Friday, 28 July 2017

The Dramaturgy that Binds: Claire Webster Saaremets @ Edfringe 2017

Uplifting performance uses real life experiences of dementia
The Ties That Bind

Edinburgh Festival Fringe 2017

The real life experiences of people living with early onset dementia have been used to produce a new theatre performance which takes a radical look at the condition and the affect it has on relationships.

The Ties That Bind, by Skimstone Arts, uses an uplifting combination of performance, original music and striking visuals to tell the story of Paul, a sound engineer whose world is changing as the early stages of dementia begin to affect his personal relationships.

Whitespace 76, 76 East Crosscauseway, EH8 9HQ

3-9 August and 21-23 August, 3.20pm

What was the inspiration for this performance?

The inspiration for The Ties that Bind came about as a response to the research from Professor Charlotte Clarke and her team at Edinburgh University, including Julie Watson, that people experiencing early on set dementia were being ‘rejected’ from social groupings. In other words, interest groups or friends were ‘dropping away’ or, in some cases, asking people not to come anymore as there were ‘a risk’. 

What started the creative process was for us to map out who we’re connected to and why - loved ones, family members, friends, neighbours, interest partners, people running local amenities etc. What forms a relationship or tie to someone and how do these bonds remain strong when someone experiences a strong change in who they are, as often happens in living with dementia? 

Is performance still a good space for the public discussion of ideas?

Yes I definitely think that, based on the Q & A's that we hold after every performance, that the experiential and intimate settings of theatre enable a mix of audiences (general public, health and arts professionals, carers etc) to come together and debate some of the themes presented in performance. 

Our multi-disciplinary elements of sound and visuals in The Ties That Bind also attempt to give audiences a feel for the disruption, distortion and confusion of worlds along with the emotional complexities which performance reflects back at society.

How did you become interested in making performance?

I grew up as a child performing in Am Dram productions but later, after a brief spell in teaching through the arts, I left 23 years ago to pursue multi-disciplinary approaches to sharing and dissecting stories, including some of my own stories (such as Hospital of my Dreams (1998), Tales of Wingbeats and Bootsteps (2001) and Windows, Walls and Wishes (2011) which were site specific performances in old mission buildings and cafes) through to collected stories about themes I'm passionate about, e.g. conditions that challenge identity. 

I'm currently working on another site specific piece that explores the question of ‘What if we questioned our own inner prejudices to our global community?’ alongside this theatre production of The Ties that Bind

I continue to work with actors, directors, theatre makers and external eyes, who inspire me to keep learning and developing what I do. I invited award winning writer and director Laura Lindow to work with us on the early development of The Ties That Bind process, to help me question the form and structure of the piece.

Is there any particular approach to the making of the show?

Working with performer Alex Elliott – who is a great deviser and improviser (he's also Associate Director of award-winning company Unfolding Theatre) - enabled us to agree on an approach to make a more contemporary show about early onset dementia and challenge the expectations that it is only relevant for over 80's in a care home. 

Research has also shown that 'the power of music, especially singing, to unlock memories and kickstart the grey matter is an increasingly key feature of dementia care’ (Age UK), however, again we wanted to create a more radical exploration of this through creating a character, Paul, where music – i.e. recording and music production - was and still is, his life. 

Our original compositions enabled us to look a wide variety of music genres that Paul would have helped to produce along with how these will remain with him as part of his journey and how recording as a physical and shared procedure can still feature in his life. Therefore in The Ties That Bind we have songs, sound pieces, music compositions - all representing his relationship to the people and places he is connected to.
We also decided not to go down the expected route of exploring more deeply the relationship of partners, husbands and wives, as this had been critical for us in our previous touring theatre show Jack and Jill & The Red Postbox. We focused instead on a sibling relationship and explored our own and others’ ‘ties’ to the complexity of shared family history and how this would be affected by the stories we had read in the research. 

For example, when the main character/protagonist Paul, lives on his own and experiences a diagnosis of early onset dementia, how does his sister Ali help him (or not!) to manage the multi layered shifts in his day to day living, with their shared history fading in and out? 

We felt the dramatic tension here was really interesting and enabled us to create a piece that explores in the present time how his bonds with friends, work colleagues and new opportunities could unravel, unfold or be tied in new ways. I was especially grateful to Gez Casey, Literary Manager at Live Theatre for his insightful input around the dramaturgy and his own experiences of his father who lived with dementia.

