This project started life as part of The Outreach Programme for Theatre Royal Bury St Edmunds. Lucinda Meredith (Artistic Associate for Engagement) approached the refuge asking: “What can we do for you?”. They said “The women would like to write a play, they have stories to tell.” The theatre fund raised and we started a new writing project at the refuge under the mentorship of playwright and Bury Artistic Associate Danusia Iwaszko.
“Refuge.” The initial project was only six weeks to produce a main stage, script in hand reading of the women’s stories. This was delivered by professional actors to an invited audience of 80 people in March 2016. The evening was called “Refuge”.The audience consisted of the women, their friends and family, stake holders and decision makers.
After an introduction to playwriting, the women started to tackle the stories that had brought them to the refuge. The variety of experiences under the umbrella of “Domestic Violence” was very wide ranging: from a young woman abused by her high status, professional mother to a girl who had been subjected to sexual abuse for many years as part of a paedophile ring, led by her father. Other topics covered were physical violence, coercive behaviour and rape within marriage. The emphasis was very much on the writing process and not on therapy, however the process was hugely therapeutic. Through the writing process women explore their personal experiences around DV, these experiences were fed back to support workers, clinical staff, through public sharings and sharing of the script between theatre and refuge.
Because of the very limited timescale the women wrote or sometimes had their stories recorded and Danusia adapted the stories into brief ten minute pieces with the women accompanying her with editing the work and feeding back. The evening was made up of four short plays, some monologue and some factual audience address covering the court process for domestic violence. The event was brilliantly received by both the audience and the women involved. One audience member emailed:
“I came to see the new writing “Refuge”. I would just like to take this moment to thank you and praise you all so much for opening up and telling the stories and also for enabling the women to express their stories and for the actors turning their amazing talent into a fantastic play. Sufferers really need to tell their stories so that society knows that this isn’t make-believe.”
The feedback from the women included:
“This project has saved my life. Instead of it all inside of me, all the pain, the memories and the thoughts, I can write them down, get it out of my head and heart.”
“I loved how writing it made it something I worked on. Something I got the dialogue right. It then became outside of me, something over there. My copy of the script is my proudest possession.”
“This is the best thing I’ve done since arriving at the Refuge. It’s worked better for me than therapy.”
As well as the delivery of the event in March, the brief Phase One had beneficial results beyond everyone’s expectations. It acted as a catalyst for very positive change and built well being and confidence in the participants. It helped the women to view their experiences more objectively thereby reducing the power of the events on their lives. Having a regular activity to look forward to and by using a “safe space” (the lounge area at the refuge) the women said that they were now chatting with each other in a way that was freer than before and sharing aspects of their lives that they hadn’t previously. They became more open with each or and more supportive. They had a decreased sense of isolation and were proud to be welcomed at the theatre and see their stories respected by the audience. The women had a deep need for people to know the stories and felt that something positive had come out of so much negativity.The women have also had the opportunity of attending plays at the theatre on a subsidised ticketing scheme, the women said they saw the theatre as “their second home.”
Phase 2 “Untold Stories”
Because of the success and the positive impact on the women involved, the refuge then funded a second phase of this project, which we called Untold Stories. This phase had more involvement from the women on the direction of the workshops. As one of the women said in their feedback: “It was led by the girls in the group … It could go anywhere.”
The emphasis of stage two was on the women having a broader introduction to theatre and also writing. Theatre skills were introduced and a broader teaching of writing. Over ten weeks we focused on various forms of writing including prose and poetry and the women were encouraged to write creatively about any area they want. However, because the events that these women have been through are so recent and so all consuming, the narrative of all work, poetry, prose or drama, always arrived back at exploring the domestic violence. Untold Stories was equally well received as the first project. We delivered this to an invited audience and below is some of the feedback from the women.
“I feel a little bit proud of myself that I have been accepted”
“For completing this project I feel even more empowered about getting both the seriousness of domestic violence across to people, and empowered to proceed with my own writing and skills.
