Working on her new play about people living in a residential support centre has given Esther Wilson a new perspective, she tells Laura Davis
THE starting point was Liverpool’s bombed out church – an unofficial memorial to lives lost in the Blitz that has become a gathering point for those whose lives have been stolen in other ways.
Playwright Esther Wilson found herself drawn to this peaceful place where the elements reign and mother nature has painted the stones green with moss, a spot where time appears to stand still within the surrounding bustle of regenerating Liverpool.
Before art group Urban Strawberry Lunch took over St Luke’s Church and reopened it to the public, it was possessed by the dispossessed – the homeless, the addicted, those with nowhere else to go.
So Wilson wrote a play that included their voices and, when asked to pitch ideas for Radio 3’s The Wire slot, rewrote it as a verbatim piece.
It remained unperformed on stage until Liverpool-based theatre producer Jen Heyes (Wall Talks, Treasured, Epstein the Play) approached the writer and suggested putting it on in the very place that had inspired it.
“We thought we could do something really quite special and dangerous and exciting and give the audience an experience of what it’s like to be out in the elements, in the cold, with a blanket wrapped round them and a cup of tea,” says Wilson, who was one of the writers on the acclaimed play Unprotected, based on the experiences of real life sex workers, which premiered at the Liverpool Everyman in 2006.
Wilson has moved away from the verbatim-style of theatre that featured in Unprotected and Ten Tiny Toes, her 2008 play about the impact of the war on mothers. However, Tony Teardrop is very much based on the stories of real homeless people and the people who work in organisations that try, against the odds, to help them.
Wilson was surprised to discover how much homeless charities’ own rules get in the way of their aims and how far individuals are prepared to go in stretching the system to make it work.
“In the play we have a shelter that is meant to be operated as a short term option but we have people who stay there longer because they don’t want to send them on to places that are more dodgy for them,” she says.
“That doesn’t make the managers and the board happy because what they’re doing on paper is not what the organisation sets out to do.
“But they’re doing it because they say, for instance, this person won’t survive if we send him here because he’s weak and every lowlife in the area will know what day he gets his disability living allowance, how much he gets, and within three months he’ll be dead.”
In the 75-minute play, Tony Teardrop, a homeless man on anti-psychotic medication who was once sectioned in front of his children, is living in one such hostel.
He takes a new boy, who has run away from his mum and her new partner, under his wing and “sees some sort of help for him in helping this boy”.
“It’s really a philosophical play about people who question the nature of their existence and about acceptance and forgiveness,” says Wilson. “It’s a dark comedy, it’s full of life. It’s very vital in its observations of how the world works.”
Wilson is also collaborating with the Spider Project, which helps people with addictions, to create a series of radio plays.
“They are incredibly talented people because addicts by their very nature are creative – they have to be to survive,” she says.
“People who live on the margins of society have different rhythms than the likes of us. They look at the way the world works from the edges so they have a different view and they give you illuminating insights into the world.
“The nearer to death they are the more inventive they have to be to survive so they have a level of emotional intelligence that is beyond me.”
Working with people living on the streets has given Wilson a different perspective of the homeless, she adds.
“I’m less frightened of them because I realise their reality is very different to mine. I see them as human beings.”
Teardrop Tony is at St Luke’s “bombed out” Church from March 21 to April 6.