Theatre is an art form that serves many different purposes. There are comedies that make us laugh, plays that teach us about (or fictionalise) a specific event in history, and shows that offer pure fantasy and escapism, sometimes fuelled by songs and dancing, writes Holly O’Mahony…
Brian Daniels is a theatre practitioner whose plays fulfill a very different purpose: they focus on specific health problems and social care issues, often using the real-life stories of individuals and families dealing with the problems as a narrative focal point.
Brian wrote his first ‘healthcare play’, Don’t Leave Me Now, in 2012. The play, which Brian also acts in, explores the impact of early onset dementia on two very different families and is inspired by two real stories. Since it was first staged in 2013, Don’t Leave Me Now has been performed over 200 times in venues throughout the UK. It’s still in demand now, seven years later, and is being performed at the Greenwich Carers Centre on Thursday, May 23.
The Greenwich Weekender speaks to Brian Daniels to find out more about the show and his approach to creating theatre.
Holly O’Mahony: How would you describe your play Don’t Leave Me Now, which is being performed at the Greenwich Carers Centre this week?
Brian Daniels: Don’t Leave Me Now is based on true stories about two very different families, who are each struggling to come to terms with one adult in the family being diagnosed with early onset dementia. It questions: when does love end and duty begin, or does it? It’s a play with both pathos and humour in it. The audience tends to laugh and cry in equal measure.
HOM: Since Don’t Leave Me Now, you’ve written several more plays that focus on specific health problems and social care issues, from the point of view of those living with them. How did you come to find this niche for your work?
BD: The healthcare plays happened quite arbitrarily. I had a good friend in Yorkshire who developed early onset dementia – this was roughly eight years ago when less was known about the disease. I decided to develop a play about it, Don’t Leave Me Now, with the support of West Yorkshire Playhouse in Leeds. It proved a success, and led to healthcare organisations such as the NHS taking an interest in how drama can be used for educating professional staff and users of healthcare organisations.
I’ve since written several others [including Homeward Bound – a play commissioned by the National Council for Palliative Care – based on the true story of a woman coming to terms with her husband’s death as a result of pancreatic cancer, and the poor end-of-life care he received]. I’ve also written plays that are not health related, such as The Good and True about two Holocaust survivors.
HOM: How does the creative process usually work? Is there a typical trajectory you follow when creating your healthcare plays?
BD: The research for the healthcare plays is usually time consuming. I’m currently commissioned to write a play about the disease Lymphoedema. This involves taking the time to interview those with the condition as well the experts on it. In this case, I’m being helped by Professor Peter Mortimer from St George’s Hospital in Tooting, who’s a world expert on the disease. It’s then a task of taking the science behind the illness and personal experiences of those living with it, and moulding them together into a story that sees each character go on a journey of discovery.
HOM: Your plays are often performed in unconventional performance spaces, such as care homes and hospitals, depending on what’s fitting for the topic of the play. How important for you is it to bring your work into these spaces and have it seen by the professionals and community who inhabit them?
BD: Attending a formal theatre after a day’s work is not always easy with travel and family arrangements, not to mention the cost. Plus, the topics I write about are not exactly all-singing, all-dancing musicals. It therefore feels more appropriate that the plays are brought to community buildings including hospitals, hospices, libraries and community centres.
HOM: Your plays presumably have quite a lengthy life span due the relevance of the issues covered in them. Does this mean you rarely ‘retire’ your shows?
BD: The plays are regularly in demand and there’s no shelf life for them. Some weeks we’re out performing three or four different plays in venues across the UK!
HOM: How does your audience typically respond to seeing Don’t Leave Me Now?
BD: There are moments when you can hear a pin drop because the audience is listening so intently to the story. We always have a discussion after the play with the audience, in which they frequently express their gratitude that the play is truthful in airing the challenges they face in coping with dementia. Some people seem to be genuinely moved by the story because it spells out something of their own dilemma but also offers a way forward.
Don’t Leave Me Now is showing at The Stables, Greenwich Carers Centre, 76 Hornfair Road, Charlton, SE7 7BD.
May 23, at 3pm and 6.30pm. Admission: £5.