Director of The Full Monty and Calendar Girls brings new premiere to Bury St Edmunds
PUBLISHED: 18:00 01 February 2019
We speak to the Suffolk writer of The Wisdom Club.
We live in age where retirement is no longer considered the end of the line. We’re fitter, brighter, living longer and when we hit 60 increasing numbers of us are swapping one career for another, returning to learning or fulfilling ambitions that were put on hold to raise families and pay the bills.
This is the backdrop to The Wisdom Club, a brand new play, being premiered at Bury Theatre Royal, based on local people’s experiences and written by Suffolk playwright Danusia Iwaszko.
It’s directed by acclaimed theatre director Roger Haines, the man behind Calendar Girls and The Full Monty, and he decribes The Wisdom Club as a funny, charming and genuinely thought provoking new play, which boldly explores the changing profile and attitudes of Britain’s aging population.
The play looks at a group of people who find that as they get older, the way that society reacts to them and engages with them changes.
When Susanna tells her mother Megan she no longer wants her to look after the children, Megan can’t help but feel that her own daughter has done her out of a job. If she’s not being a mother or a grandmother, then who and what is she? If retired Brewery worker, Lenny knew his retirement was going to be so long he would have started another career. Ex hospital worker Rani is on a mission she wants to motivate her friends, they feel the need to protest and step out of the shadows. They want the message to be heard. “We’re old but we’re not dead yet. We have to get their voices heard.” They still have a zest for life but now that enthusiasm has been augmented with experience.
Danusia, this is clearly a passion project for you. Can you describe how it came about?
DI: “My interest was sparked through a friend of mine, Valerie MacDonald, she lived in Bury and wrote plays and we were friends. She was a lot older than me, in her early 80s, and she would mention, with a wry smile, how differently she was treated as an 80 year old, compared to how she was viewed in her 40s. That was the seed of the idea.
“I have worked with Bury Theatre Royal before and Karen Simpson, the artistic director, invited me to choose a group of people that would like to work with as part of a community project. I chose to work with older generations which led to workshops being formed and eventually a group which came to be known as The Wisdom Club. Over time, so many experiences were being shared that I knew we had the makings of a play based on the stories she had heard from the people in the workshop groups.
“The play is not about laughing at the older generations, it’s their humour and real-life experiences which are being explored through the characters on stage. We are all going to get old, so I thought it was something really relevant I could write about.”
Did you have an idea of what you wanted to do before you started meeting these older people?
DI: “When Karen said who did i want to work with on my outreach project I was very clear that I wanted to connect with an older audience, by that I meant 70s, 80s, 90s, simply because of Valerie. So the theatre linked me up with Age UK who gave me access to coffee mornings and drop-in centres right across the county.
“I started going along and talking to people about their lives and the very first coffee morning, and this is incredible, I was talking to this elderly farm worker about his life and he started on his reminsensces and I let him go for a while and then I stopped him. I said: “That’s lovely, but that’s the past, what do you think of life now? He looked at me, and this was the turning point, he replied in really broad Suffolk: “No-one’s interested in what I think.” To me that was heartbreaking and matched exactly what Valerie had told me four or five years earlier.
Presumably you knew at that point that you had the beginnings of your play?
DI: “Absolutely. Reminsiences are important, of course they are, but life is a balance. Older people are part of life now and should have opinions and views on society and the world. They should have a part to play and that’s what the play is all about. People are retiring and are fitter and still have a lot to contribute. I spoke to one man in his 80s who said to me rather sardonically. ‘I used to be headmaster of a very large secondary school, now they’ve got me singing Roll out the Barrel. That was old when my own grandfather was alive.’ They wanted to be singing I Can’t Get No Satisfaction. He admitted to me that his joints were going a bit but his mind was razor sharp and didn’t need to be treated like an idiot or condescended to. He still had a lot to offer and society is missing a trick by thinking that older people need wrapping up in cotton wool or feel that they are surplus to requirements. Many older people are leading active valuable lives and shouldn’t be overlooked. My research has shown that they are very lively and have something to say on everything.
DI: “Sex. That was the one that floored me. Even I didn’t see that one coming. Of course, age and experience, means that they are afraid of nothing. Nothing is taboo. And they made it very plain that interest in sex doesn’t disappear when you hit 50 or 60 or 70. It evolves and it changes and yes, it’s in the play, I thought that I had to include some of the things we talked about, that they introduced, because it was clearly important to them.”
The UK premiere of The Wisdom Club, by Danusia Iwaszko, starring Liz Crowther as Megan, Carol Starks as Susanna, Souad Faress as Rani and John Branwell as Lenny, will be staged at Bury St Edmunds Theatre Royal until February 9 before embarking on a UK tour.