Unscene Suffolk theatre group’s new show smashes (some) ageing stereotypes
- Credit: Archant
Political correctness is a big theme of A Zimmer of Hope, the fourth production from Unscene Suffolk – Ipswich’s resident theatre company of people with visual impairments.
The idea was to find and smash the stereotypes surrounding the experiences and expectations of ageing. Instead, members found some truth to some of them, says group founder and director Jenni Halton.
“Some of the show is about acknowledging the little sliver of truth and poking fun at it, questioning it, saying it’s complete rubbish which is quite fun to do. Starting to explore stereotypes and saying how can we overcome these, what we actually found was sometimes when you’re scared of stereotyping you become scared of saying anything at all.
“One of the numbers in the show is all about that and has come out of the group saying ‘actually, sometimes you’ve just got to be allowed to talk’ and that in itself is relevant to audio description which we’re exploring in the show.”
Providing the audio-description is BBC Radio 3 presenter Louise Fryer, who recently published An Introduction to Audio Description – A Practical Guide. Working with Unscene Suffolk for the first time, they are exploring a collaborative approach to it, which allows visually impaired audience members to access the show.
“The work we are doing with Louise will bring an interesting dynamic to the show for our visually impaired audience members, while providing a few surprises for everyone along the way.
“We had a lot of fun exploring political correctness in audio description during our workshops with Louise and will be acting, singing and dancing our way through some of these issues in the show.
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“We’ve tried to question what it is an audio describer might say and when it may not be okay for a describer to say something that might be considered impolitically correct - but, actually, that’s what they need to say in order to tell a blind person what they can see. So that’s been really interesting.”
Julie Bennett, one of the show’s main writers, says the company likes turning preconceptions on their head.
“One of the scenes is Just 10 Seconds which has been developed from the radio show Just A Minute, that picks up on things you shouldn’t repeat. We’ve added lots of others you can’t so most of them don’t get past two or three words before they’re bleeped out.”
Are people too sensitive sometimes, I ask, as her fellow main writer Clare Burman says political correctness has gone mad?
“Only you could possibly say that,” laughs Julie. “But yeah, there are things I would accept but other people possibly wouldn’t.”
The issue of age has been become particularly topical since the EU referendum; highlighting a divide between young and old. Jenni says projects like this are a good way of making sure those divides are broken down.
“Having worn my ‘I’m in the EU’ sticker last week during rehearsals I had a lovely call from one of our older volunteers after the result saying ‘I just wanted you to know I voted in, not everybody in one age group thinks the same’ and I said the same back to her. Ageing is such a relevant theme in the group we work with. We’ve got this great mix of ages, with members in their 30s to their 80s, and I absolutely love the way people get on so well across the boundaries of age.
“So even though there are these great big trends what’s really important for us is acknowledging an individual as an individual regardless of their age, disability... That’s very much what the Suffolk Age UK campaign There’s More to Me is about, which was why we’ve tied the show with them.
“They want to tell the stories, find out what’s special and unique about individuals rather than just seeing them as a product of their generation.”
The campaign aims to share the knowledge, history and experiences of older people. The group will be collecting stories from audiences during the show’s run and will also split the proceeds of their door collection with the older people’s charity.
Jo Reeder, fundraiser for Suffolk Age UK, says: “We’re delighted to be working in partnership with Unscene Suffolk for this production. Ensuring older people are recognised, valued and supported is so important and that their stories are told and shared. Using theatre as a medium to get this message across is a great way of reaching a wider audience of all ages.”
A Zimmer of Hope is the group’s fourth production. It’s set in an old people’s home but the majority of the scenes are actually things happening on the TV in the corner while nobody is watching.
Essentially a sketch type show, Jenni says it’s quite different to the company’s previous offerings.
“It’s been a real team effort with ideas contributed by the whole cast and the result is a very humorous take on the notion of ageing and associated stereotypes. We hope everybody will find something familiar in the show, which promises to be great fun no matter what your age.”
Things are a “bit tense” at this stage of proceedings says Julie when I pop by rehearsals at Ipswich’s High Street Exhibition Gallery. It’s their first day using props, then there are the scene and costume changes to get to grips with.
Devised by the company via improvisation, with the results then moulded into a script; work began on the show last autumn. This tried and tested process means it uses as many of the actors’ own words as possible so they feel as comfortable as possible.
“It makes it easier and Jenni does a lot of taping of the rehearsals which she sends us. Zimmer Zumba was one scene I was actually involved in during the improvised sessions so that was relatively easy to write. Whereas Clare wrote a soap opera scene completely from new and I did the same on the Points of View.”
The company has Clare to thank for learning new phrases such as YOLO (You Only Live Once) and Dench (a level of coolness that takes its name from celebrated actress Dame Judi).
“I don’t know where the idea for that scene came from really, I’ve got quite a childish sense of humour so you can tell the scenes I’ve written because there’s a lot of innuendo and Carry on Film humour. I thought it would be quite amusing to switch things around and have older people speaking in the lingo of young people.”
“We had to have an explanation from Clare. I didn’t know what on Earth she was talking about,” laughs Julie who, like Clare, has been involved with Unscene Suffolk since it formed in 2013.
“These are not words I use myself because I’m not that young... I had to look them up myself,” smiles Clare.
There’s a lot of multi-role playing this year, lots of accents and - thankfully - not quite so much movement to get their heads around.
Being the main writers, does that mean they’ve got to pick plum roles for themselves.
“No, in fact I’ve written a role for myself that I absolutely hate,” says Clare. “It’s so far apart from my real personality that I find it really difficult. When I wrote it I knew I was going to be playing it but I put that out of my head. I wrote it to be funny not thinking ‘ah, I’m going to have to deliver those lines and act in that certain way which is so far removed from me’.”
Julie, who says putting the show together is a great social occasion for members too, used to be a drama teacher. While she role-played with students, she hadn’t really acted since her college days.
“It’s such a relief to just act and not do anything else. The fact I can’t see the audience... To be honest, sometimes I do get a little jitter just before it happens but because I can’t see them I don’t seem to feel as nervous as I might have done.”
“I never did this before I lost my sight, but I do get nervous just before we go on but then you just forget people are there because you don’t catch them in your vision to remind you. You just get on with it.”
“And you can’t think ‘oh bugger there’s so and so sitting in the front row. God, I didn’t know they were coming’,” laughs Julie.
A Zimmer of Hope, by Unscene Suffolk, runs July 15-16 at Ipswich’s New Wolsey Studio as part of the New Wolsey Theatre’s Open Season.