A controversial new play about life on an NHS dementia ward looks at issues concerning both the patients and the carers. Here, writer and director Tanya Myers tells Nick Smurthwaite how it took 5 years to bring Inside Out of Mind to the stage.
Why did you want to write a play about dementia?
This has been a very personal project from the start. Before my mother-in-law died from dementia in 2010 I felt a deep sense of inadequacy and frustration at my inability to communicate with her. At the same time a friend of mine, Justine Schneider, a mental health expert at Nottingham University, suggested I write a play based on her ground-breaking research into caring for people with dementia. So it has been a long journey.
What would you say is the point of the play?
I wanted it to be non-judgmental but to question how we relate to those with dementia. Obviously there are no quick fixes but I’m hoping people will come away feeling there are other ways of dealing with it, feeling they can listen and enter their world, feeling they can make connections in other ways.
Who is it for?
It is for everybody who feels that sense of loss you have when a loved one succumbs to dementia, as well as the emotional legacy the carers are dealing with when they face losing someone they’ve become attached to.
Did you worry you might turn a piece of serious research into a freak show?
I felt very protective of the original research material. My remit to myself was to be as faithful and honest as I could be to the voices behind this body of work. But my aim was also to create something that would touch the heart, not just the head.
Seeing a play about dementia sounds a bit depressing. Is it?
Not at all. If you didn’t laugh at life, you’d go mad. One of the scariest challenges was getting the right balance between the sadness and the panic and the humour, so the play generates a lot of laughter, and I hope the deep affection that develops between the carers and the patients touches people.
You hold post-show discussions after a lot of performances. Are they helpful?
It’s like lifting a heavy lid for the nurses and carers who come to see the play because they feel as if their issues and concerns are being aired and shared for the first time. It touches an emotional button. Who do you share your stress with? How do you channel the emotional strain of it all?
How has your perception of dementia care changed as a result of making this play?
I think you have to learn to think of dementia not as a problem or a burden, but as an opportunity to become better human beings, and to find new ways of caring and communicating. The training of carers has to be looked at in a much more imaginative way, using play, music, dance, all the things that stimulate an active response. It is an issue that should go beyond party politics. Everybody has to take this on board and work together.
Inside Out of Mind will be visiting Nottingham, Canterbury, Warwick, Exeter and Leicester in February and March 2015. For details, visit http://www.meetinggroundtheatrecompany.co.uk/
Words: Nick Smurthwaite