Another critical dramatic arc for us was to consider was how someone could continue to work - or when was the point to leave or retire and find new ways of living and socialising positively when living with early onset dementia? 

The research stories we collected included a teacher who had parked in the wrong place at work, forgot to go to classes and blanked in one such class… she eventually had to leave work. This was the inspiration for how Paul’s world would shift when he struggles to continue with the competencies and responsibilities that running a busy studio brings. 

How and why does this change happen and what replaces that network? We wanted our theatre piece to explore possible challenges and indicate where solutions may open up new relationships without being tokenistic (especially within a 55 minute production!). 

I was fortunate enough to work with Charlotte and her team in Plymouth at a gathering of people in their 50’s and 60’s living with early onset dementia and was able to observe and interact with how independent and ‘connected’ they were… yet is this the case for the majority of people across the UK, especially in rural communities? 

Julie Watson also helped us to consider the sensory changes alongside memory loss that someone would be experiencing so that our plot and characterisation was true to real life events. This included movement sequences and motifs around stillness/blanking… where we considered what might or might not be happening in the brain. 

We created new visuals to suggest possibilities of fading within memory loss, how someone would move when spatial perception is affected, how emotions such as anger, frustration, fear or loss of confidence would affect the story and personal family and friend relationships.

As our creative process involves a multi disciplinary approach, we also looked at metaphors and symbols of ‘ties’ and ‘bonds’, and this helped to generate imagery and sound ideas which later would be woven into the structure of the work, alongside props such as cables and leads, wool and conceptual ties of memory.

Does the show fit with your usual productions?

Yes and no... as previously explained, my work encompasses touring theatre and site specific commissions and inspirations about universal themes that matter to me – worlds of safety and risk, loss and love, survival and hope...

This production of The Ties that Bind continues the joy of working closely with Professor Charlotte Clarke and her team at Edinburgh University as I find their research fascinating and it has opened up worlds of producing work from collected and analysed stories that have produced key findings and themes. 

Our previous commission from Edinburgh University along with Dr Cathy Bailey at Northumbria University was Jack and Jill & The Red Postbox which toured to more than 30 theatre, health and arts venues across the UK and was performed at conferences, festivals and events to over 1000 audience members, creating dialogue, short and long term data around impact on audiences. It is now referenced in a filmed version of the original play which has been screened internationally.

The Ties that Bind is also an extended idea from another of our commissioned films, Michael's Map, where Alex Elliott plays Michael, a musician with early onset dementia who is asked to leave the band and seeks to find new meaning in his life.

What do you hope that the audience will experience?

I hope that the audience will experience a more aesthetic understanding of what happens when a memory fades or can't be recalled, or the world distorts because spatial perception is being eroded, and that we question our own ties to those we know and love, that may fray and break.

I am passionate about the creation of this piece and how it has evolved from such critical research into a theatre production that seeks to create dialogue and empathy around all those affected by living with early onset dementia: carers, family members, friends and society as a whole. 

How can we continue creating ties that connect and give hope and confidence, purpose and pleasure, to those living with early onset dementia and maybe other life-changing circumstances too? 

What strategies did you consider towards shaping this audience experience?

We’ve learned about how ideas need to continue developing. We began the first version of The Ties that Bind with the ‘Voice of Dementia’ as a character. This allowed us to work with metaphors around how dementia would affect or disaffect Paul’s world. 

However, audience feedback in early Q&A's helped us to re-think how the piece needed to portray stronger ’ties’ that were tangible as well as metaphorical - as referenced in the research. 

So we have worked on the importance of using a two-hander as the theatre form to tell the story of how two siblings are affected by the diagnosis and how their worlds shift to create new beginnings and new ties, just like those positive stories that we heard about, and how some ties will be frayed or disappear. 

We learned to create the presence of other significant characters through multi-role dramatisation, voiceovers and visuals which we hope give a sense of those that matter and those that fade in Paul’s world within The Ties That Bind.

Claire Webster Saaremets, Artistic Director at Skimstone Arts, said: This piece wont be what people might expect to see when they attend a performance about dementia.
The commissioned work by Edinburgh University is based on key findings from a research project about changes in social groupings, along with stories collected from those who have personal experience of living with the condition.

