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A group of older people in Wales meet on Zoom to share their memories of 2020. Of emotional visits from grandchildren, of neighbours leaving home-cooked meals on the doorstep, of feelings of fear and lethargy but also optimism.
This isn’t a social catch up, however; it’s a rehearsal of a new digital theatre production that shines a light on elders’ experiences of the pandemic and challenges the portrayal of older people as vulnerable.
“We don’t want to portray ourselves as victims or as being vanquished,” says Terri Morrow, one of the nine-strong company who created and will perform in the production. “There is still some stiffness in our backbone – it’s not all arthritis.”
Karin Diamond, artistic director of Re-Live, the Cardiff-based charity behind the production, says older people have been even more marginalised and isolated during lockdown. But the performance, Secret Country, enables the cast to demonstrate the resilience that has seen them through this year.
“Vulnerability has been talked about so much this year with older people: ‘they are vulnerable, they are shielding.’ Who is putting these labels on older people?” says Diamond. “I am hoping this performance allows audiences to see behind those words and judge for themselves if they think older people are vulnerable or frail.”
Preparation for Secret Country began in October. Most of the cast – who are aged between 72 and 93 – had no experience of performing before joining Re-Live’s Company of Elders. They were asked about their experiences this year, memorable pre-pandemic incidents, how they found the initial weeks of lockdown, and what they would like to say to Covid. From their contributions, the show was created.
“The script is not written by someone else. The script is us,” says company member Max Scott-Cook.
“We are speaking from our hearts and minds,” adds Morrow.
Re-Live works with different communities and has created nine productions so far. Associate artist Robyn Herfellow describes the process of creating as “deep listening”, adding that during the pandemic, people have lost the chance to see each other and connect. “That need to share, to be listened to and to share these experiences hasn’t gone away. It has been such a joy in the past couple of months to have that need seen to.”
All work on writing and rehearsing the production has taken place online and some of the participant performers have not met face to face. But Diamond says the connection is just as strong and the company members have supported each other through recent months.
One of the cast, Nicky Delgado, 72, had a stroke during lockdown and his involvement in the production is helping to rehabilitate his speech and movement.
The show is dedicated to the memory to Jean O’Grady, who had been in all of Re-Live’s previous creative ageing productions, and took part in the first session for Secret Country. Her granddaughter helped her take part from her bed at home, and she died peacefully a few hours later.
Scott-Cook enjoyed acting in productions at school, but had not been on stage since the age of 18. Returning to performance has “turned the lights on” for him; he had found something he never realised was within himself, and friends and family have seen a new side to him.
As well as helping her through the challenges of this year, Morrow says working with Re-Live kept her going after being diagnosed with leukaemia eight years ago. She says it has offered her “magic and medicine” and unlocked her imagination. “It is the best therapy ever,” she says. “You are transported out of yourself.”
Morrow had always wanted to perform, but the opportunity had never arisen. She first became involved with Re-Live 14 years ago, after receiving a letter from Age Concern inviting people to share their stories with drama practitioners. That evolved into Re-Live’s debut production.
As well as its Company of Elders, Re-Live has created performances with veterans with post-traumatic stress, people with a terminal illness and those living with dementia. Its aim is to create theatre that challenges stigma and changes the way people see each other.
All its productions, including Secret Country, are followed by question and answer sessions that give audiences a chance to share their thoughts and responses. Those sessions are as important as the performances according to Scott-Cook, who says the whole process has been cathartic: “We want to try to help an audience to feel there is hope.”
Source: The Guardian
Keyword: ‘We don’t want to be seen as victims’: the older people using theatre to tell their Covid stories | Society