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‘I know exactly how you feel’

Turning real life stories into theatre

Illustration by Fran Pulido of two books that look like open books next to a microphone.

Over the last three years I’ve been researching Freefall, a play about young carers, and working with a group aged seventeen to twenty. Typically, they look after one or more family members and have often done so since as young as five. Together, we created a play for school and general audiences to spread awareness about the realities of their lives and to encourage young people to identify themselves to their schools. So, it has been crucial that the piece is authentic and honest.

I know exactly what you’re going through… like no one cares, no one listens… but I do… I won’t go away, no matter how bad it gets. I promise.
                                                  – Jas, Freefall

One young woman told me that ‘It’s literally the best job in the world, there is nothing better you could do for the person who brought you up, but people at school think I’m a loser, cos I can’t go out and that… I’m far closer to my mum than anyone I know and she’s always on at me to have a life but I would worry all the time if I went out again.’ ‘Again’ referred to the time when her mother attempted suicide. Police and social worker arriving at the door, the flashing blue lights setting off her sister’s epilepsy as paramedics revived her mother inside the house and she ran to prevent an overcooked lasagne burning the house down — all this was conveyed in a matter-of-fact tone and with nods from the others in the group. She was eleven at the time it had happened, and every detail was still crisply clear five years on: the stink of the burned meat, the crackle of the police radio, her legs freezing cold with fear and anxiety.

This started to form one of the key dramatic moments in the play:

I can’t wake her. Mum? Mum! 
Think, Jasmine! Come ON!
It’s me…just me, and I’ve got to do something...
Just me and Sophie. And she’s starting one of her fits.
A knock on the door. 
Too late I remember:
Never answer the door unless you’re sure who it is…
Too late cos…I see the blue light flashing and they’re in.

Jasmine ages from five to sixteen during the play. She also has to voice her sister, mum, the police, a social worker, her best friend, the class bully, a well-meaning teacher and others. This multi-tasking reflects exactly what young carers do all the time — having to be all things to all people. A child at school, an adult at home, often negotiating with doctors or social services, Jasmine has to be the one in charge when she finally manages to get her mum out of the house to buy her new school uniform:

Don’t cry, mum, not in the shop. Wait til we get home. It’s only a tie… She wanted to tie it for me, but her fingers froze. That happens a lot.

The piece had to not give facts or lecture, which would alienate that notoriously cynical, easily bored age group of eleven- to thirteen-year-olds; ideally, it had to be funny as well as hard-hitting. ‘It’s okay to show the funny side, what it’s really like. Me and my family laugh a lot, but people don’t see that we do normal things…sometimes!’

In the water, we’re free… we even look normal. No one can tell we’re different. I wish we could stay here forever. I dive down deep to the bottom of the pool and stay there until my lungs are gonna burst cos the best thing about swimming is that, underwater, nobody can see you cry.

To put the subject into context: between 2001 and 2011 there was an 83% increase in young carers aged five to seven, and a 55% increase in those aged between eight and nine. There are 195,000 identified young carers in the UK, but survey estimates indicate a total of 700,000. Some of them spend more than fifty hours a week on caring duties.

I thought the young people I talked to seemed a bit like superheroes, so I asked them what superpowers they’d like to have. ‘Stop time — I’d be the Superclock! Then I could have an hour a day to myself…luxury!’ ‘Freeze everyone around me so I could get everything and everyone sorted out, then unfreeze them and it’d all be calm…’

I can mend mummy…it’s like I’ve got this superpower…jump off the tallest building, swim to the bottom of the ocean, rescue you from the tiger’s teeth and claws, cos my name is Jas and I can do ANYTHING. So talk to me. Cos I’m Jas.
The policeman looks at me for a long time. Then:
Hello, then, Jas.

As a playwright, I’ve created plenty of collaborative, participatory theatre over the last twenty years from different real life situations, including prisons, mother and baby homes, and exclusion units for young people who have been removed from school, but never one where the balance has been quite so delicate. The young carers are vocal, active, articulate and assertive co-drivers on the project, not passengers, and that makes all the difference. At an early meeting, they were very clear: ‘Don’t feel sorry for us — we don’t need pity, we need understanding, but don’t make out we are like these saints, cos we have bad moods, we are still teenagers.’

From the beginning, the group set the boundaries. They told their own stories with honesty and courage but when they felt something was private or too painful, they would simply tell us to back off. Sometimes this meant taking material out:

I hate my life! I want to be like everyone else, not wiping your bum and sitting up all night in case you cry out, like a baby…I’m sick of it!

After some negotiation in a workshop, this became:

If I’m out of control it’s cos I take after you, cos I have no LIFE, no friends, I’m always looking after you and I’m SICK of it!

There was an additional complication: the authorities. The social work teams who are involved with these young people are keen to show their positive side — no surprises there, given the press they usually get. So they weren’t impressed when, at a reading of an early draft, they found themselves shown in a dim light. Yet a lot of the young carers I met with were deeply concerned about their families being split up if they revealed what was happening at home. There was a tension there: between the need for balance, and drama.

Jo, sixteen, said, ‘I want people to see the show, go, “OhmyGod! That’s me!” and realise that they are a young carer too so they can get some support’. And eighteen year-old Isaac thought this was important: ‘I really want schools to understand why we might not always be on time, or do homework, or have the right uniform or whatever it is we get put in detention for…’

The first draft of the play was read aloud by an actor and met with a mixture of sobbing and giggling as they recognised themselves and things they had in common — some of which made them feel exposed and vulnerable in ways they hadn’t anticipated. And there were those unhappy social workers to accommodate, too. More drafts, more compromise, more editing, but then every writer knows that journey.

The play has now been performed to schools in the east of England, always accompanied by a facilitated session afterwards. In one school, three young people came forward after the show to identify themselves as carers — the school had not known about their situation, and they felt able to speak up because the issues had been raised in front of their classmates. ‘I didn’t even think someone my age would be doing this,’ was something we heard a lot afterwards. ‘Does a mental illness count?’ one girl asked shyly, before chatting intently to the actor after the show. In another school, one boy told the audience that he looked after his elderly grandparents for four hours every day after school, and had been worrying about how to get his homework done.

When we began this process, we thought that even if just one young carer could come forward and be given more support, that would be a result. The wider picture is that their peers have gained more insight into hidden lives, and I am proud of what we have created.

Some of those original young carers are running workshops to support the play. Seventeen year-old Sara told me: ‘Sometimes people think it’s sad that I don’t have a life like most teenagers but I chose it. I am so sick of people telling me I’m brave. I’m not brave, my mum is, so when you write this, get it right. Don’t let us down.’

[All names have been changed.]

Anna Reynolds is the author of over fifteen nationally and internationally produced plays for theatre, opera and dance including award winning play Jordan, the opera Push and dance/text piece SoulPlay. She is a novelist, prize winning short story writer, and founder/editor at online writing community WriteWords.

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