And I’m nervous…
I’m nervous not just because, as someone who usually writes for the stage, this format is less familiar to me.
I’m nervous not just because this recording will be these emerging young actors’ first attempt at audio drama and they will have to hold their own working alongside two professional artists.
I’m nervous not just because one of these artists is autistic and the other has learning disabilities and I want to be sure that my writing has done justice to them, other people like them and their families.
I’m nervous because this piece draws on my own experience in a way that none of my other plays have. All playwrights will tell you that there are pieces of them in everything they write and I’d agree with this. As I often write for teenagers I regularly draw on my own adolescent experience but, as I turn forty next year, that me feels so different to who I am now that it might as well not be me at all.
No, this time, it’s deeply personal and it feels exposing. It feels dangerous and it feels exciting!
I have been a parent of a special needs child since 2009 and am now mum to two autistic girls with learning disabilities. I can’t help but wonder why it has taken me almost a decade to charter this terrain. When my eldest daughter was small, a much loved writing mentor told me that one day I would need to walk down the cellar steps and open that door and that, only when I was able to do this, would I really find my voice. He was referencing Caryl Churchill talking about writing her surreal play about depression, The Skriker which uncharacteristically took her seven years, as she could apparently only bear to step into the cellar for short periods at a time.
I don’t know if it was my reluctance to ‘go there’ that stopped me or whether I needed longer to process and reflect. Perhaps only now I feel able to talk about my world and the ‘extreme parenting’ that it involves.
Maybe I just wasn’t ready to expose this bit of myself to the young artists who I mentor. This year’s team are a particularly kind and compassionate bunch. Maybe I needed this particular team to be able to tell this story.
Mainly, I think it’s the opportunity to delve into history and draw connections between then and now. The space that Rebecca has created, in the Forgotten Women podcast series, has opened up this possibility for me.
Rebecca’s vision for the project was that it needed to be as intersectional as possible; women of colour, non binary folk, trans women and disabled women’s stories have been particularly marginalised and she was, understandably, keen to use the project to address these inequalities. When I started to research I was looking for a disabled or autistic campaigner to write about. That’s when I discovered Judy. Judy Fryd founded the charity Mencap back in 1946 when she struggled to find appropriate schooling or care for her daughter Felicity, who would probably have been diagnosed as autistic if she was a young person today. Judy was not disabled or autistic herself but, as a mum to special needs kids, her story resonated with me so strongly that I knew I had to write about her.
Together with colleagues from Peer Productions, Rebecca has gone back to Arts Council Engand to ask for more funding to employ a disabled or autistic writer to write a piece about a disabled or autistic campaigner and we plan to work with our friends from The Orpheus Centre to realise this. If this funding bid is unsuccessful we will keep applying to a range of sources as we remain committed to telling stories from this perspective.
Meanwhile, it was Judy’s story that was crying out to me to be told. From interviewing one of Judy’s daughters and one of Judy’s granddaughters it was clear to be that she was an incredibly tenacious woman. She spent a lifetime fighting for opportunities for people with learning disabilities. It was, in a large part, owing to decades of campaigning for children with learning disabilities to have the right to an education that resulted in an amendment to the education act in 1971 that, for the first time, included learning disabled children.
Whilst, as any SEN mum will tell you, if you want something for your child you have to fight. At a mediation session with the local authority about my eldest daughter’s schooling I was forced to repeat the same question over a dozen times until my point was acknowledged and heard. I was reminded of the suffragettes asking the same question over and over again, “When will you give women in the vote?’ and of Judy’s tireless campaigning and with all of it, with the spirit of tenacious women who have walked my path before me, I felt a little stronger.
When I started to research Judy’s story I didn’t know that I planned to intertwine it with my own but, the more I learned about her, the more I felt a connection with her.
I’d like to thank Judy for giving me the strength to share my story alongside hers. Hearing and researching her story has given me the courage to share my own.
If you’d like to join us for the live recording at South Hill Park there are a handful of tickets available – https://www.southhillpark.org.uk/events/forgotten-women/
Alternatively subscribe to the Forgotten Women podcast where the finished piece will be dropped – https://itunes.apple.com/gb/podcast/forgotten-women/id1441259768?mt=2