Stan and Betty Moore left their home in Clapham, south London to go to work. There was thick smog. When it cleared they anxiously made their way to Bolingbroke hospital in Battersea, part of St George’s healthcare trust. It was 10 March 2003. Trouble is, when they set out that morning it was 1953.
Over the next three weeks Stan and Betty took the elderly patients at the hospital back in time. Return to the 1950s with Stan and Betty was the third of three cycles of performances of an interactive drama project created and directed by Ladder to the Moon, a Wandsworth-based professional theatre company. The previous two cycles held at the main St George’s hospital in Tooting featured The Princess and the Sprite at the children’s ward and A Tooting Triumph held in the Thomas Young Elderly Care ward. The project was funded by the Regional Arts Lottery Programme.
The two professional actors playing Stan and Betty engaged patients by asking them for help to remember and celebrate the past. “The scenario and themes were created following consultation with staff and patients on the ward,” says artistic director Justine de Mierre – a professional actress who set up the company in January 2000 and who wanted to perform for the kind of people who would never normally step inside a theatre.
“Consultation week,” she continues, “which happens three weeks before the actors begin, is very important in this work as it not only gives a chance for staff and patients to feel involved in the project, it is also our inspiration for what we create. This is why all of the cycles were so successful: characters and activities are not even thought about until we have had staff and patient input and therefore everything is designed to fit into the hospital environment.
“For Stan and Betty, when speaking to people we found that the music of the 1950s was the most popular and the happiest time in their lives was when they were first married so we created a couple who would allow them to relive that.”
Additionally, a reminiscence consultant talked to patients about their memories, experiences and the things they enjoyed.
“Often, a large part of what we do is listening to people who are happier to chat to a magical character than they would be to talk to anyone else. By engaging with people directly as part of our performances, we empower them to enjoy telling their own stories as well as listening to ours,” says de Mierre, who believes that this side of the interaction is just as important as the stories the characters have to tell or the help they might be asking for from the public. “We then rehearse the characters fully to ensure that they are entertaining, believable and approachable and are able to answer in character any question that might be thrown at them,” she says
The company is named after the notion that if you want to reach your highest goals you don’t just look up at how high they are and give up, you reach them just the way you climb a ladder, one rung at a time, says de Mierre. “It really sums up our philosophy that you can make a big difference in the world by doing lots of seemingly small things – like characters chatting to patients in a hospital,” she says.
Stan and Betty proved a timely and believable distraction. One older patient thought them “adorable”. A member of staff commented that one patient “said she remembered her younger days because she danced a lot. She was sad though that she couldn’t dance now due to her health”.
However, for de Mierre, the most important thing is that the older people now had the chance to have fun. “Stan and Betty gave the patients the chance to relax, forget their troubles for a while and have a good gossip and a good laugh. Patients also got to know each other better and reminisced together about the past. I think my favourite moment has to be one of the patients bringing in their old clothing coupons for Stan and Betty to take back to the 1950s with them!”
– To find out more about Ladder to the Moon contact Justine de Mierre, the artistic director, on 07711 984 378 or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org
Scheme: Interactive drama project.
Location: Wandsworth, South London.
Staffing: Two actors, a producer, director/researcher, reminiscence consultant, on-site manager.
Inspiration: To help older patients remember and enjoy the past.
Cost: The three-month project cost £30,080 and included all the consultation periods, rehearsal times and room hire, props, costumes and staff costs.