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Meet the theatre team staging a play about early-onset Alzheimer’s

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In Other Words, Matthew Seager’s debut play, will be staged at The Hope Theatre this month. Brought to life by two actors, the play explores the effects of Alzheimer’s disease.

We spoke to Matthew and producer Stephanie Withers about how they brought this new, touching production to life.

“I went to Leeds University and then I trained at drama school at the Royal Conservatoire Scotland,” Matthew explains.

“One of our last modules was called Processes of Performance. We choose what we wanted to do and we ended up doing reminiscence, sensory and music based workshops at a dementia care home in Leeds.

“We did ten sessions, one a week, and we would do singalongs,

"It was amazing. The residents weren’t able to speak, remember names or have any cognitive response but if there was a song from their life that they recognised they’d be able to stand up and singalong – it was amazing.

"We thought what a brilliant show that would make; what a great story.”

Thus music is heavily featured throughout Arthur and Jane’s story. Keeping tight-lipped on name of the song choice Stephanie and Matthew told me the chosen song is by Frank Sinatra and it follows Jane and Arthur throughout their journey.

“The part of the brain that connects to personal music is the past of the brain that’s last affected by dementia,” explains Matthew, “So his brain will still react to that song and he’ll be able to relate to his past and live again."

After the module sparked an interest in Matthew, he wrote his first draft in his final year of study. The play has taken three years of development; what started as a 35-minute version at The Arches in Glasgow has now flourished into a full scale production at one of the most pominiant off West End theatres in London.

What really grew the production was The Emerging Artists programme at the Lyric Hammersmith.

producer Stephanie tells me: “It was so good we just got this lovely room and they basically let us do whatever we wanted with the support we needed.

"Just to have the name of the Lyric behind you is such a great credit. Someone saying we support this work; we support this company - it just makes it so much more accessible to put on. Without that we wouldn’t have got The Hope along to see it."

The heartfelt production follows Arthur and Jane over 50 years of their relationship as Arthur sadly develops Alzheimer’s.

The Hope Theatre saw the production in January 2016 and decided to programme it.

When talking about the characters Matthew explains that they are “not based on actual people, but they are based on things that happened to people. A lot is based on the scenarios of what I saw when I was working at the care home and documentaries.”

It is what Stephanie describes as a “reimagined story”.

“There’s no point in making it up, because it’s so real,” she says.

Although often thought of as a disease of older people, around 4% of people with Alzheimer’s are under 65. This is what Matthew chose to explore within the lead role.

“Early onset is a more effective way to tell a story because you see someone at an age who you expect to be able to communicate better.

“We play Arthur and Jane over a 50-year period; we start when they’re 23 and 27.”

The run begins at The Hope on 28th February and Stephanie describes it as the “perfect” space for the production.

“The reason it works so well at the hope there’s a lot of direct audience address, the two characters are telling the audience their story they’re able to talk to you,” explains Matthew.

“In a 50-person space you can look the audience in the eye.”

Not only has Matthew written the show and made it a success, he also takes on the lead role as Arthur.

“I feel a lot of responsibility. You feel you have an obligation to tell it properly and be truthful to it. The conversations we have about the show, almost every single person I speak to mention that they have someone close to them who’s been affected by it.”

When talking of the challenging role, Matthew says: “We’re over half way through rehearsals – you just have to saturate yourself with information. You can never do too much research. Read a lot, watch a lot and try things out don’t be afraid of looking stupid. Trust people around you and it’s such a process of trial and error but when you start hitting it, you’ll feel it.”

Because Matthew stars in the show and has written the script, it allows the team to have a lot of creative freedom.

“We’ve done a lot of devising, it’s similar to that,” says Stephanie.

“We make changes in the rehearsals, you don’t take a script into the rehearsal and consider it the finished product,” continues Matthew. “The freedom to make your own work is great.”

Matthew and Stephanie and the rest of Off the Middle theatre company hope to tour the production next year. They will be working in tangent with the charities The Alzheimer’s Society and Playlist for Life, holding collections and post show talks.

When asking what’s next for the new company Stephanie says: “We’re looking at creative story telling. We don’t have any hard and fast rules, but what we’re interested in is the relationship with the audience and how we can break traditional rules of theatre.”

In Other Words runs at The Hope Theatre from 28 Feb - 18 Mar 2017. You can find out more here: http://www.thehopetheatre.com/productions/in-other-words/  




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