“I woke up really happy. I haven’t woke up that happy about an event that has not involved drugs. ”
“It has improved it a lot more than formal services. It’s letting me get my voice out there. It has impacted massively on my well being because writing and having you ladies helping along the way has given me hope that I’m not useless and can accomplish something.”
“The theatre and the writing group are a family and you feel worthwhile.I feel glad that I’ve shared via it because there might have been anyone sat here experiencing this.”
“Thank you everyone who has started this project. Everyone at the theatre has been nothing but kind, to share your stories and not be judged or pointed at. It was lovely to see the audience totally genuinely interested . Engaging, not fidgeting. Being able to tell your story is a really important thing. Sometimes, in bad times you forget who you are. Self esteem wise… ”
The partnership between Theatre Royal and The Women’s Refuge is now well established. This was published in The Women’s Refuge News Letter July 2016. “Untold Stories”: Creative Writing Project Part 2 On the evening of Tuesday July 12th the Theatre Royal generously hosted a presentation of “Untold Stories” to showcase the work of nine women who had taken part in a second series of writing workshops delivered by Artistic Associate Playwright Danusia Iwaszko. Nine very nervous writers joined invited guests in the Greene Room to hear their stories and poems of survival being read aloud by actors and Theatre staff. Their painfully honest and thought-provoking work had a powerful effect on the audience, many of whom commented afterwards on the quality of the writing and the bravery of the women’s decision to make their experiences public. Once again the feedback from the women themselves was overwhelmingly positive: e.g.
“I feel glad I’ve done it. It was massively healing…massively.” “I feel a little bit proud of myself that I’ve been accepted.”
“This has helped me so much. I’m sad it’s over.”
We are immensely grateful to the brilliant Danusia Iwaszko whose dedication to this project went far beyond the call of duty. We also thank Theatre Royal Director Karen Simpson, Associate Artist & Community Project Manager Lucinda Meredith, and readers Hatty Ashton and Libby Evans, all of whom contributed to the success of the evening. The hunt is now on for grant funding to enable this successful collaboration to continue.
Phase Three: Water Lilies.
The third collaboration between Theatre Royal and The Women’s Refuge resulted in Water Lilies. The previous two project were writing prose and poems, as a way for the women to express their stories that have led them into refuge and Water Lilies had the same premise but with lyric and song writing, ending with a sharing at the Theatre. This has been a powerful, successful and very rewarding project to have delivered and the final show was well received. The workshop delivery went smoothly and was very successful. The women attending the workshops were positive and contributed excellent work. The whole project was ably supported by the Refuge staff and management. I involved a colleague Rachel Dawick to compose music and to perform and she took part in four of the workshops, composing the music at home. Her contribution in the workshops and the final show were supportive and first class.
The women involved have greatly benefited from the experience. They have had the opportunity of learning new skills re writing, to express and get an objective point of view with regard to their often very painful stories and to raise awareness. They also say they more self confidence, a sense of positivity about the future, and a feeling of putting the past behind them and
“I feel like I’ve achieved something! It has been thrilling. I never thought I could do something like this.” (Susan, participant)
“I look forward to the workshops so much. It is the high point of my week. Not only have I learnt something but my confidence has grown and I feel it has drawn some sort of a line under the past painful time.” (April, participant)
“I have loved this experience. It’s therapeutic, healing. I get a distance, a perspective on my story. We have also had fun. The whole thing has been very powerful and empowering.” (Anna. Participant.)
The theatre dearly wants to build on this strong relationship between themselves and The Refuge. In October 2017 there will be further staging of The Phase One play “Refuge” at Dance East in Ipswich, to an audience of service professionals and funders, thus raising awareness of the work.
We will start a new series of workshops for 2017 into 2018 and the aim is to develop some of the women’s performance skills, as well as the writing, so they can be part of the next show in March 2018.
In the long term we wish to put all this material together into a full length musical.