Thursday, 14 April 2016

'Words, Words, Words' - A play exploring grief, by Lowri Amies

Today's blog is from Lowri Amies on bereavement, the theatre and her upcoming play "WORDS, WORDS, WORDS" which is on at London's King’s Head Theatre on the 17th & 18th April and Leicester Square Theatre from the 16th-21st May.

When my mum passed away, I was performing my first ever solo show, ‘Those who can’t…LEARN’ at the Miller Pub. It was the most bizarre experience to stand on the stage the day after and try to be funny. I had no idea how ill she was, which was stupid really because she had been diagnosed with terminal Cancer of Unknown Primary (CUP) four years previously and given only months to live. However, she had fought the disease with such strength and determination that I thought nothing could stop her. Until it did.

She had helped me work on the show while she sat in bed recovering from her latest bout of chemo, worked on draft after draft with me and supplied jokes. Although she never got to see the finished product, she was a huge part of it. She was also a huge part of me and, after she died, I had no idea who I was or how to exist in a world where she didn't. I partly believed so vehemently that she would eventually beat the cancer because I didn't know how I would survive if she left me.

So, when she did, how was I supposed to continue? I couldn’t even express my feelings, I couldn't find a word which would encompass my sense of loss in its entirety. My love of words was deeply engrained within me from an early age. My mum and I, being linguists, loved grammar and thought there was nothing better in the world than finding ‘le mot juste’ for every occasion.

When I lost her, I also lost my faith in words. It was around this time that Shakespeare - in particular, Hamlet - kept coming to mind. He seemed to be able to express things. I’ve always been like that with Shakespeare. I can’t even make someone a drink without multiple quotations coming to mind and I find myself endlessly adapting them to everyday situations: ‘Father - this [tea] is thine!’ or ‘The quality of [teabags] is not strained’. (N.B. I love tea almost as much as I love Shakespeare). I think it is not only that I have performed his work so many times (I did 35 plays while at Cambridge!), but because I absorb it on a very deep level. Now the quotations changed to things like ‘How weary, stale, flat and unprofitable seem to me all the uses of this world’ or ‘I alone do feel the injury’.

I continued with the London run of my solo show at the Canal Café a few days after her funeral and then took it to the Edinburgh Fringe Festival. The words we had worked on together seemed equally ‘stale, flat and unprofitable’. So I decided that I needed new words - a new show.

Writing this show has been a rediscovery of who I am. In exploring the seven stages of grief in writing as I was going through them allowed me not only to wrestle with words, but to shed light on each of these stages through the lens of a better writer than I could ever hope to be. The show was two years in the making and, though ending on ‘Acceptance’, does not tie the process neatly up in a bow. Grief is not as simple as that.

When I presented the first draft to my director - and very good friend, Anna Marsland - in November, it was a shadow of what it is now. She was the one who drew all the personal stories out of me, who allowed me to reexamine elements of my past and to rediscover the joy in my memories. I had been an only child and grandchild and, in the play, I talk a lot about the catalyst for this ‘strange, eventful history’ (see, there I go again!) - the degenerative disease suffered by my grandfather. It was Anna who suggested that we add his story in and I realised that I had been bottling up my grief for him for over ten years.

She has been exceptional - there was no-one else I would have entrusted the play’s content to and no-one else who could have brought me back to myself in the way she did. Her input was invaluable, then, particularly given that the experience had affected me hugely as a person and a performer.

While I have been lucky enough to be in constant work since graduating from Royal Central, my mum died just as I left the institution and embarked upon my career. The first job I got after my Edinburgh Fringe run was at the Canal Café performing in News Revue. I definitely feel that my reactive depression was at a height at that time and, while the group and the whole team was astoundingly supportive and maintained that my performance was never noticeably affected, I felt very far from the person and, indeed, the actor that I used to be. It was actually a letter from my kind friend, director Charlotte Westenra, who wrote to me after an audition because she thought I was not allowing myself to shine through, which made me address the problem.

My agent, Simon Sharkey, was unfailingly loyal and got me the help I needed. It is for this reason that I want to use my experiences to shed light on what can happen when a person is unsupported in their grief by the healthcare profession. When my mum passed away, there was no follow-up and I had to actively seek the help myself when, really, I was in no fit state to recognise the need to do so. I also felt let down by my peers, some of whom disappeared on me, and I can only think that this is down to a lack of experience of how to engage with the bereaved among young people.

I am already collecting after my shows for the charity ‘Yes To Life’, but I am hoping to further use these performances as a launchpad for a campaign to combat the stigma associated with grief and to give a voice to those who feel at sea. I not only want to give them a support network, but I also want to support that support network by supplying friends and family with ideas for how to help when they don’t know how.

In the words of Johanna Barclay: ‘In being so open and truthful in her own story, Lowri generously allows us to be part of the process of expressing what we all long to say and feel: our most painful stories. When we witness someone doing this, it gives us the courage to do the same’. I can only hope this is the effect my play has on all who see it.

A person deeply informed by my mother’s influence, ingrained.

I am no longer half a person

Words, words, words by Lowri Amies, directed by Anna Marsland (assistant director RSC and Globe, resident director Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time) is at King’s Head Theatre on the 17th and 18th April - Book your tickets here

This production is touring and the next venue is Leicester Square Theatre from the 16th-21st May - Book your tickets here

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