Blog: Reflections on Who are Yer, Citz National Residency Sharing in Sheffield

Posted on: 21 November 2017

Written by: Vicky Ream

Who Are Yer? was a verbatim theatre piece about growing older in Sheffield and the social isolation experienced by those over 60.  It was a collaborative project between South Yorkshire Housing Association (SYHA) and Cardboard Citizens as part of the Citz National Residency project. Malaika Cunningham at The Bare Project reflects on her experiences working on the project. 

Verbatim theatre is a technique in which the script is made up of real conversations from real people, spoken with word–for-word accuracy. The characters who came alive through our actors were chosen from over 30 different interviews we collected with older residents of Sheffield. Our actors performed by listening to the interviews live on stage and then repeating the words they heard. No lines were memorised, rather the actors became like ventriloquist dummies, repeating all the ‘ums’ and ‘ahs’, every moment of nervous laughter and matching the pace and music of the words spoken in each interview.

In each interview the older person was asked about the past, the present and, crucially, their thoughts on the future of Sheffield. These interviews really portrayed the diversity of the history and current experiences of older people in Sheffield. It’s a massive demographic as ages ranged from 60 to 96! From these many, many hours of material, Terry and I whittled it down to an hour long script. The conversations played out on stage covered war time memories; the things our characters got up to in their youth (A LOT of dancing it would turn out); racism; work; universal credit; advice for a younger generation; social isolation and policy suggestions to make Sheffield a better place.

Our cast were volunteers from Sheffield, half of whom were under 23, the other half of whom were over 50. Some stand-out moments came from the discussions at the end of every show. Given the cast were immersed in the lives of these older residents for two and half weeks, they had ideas for policy which could be implemented by SYHA and the Age Better Programme. At the end of the show, the audience was also invited to contribute - one suggestion which came from the floor on the final night was to allow admittance to the cinema to older people in exchange for a jam jar (as they used to do during the war). Another came from an older person who had been interviewed, which was to recognise and support older carers. These conversations brought the relevance of the show right up the present and it felt that the show could have real impact. On one occasion a staff member of a local care home, whose residents had been interviewed for the project, commented after the show: “it’s made me realise we don’t listen.”

To listen to the voices of older people is not to do them a favour. Relieving the social isolation felt by too many older people in society is not about volunteering your time to smile; nod, and indulge. It is to recognise that their views can be insightful and useful, and can also be challenged. 

To find out more about becoming involved with our Citz National Residencies programme email michael@cardboardcitizens.org.uk.

With thanks to

Arts Council England Lottery funded