Before I met Jo, the artistic director of Baseless Fabric, last year to talk about the possibility of collaborating on a new promenade play, I couldn’t have imagined that six months later, we would have produced a script with verbatim stories from South Londoners as old as 92, which gets delivered to the audience via a smartphone app.
As a playwright, I’ve so far written what you may imagine when you hear the word ‘play’: people sitting in seats, watching actors on a stage. I’ve been to immersive theatre and promenade theatre before, but writing the script for A Secret Life is the first time that I’ve helped create a play that moves — the actors go on a journey out in the world, and you follow them.
If you’ve ever worked on a creative project, you may have experienced how restrictions can fuel creativity — that being able to do anything can feel overwhelming, and restrictions offer a useful starting point.
In this case, our creative process started with three restrictions:
- The audience would follow one or more actors on a journey in Battersea, starting at Theatre503.
- The audience would get to know the inner life of the character(s) they were following by getting audio of their inner thoughts through a purpose-built smartphone app. The inspiration to explore a character’s inner world (and the title of our play) came from the short story The Secret Life of Walter Mitty.
- We would work with young people in South London on developing the app and perhaps generating ideas for our story and characters.
We thought about the kind of character who would be intriguing to follow — who we might not expect to follow, and whose inner life might surprise us — and decided on an elderly character. Since elderly people often lack visibility in our society, which tends to lose interest in people’s (especially women’s) stories and experiences as they age, I felt it would be unexpected and unusual to highlight those stories and follow that character. Imagining a group of 15 people following a lone elderly woman as she walked around a neighbourhood felt like something different to me, and worth presenting.
Having decided to create a play involving both young and elderly people, we arrived at the idea of comparing the teenage experience today versus in the past. This idea enabled us to do multi-generational community outreach in South London, interviewing groups of young people and elderly people aged 65+ to explore how adolescence has (and hasn’t) changed since the postwar years.
Not being teenagers ourselves anymore (and not having been alive in the postwar years), we’ve learned a lot about adolescence in both eras. The range of stories we’ve incorporated into the script include meeting The Who and Jimi Hendrix before they were big, smoking from the age of 12, not having proper shoes to wear to school, being evacuated during World War II and the intense pressures of A-Levels and getting a place at university.
We hope that A Secret Life will give audiences a deeper, richer understanding of both elderly people and young people today, and that they’ll relate to our characters’ experiences of school, family, friendship, love and teenage pressures.
Writer ‘A Secret Life’