Steps 1-5: Gathering and Ordering the Material

1) Elders share their memories around a given theme of social and historical significance for inclusion in a theatrical production

Pam interviews Margaret Kippin in 1983

Interviews can happen on a one-to-one basis in the individual’s own home or chosen venue, or they can take place in a group situation. Both arrangements have advantages in building towards a reminiscence theatre show. In the individual interview, the person has a chance to speak at much greater length, to go deeper into his or her own memories with no distractions, to confide more and to build a closer relationship with the interviewer. In the group interview, people remind one another of many long-forgotten stories related to the main theme and these spontaneously recalled memories are often told in a very fresh, lively manner. Another advantage of the group approach is that the contributors learn a lot about one another in a pleasurable way, do not feel too put on the spot by an interviewer, and tend to develop a growing sense of belonging to a community of memory in the course of sharing their personal stories.

Blackheath residents meet to record their memories of growing up in the same street 2003

It is important to find a range of interviewees from different backgrounds whose memories complement one another or whose experience is divergent, so there can be multiple perspectives and the ironies of contradiction. It should be made clear to interviewees the purpose of the interview and how it might be used in the project. Having this agreed in writing can save a lot of trouble later on, especially if the team plan to use the material additionally for a publication or website.

2) All memories are recorded and transcribed

Memories given for a reminiscence theatre project need to be recorded, labelled and safely stored, using the best technical equipment that is currently available and affordable. Often there is a different team involved in interviewing and in developing the theatre show. In this case, it is especially vital that there is a good handover of information including contributors’ details and any special conditions or requests.

Now there are many possibilities for recording and storing audio interviews or video-recordings of interviews digitally and editing and displaying them in digital formats, whether via local collections or on-line.

A group interview with Jewish elders 1987

It is desirable to transcribe memories fully and to give contributors a copy of what has been said in the interview, especially in the case of a one-to-one interview. It is an indication that the value of their contribution is recognised by the creative team. This gives them a chance to check through what has been transcribed and add to it or modify it where necessary. Interviewees often want to keep their transcription to show to family members or friends.

In the Reminiscence Theatre Archive, we plan, wherever possible, to connect the interview transcripts together with the audio recording, so one can read and hear the story simultaneously. We have included some extracts from interviews on this website to convey the idea and to show how it works in practice.

The transcription of individual and group memories is a long and slow process, but it enables the creative team to read all the available material together without listening to it all in real time. The availability of transcription is vital in the process. It yields detailed background material and also includes spoken material, often in dialogue form, which can be incorporated into the eventual script. People often remember conversation linked to the events they are recalling, and relay it in the present tense (‘she says to me’ …  or ‘so I says’ …). This kind of story telling often yields the most authentic and lively dialogue for use in the plays. Audiences appreciate the particular sound of an individual’s memory, the idiosyncratic turn of phrase, the ‘period’ feel of the text, even when spoken by an actor rather than the original storyteller.

A typical Age Exchange audience

3) Background reading and documentary material are incorporated

                              Wanted: Parlourmaids

It is obviously important to read around the subject so that you can check the likely accuracy of oral testimony and put the stories collected into a wider more public context. The interviews provide the raw material for the shows, but this can be supplemented with documentary evidence, including quotations from official documents of the time, advertisements, rulebooks, licences, etc. This kind of material often stimulates memories for the audience and powerfully evokes the time.

Music research is also very important. What songs of the time could link with the subject matter of the play? What was everyone singing at the time remembered in the interviews? Songs of the period have so many associations for older audiences and help to remind them of events, people and places which were important for them at that time in their lives.

4) The material is brought together and a structure is sought

The creative team need to read through all the assembled material, verbatim and documentary, pointing out favourite stories, which have delighted or touched them and which they think could work dramatically.

A path must be found through the mountain of material collected, a structure that can bind the stories together into a coherent whole. This can be through

* A chronological sequencing of stories
* Organisation of material around different themes
* Organisation of material around a set of key characters to whom everything happens
* Visiting key locations in which the story was played out
* The events of a single day or year
* A journey through different moods and gradations of emotion
* Or many other systems of organisation

The writer, director and often the performing team will be in on this creative processing of the material. It is often the case that every member of the creative team has a different possible version of the play in his or her head, but there will need to be a firm guiding hand to ensure the artistic integrity of the piece.

Clare Summerskill and Pam Schweitzer start to structure the research interviews 2002

5) Using the verbatim approach to scripting

Although this is not absolutely required, there is no substitute for the power of the actual words in which an incident has been remembered. Very often, an incident will be relayed by several interviewees and, in this instance, once can piece together the best telling of the story from different sources. Alternatively, a single contributor’s version can be shared out among several speakers.

  BILL: (Rowing with Mike and sharing an oar) Winter time, I’ve cried before now when me hands have    been so cold, stuck to an oar you know, and I’ve almost cried with the pain.

MIKE: What I’ve done before I’ve gone out on the river, I’ve rolled newspaper round my legs and       under my socks to keep them warm, and put it across the chest under me jersey.

Sometimes actors and directors will explore the play’s subject through improvisation before moving to the verbatim material. And there have been successful reminiscence theatre shows where the whole script has been arrived at through improvisation. However, this approach has mainly been used in connection with reminiscence shows performed by older people and non-professional performers, who need considerable flexibility in how they express the story in every performance. In this instance, the performers will share a story and ask the other players to help them ‘put it on the floor’, during which process many more detailed memories are likely to surface.

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