Merton Plays is an inspiring project from Wimbledon Civic Theatre Trust (WCTT), which brings together young actors and older people, unearthing memories and sharing stories to boost wellbeing and tackle isolation.
You can really see the difference that telling stories makes to the older people, how it lifts them”
“You can really see the difference that telling stories makes to the older people, how it lifts them,” says Grace Alexander-Scott, General Manager at WCTT.
While the benefits singing brings to people with dementia are well recognised, less has been said about the power of drama and storytelling – which is where the idea for Merton Plays originated.
“It came out of a conversation with Merton Dementia Hub,” Grace explains. “They had a new user in the early stages of dementia who had been a performer but had no access to that sort of activity. There are lots of youth theatres but less scope for adults. Yet telling stories is very beneficial in the same way as singing. So, I got thinking about how we bring young people into that.”
The year-long project involves weekly workshops at two venues, both facilitated by lead practitioner Daisy Barrett-Nash and assistant practitioner Tom Brain. One session, at the New Horizon Centre Pollards Hill, is aimed at any older people, addressing loneliness and giving them a chance to share their memories. The second, at Merton Dementia Hub, is open to people affected by dementia, whether living with the disease, a carer or family member.
During each session Daisy introduces an object to get people talking, such as a photograph, flower or picture to colour. She then fashions their memories into a poem or story. Says Grace: “When you ask people what they think about a picture, it unlocks things – like reaching to the back of a shelf of memories. It’s the opportunity for participants to come and have conversations, there’s quite a lot of isolation for the people in the groups.”
Some members of the New Horizon group were already regulars at the centre. Says Daisy: “They come and eat together, but this has solidified those bonds and connections. We talk about ourselves and that builds more of a rapport – people have really come out of their shells.”
There’s a friendly atmosphere here, everyone gets on and it’s good to hear other people’s stories.”
Group member Denise explained: “One week I talked about when I was a child and my family stayed in a big caravan at Weston-Super-Mare. It’s a bit sad looking back, but it was nice to talk about those times. There’s a friendly atmosphere here, everyone gets on and it’s good to hear other people’s stories.”
Joy, who runs the lunch club at New Horizon, agrees that the sessions have brought a new dimension. “It’s been brilliant,” she said. “Our clients interact with each other in a different way and they’re getting new skills. Plus, they really enjoy it – I enjoy it too! I’ve been here a number of years, but I’ve learned many things about them that I didn’t know before the project.”
WCTT has its own youth theatre – the Young Actors Company, an inclusive group which draws young people from across Merton. For Grace it was important for both young and older people to feel part of the project: “We feel strongly that young people understand the performing arts doesn’t just improve their own lives but that they can also use it as a tool to help improve the lives of those around them.
“We’ve had some of our young actors coming to the weekly sessions, and at half term. The young people take these stories and create something out of them. It might be songs or dance or scenes from a play, depending on their skills.”
The intergenerational stuff is really lovely to see; how vibrant everybody is, especially with the young people bringing so many ideas”
Daisy adds: “The intergenerational stuff is really lovely to see; how vibrant everybody is, especially with the young people bringing so many ideas and being so enthusiastic. It really creates a jovial, buzzy vibe.”
The resulting work will be shared at an event for both age groups happening in July. The older people’s groups also received a personal invitation to the Young Actors Company’s end of term shows at the New Wimbledon Theatre Studio.
The productions are dementia friendly, as Grace explains: “It’s about the space, making it accessible, changing the lighting or sound, making things very clear physically or vocally and you could do that with any play.”
Find out more about the project on the WCTT website.