Women's Refuge Project with Theatre Royal, Bury St Edmunds
This project started life as part of the Outreach Programme for the Black Theatre Live tour of She Called Me Mother by Michelle Innis and starring Cathy Tyson. Lucinda Meredith (Artistic Associate for Engagement), Theatre Royal Bury St Edmunds approached the Women's Refuge asking: “What can we do for you?”
They said “The women would like to write a play, they have stories to tell.”
The women then came to see “She Called Me Mother” and it started the relationship between The Theatre Royal Bury St Edmunds and The Women’s Refuge Bury St Edmunds which has gone from strength to strength.
The theatre raised the funds and we started a new writing project at the refuge under the mentorship of playwright Danusia Iwaszko. The initial project was only six weeks to produce a main stage, script in hand reading of the women’s stories in March 2016. This was delivered by professional actors to an invited audience of 80 people. 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.
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 called “Refuge” 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.
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 wider 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 wanted. 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 their experience of domestic violence.
The partnership between Theatre Royal and the Women’s Refuge is now well established and we are seeking funding for phase three which we hope to deliver October 2016 to March 2017. The women have also had the opportunity of attending plays at the theatre on a subsidized ticketing scheme which was initiated for She Called Me Mother by BTL and continued by Theatre Royal. The women have really enjoyed coming to the theatre, they feel part of the community and it has enriched their writing skills.
Lucinda Meredith (Artistic Associate for Engagement), Theatre Royal Bury St Edmunds