You were commissioned by Leeds Playhouse to write a play about living with dementia – how did that come about?
I first got to work with the Playhouse when I was invited to lead a workshop for aspiring writers. I was a Literary Manager for many years and used to delivering these sorts of workshops but I was particularly excited as I hadn’t had a chance to connect with the Playhouse since attending the theatre as a school pupil. I was then asked to pitch for an opportunity to write a play about dementia that would include elements of the amazing work Leeds Playhouse does. It particularly interested me as a project because my dad had dementia. I was drawn to the challenge of exploring a story that showed a more positive side post-diagnosis because that was so far from our experience. We lost my dad back in 2012 and didn’t know to seek out opportunities and extra support for him. It made the process of writing the play bitter-sweet to imagine how rewarding it could have been for him to connect with the rich experiences the Playhouse offers people living with dementia.
You’ve had personal experience of dementia in your family, but how did you go about researching the subject more widely?
I was invited to come to Leeds for the week to engage with some of the people they were working with. I met some truly amazing people. People told me extraordinary stories. Nicky Taylor (Theatre and Dementia Research Associate at Leeds Playhouse) set up a dream team of people living with dementia and their supporters to connect with the play throughout the writing process and these wonderful people helped to shape the play.
One particularly high-profile contributor was Wendy Mitchell (Yorkshire campaigner, advocate and author) who was still writing her first book, but gave up her time to have lunch with me. Her input was invaluable. Wendy identified the obstacles dementia can present in engaging with and enjoying narrative and came up with great suggestions of how we might overcome these through use of significant colours and music. Later, Wendy and a core group of people with similar lived experience were able to attend a run through of the play and gave astute feedback on the production which brought more changes and improvements.
How did you begin to shape the play, bearing in mind the differing needs of the audience?
It felt like quite a daunting task to find a form that could work for and be truthful to an audience of people living with dementia, their carers as well as a wider audience with no direct connection to dementia. I’m not usually mystical about my writing in any way but, in this instance, I can honestly say that the character of Maggie helped me through. She seemed to arrive fully formed, speaking her first monologue. She showed me the way.
What elements of the play have been shaped to help people living with dementia engage with the production?
I realised that by using clear signposts in the play to help Maggie with her disorientation, I could also help orientate the audience. I also utilised a kind of sung call and response pattern between Maggie and her husband to show their warm, loving relationship but also to introduce some music into the play. Music always reached my dad however difficult a day he might be having. If someone pinged a fork against a glass in the kitchen, he would sing the note. Music can be a powerful way of communicating.
People living with dementia and their families shared their thoughts and stories with you – how helpful was that in developing Maggie May?
Some of the Playhouse’s amazing ambassadors came to an early reading of the play at the Every Third Minute festival. It was an absolutely glorious morning. When Maggie tells her son that she might forget him but will remember him in her heart, a man in front of me nudged his wife and gave her a little nod. It had obviously resonated with him. It was a wonderful moment. It’s Playhouse policy that people living with dementia should feel free to leave in the interval if they want to. We thought a lot of people would probably leave, but they didn’t; they came back.
People were very generous with their responses and feedback. Their notes helped me to change aspects of the script. They helped me to make it more truthful; to really speak to people’s experiences. There’s only so much reading you can do. Talking to people showed me the joy and resilience people have in their lives.
Did your work with people living with dementia have a practical impact on the play?
The placing of the interval is important. My instinct as a writer was to put the interval at a moment of crisis, but that wouldn’t work for some members of the audience. The Playhouse’s policy is to be completely accessible, which means people can leave at the interval if they need to. This means the interval has to come at a point of hope. It’s been a puzzling play to solve in that way. But I have loved every part of the process. It a play about and for its audience. I have borrowed stories from people I met at the Playhouse and they’re thrilled to see themselves reflected in the script. There’s a scene where Maggie realises she’s wearing odd shoes and goes away to change them, only to come back with the other pair of odd shoes on. One of the ambassadors who supported the play throughout proudly told her friend at a reading, ‘That’s me!’.
You grew up in Yorkshire and attended the theatre on school trips – does that make sharing this play in this city even more special?
Absolutely. I remember the excitement I felt when I came with my friends to see shows at the playhouse and I feel I’ve come full circle to have a play on here. It was a buzz to write something rooted in a city I have loved since childhood and to tell stories drawn from real Leeds people. I am very proud of Maggie May and feel so lucky to have been able to write it.