The Ties That Bind weaves in elements of what we learnt through our conversations and research, as we follow Pauls story in what is an ultimately uplifting piece of narrative theatre.

The multidisciplinary performance explores the effect the early stages of dementia can have on peoples friendships and relationships, and asks what it is that binds us to family and other people. What new stories can we weave that enable us to release old friends and join new ones?
The work was commissioned by Edinburgh University and is informed by a research project funded by the Economic and Social Research Council and in partnership with the Mental Health Foundation and Alzheimer Scotland.
The Ties That Bind is on at Whitespace 76, 76 East Crosscauseway, EH8 9HQ, from 3-9 August and 21-23 August.
Performances start at 3.20pm and tickets are available now from the Edinburgh Festival Fringe box office:

 Photo by Richard Kenworthy

The Ties That Bind
Paul's world as a sound engineer is changing, as early stages of dementia begin to affect his personal relationships. What ties us to old friends and binds us to new ones? An uplifting piece of theatre. Tickets are available now from the Edinburgh Festival Fringe box office:

Claire Webster Saaremets - Artistic Director/writer/ performerClaire is Artistic Director of Skimstone Arts whose touring multidisciplinary theatre uses artistic interventions to collect, share and stimulate stories e.g. on public transport, in care homes, studio spaces, which she crafts  back, often with participants in same spaces and theatre/arts venues regionally, nationally and internationally. She established Skimstone Arts in 2007 and continues to collaborate with actors, musicians and artists and is committed to exploring and understanding quality methodology and arts engagement practice with vulnerable people/places. Professional practice reflecting 15 years work of over 50 collaborative artistic projects/commissions with more than 5000 people of all ages, regionally to internationally. Recent training includes: MeisnerTechnique, Frantic Assembly, Spymonkey, Ridiculusmus, Dramaturgical support from Live Theatre, Newcastle upon Tyne.

Alex Elliott - co deviser/performer
Alex is Artistic Director of Operating Theatre having previously spent 7 years with Northern Stages Ensemble. 

Alex has also worked with Quarantine, Le Styx (Marseille), Kneehigh, Traverse Theatre, West Yorkshire Playhouse and Teatre Romeu, and is currently Associate Artist with Unfolding Theatre (winners of Performance of the Year in the Journal Culture Awards 2017).
Josep Bria Garcia - co deviser/audio/visual technical manager
Josep Bria is a Newcastle based sound engineer passionate about the technical side of theatre. He works at Northern Stage where he was in charge of the sound for productions like "Get Santa!" and "Little Shop of Horrors" Putting the Band Back Together (Unfolding Theatre) and collaborated with Skimstone Arts on Doorbells. He formerly worked at 0@ Academy as a sound engineer.

Other productions by Skimstone Arts

Jack and Jill & The Red Postbox
Physical theatre exploring dementia, funded by Arts Council England and developed from an original play commissioned by Northumbria and Edinburgh Universities, inspired by research around Risk and Resilience. A film version of the original play is available at

Michaels Map
Michaels Map, a film commission by Edinburgh University gives an intimate and heartfelt insight into the lives of people directly and indirectly affected by dementia. Watch the film at

A humorous and reflective show about the power of the imagination when living with loneliness, commissioned by the Elders Council, Northumbria University and funded by Arts Council England.

What people have said about Skimstone Arts

The performances are quite lovely, gentle and very honest... Skimstone Arts Theatre Company have made an admirable show, conceived and presented with the utmost tenderness and understanding.Three Weeks Edinburgh

It is an arresting, heartfelt seventy minutes which empathises with those in the know and illuminates those yet to know; and I came away feeling I had witnesses a thoroughly memorable theatre vignette.” Chris Eldon Lee  Shropshire Events and Whats On Guide  Theatre Review. 

Skimstone Arts create collaborative theatre, music and art with artists and researchers, and develop artistic practice with diverse individuals and communities, to reflect challenges in society. 

Established in 2006 the company is based in Newcastle upon Tyne.
Original works commissioned and grant funded to date include Jack and Jill & The Red Postbox (Edinburgh Fringe Festival/National Touring), A Natural Anthem (Discovery Museum), Time For Tea (National Heritage Open Days), Fish & The Yesterday Song, and Tea side, A Traveling Tearoom (BBC and Arts Council England).

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