saw.

This short video produced as part of the project tells the story of the project.


A love story with a dental theme: using theatrical performance to disseminate research to at-risk seldom-heard adolescents in areas of social deprivation and high oral health inequality.

Health need: In Yorkshire, 45% of its 12-year-olds have caries resulting in pain, lost schooling and low self-esteem; it is correlated with social/health inequality. Whilst largely preventable, reaching those most vulnerable in deprived areas is challenging. Disadvantaged teenagers intrinsically don't like to be told what to do.

Purpose: Don't Smile was inspired to test if using theatre might impart knowledge non-judgmentally, allow debate and improve oral health awareness in at risk adolescents.

Concept: University of Leeds worked in a unique collaboration with Theatre of Debate, students (dentists, scientists and performance arts), patients and adolescents to co-produce Don't Smile. The short play/debate showcased world-leading research on the inherited condition Amelogenesis Imperfecta that results in abnormal tooth enamel formation leading to discoloured, painful teeth. It allowed us to explore the wider implications of poor oral health, social isolation/psychological wellbeing and NHS dental access.

Impact and benefits: Don't Smile was an effective way to communicate research and oral health knowledge. We conclude that theatre is an effective media to impart knowledge that pupils ordinarily had limited access to and described it as a 'treat'.

Legacy: A web-based documentary showcases that approach and provides further knowledge-transfer opportunity for others to benefit.

In 2016 Don’t Smile won the National Coordinating Centre for Public Engagement National Prize for engaging with young people.

Watch our short overview trailer and interviews with the collaborators.

For further information visit The University of Leeds website or listen to our interview with the project team.