Reminiscence forms an intrinsic part of the Screenplayers project, and we will be exploring the life stories and memories of older people in our local community as well as supporting younger people to draw on those real life stories to create their own screen-plays.
As a writer I have been involved in a number of community arts and theatre projects where the gathering of stories from specific groups and individuals within the community is a crucial part of the R & D process.
Beginner writers are often advised to use what they know, to mine their own experiences as material for creating believable and unique fiction. The characters, settings, and details we re-discover by exploring the memories and events of our own lives add authenticity and texture to a created narrative, whatever art practice it might inform. By the same token, talking to other people about their life stories and memories can yield fascinating and valuable insights, not least for oral historians and researchers but also for artists and storytellers.
Slices of life are revealed in compelling ways that the writer could not have invented or imagined, and rich and evocative details emerge if you have the time and inclination to really listen.
I have worked with old and young people, and have heard the stories of people who have experienced marginalisation or stigma, such as people with mental health issues, teenage single mums and women with HIV. As a consequence, my perceptions have been altered and my prejudices dissolved. One of the many positive by-products of giving a voice to people who might be excluded or who experience life on the fringes of society is that stereotypes are challenged.
My own stereotypes were confronted when I was employed as a writer for a site-specific theatre piece about boxing called Gloves On!. As part of the research we interviewed dozens of boxers, amateur and professional, male and female. We recorded the anecdotes of retired and working boxers. They described the courage, dedication, and skill of their craft, as well as the psychological and emotional journey they go on before, during and after a fight. The jargon many of the boxers used to describe a fight and the passionate way in which they articulated their experiences was surprisingly erudite and poetic. First hand accounts like these provide the specialist, insider terms and phrases that are often unfamiliar and captivating. Not only do concrete details emerge, but also the vernacular and idiosyncrasies of dialogue and accent. We used this much of this text to inform and build the scenes and to craft the script.
Recorded memories do not have to be confined solely to oral or written language. The mind stores memories across the spectrum of senses in an index of varied sensations and thoughts.
Asking interviewees about the sounds, smells or physical sensations associated with a particular memory can tap into a wealth of wonderful, multi-layered material. For example, in a recent project I was involved in called Machine Women (by director Luan Taylor), the lives of women who worked in factories were explored. As part of the R & D we visited industrial areas, and recorded the memories of women, many of them elderly, who had personal experience of factory work. Although the women had gaps in their memories, when asked, they were all able to show us exactly what they used to do with their hands at work. The repetitive movements and patterns, often performed for eight or ten hours a day for years and years had been stored in their body memory. We asked the women to show us and we filmed the movements and the edited footage was used as part of a short art film.
As a result of this kind of oral history work, coupled with some historical research, we were able to build a really clear, evocative and sometimes unsettling picture of what it was like for women doing this kind of tedious hard labour for years on end for little pay. But we also discovered that these women were tough and stoical in way that is rare nowadays; their attitude reflected the socio-political climate of their generation. The women talked about the value of friendship and camaraderie, the singing to drive away boredom, and the silent coded communication when talking was not allowed. They described the sounds and smells of the factory floor, the clothes they wore and the names and purposes of specialist trade equipment. All of this was priceless information for creating text, film, sound, and imagery.
In my experience getting people to relax, trust and open up about their past experiences requires a warm, patient, supporting manner, and a genuine interest in people’s stories. As an interviewer it’s always really important to tread lightly and not to probe into areas where you are not welcome. Always respect that person’s values, boundaries and privacy. Mostly, people get a lot from telling their stories to a attentive listener. It’s affirming and it helps people feel their unique perspective is special and valuable.
It’s not just the interviewer who gains insight, often the interviewee has realisations and makes new connections when they are given the opportunity to revisit their past in this way.
Every individual is distinct and complex and being involved in reminiscence and oral history is such an exciting journey full of unexpected treasures. These are events lived from the inside out, the ordinary person’s living testimony to what it means to be human within a given society, group and period of time.