In conversation with Jules Allen

Ahead of the world premiere season of Betty (9-19 June), we caught up with playwright Jules Allen about her latest work and her approach to exploring a topic often not spoken about: caregiving for a parent with dementia.

Q: As a motivational speaker, often tackling topics about sexual harassment, abuse, bullying and discrimination, how did the idea to write a new play about a mother/daughter relationship and dementia come about? 

A: Much of the content I draw upon when delivering a motivational speech is from my lived experience. It is my firm belief and understanding that what provides my authority to talk about sexual abuse, harassment, bullying etc, is the fact that I have experienced them. At the risk of sounding cliché, it has been a life- long ambition of mine to use my adversity as an asset in trying to help others who have a shared experience.

Over my many years spent working as a Social Scientist, largely with families in crisis, I became acutely aware of the complexity of the Mother/daughter relationship; globally and cross culturally. Once again, my own experience firmly supported this observation. It was only after caring for my Mother in her last year of life that I was able to reflect more closely on how this extraordinary relationship had informed my own life, in ways I had not yet perceived.

My own Mother’s decline was harrowing. As illness progressed rapidly, her symptoms suggested dementia in its varying degrees. What I didn’t know was what this layered state would award us with. There was an honesty, a rawness and a vulnerability that became intrinsic to our connection in those closing months; or shall I say re-connection. A gift I shall forever be grateful for.

Q: Tell us about your relationship with theatre and what was it about this story that you decided to tell in this art form? 

A: Since I was a child, I have had a deep love of the theatre. I realised quite early on I desperately wanted to be on stage. What I didn’t acknowledge until much later is that I was actually looking for myself in the characters; desperate to connect to shared experiences.

For many years, in other fields in my life, I have advocated strongly for those I feel are marginalised or without voice. It was in the writing and production of my first play ‘Slipped through the cracks’ that I was awarded an insight into the power of the theatre to share untold stories. After years of trying to ignite interest around our flawed Foster care system, I heard discussions erupt in the foyer. I was enthralled and, needless, to say, inspired.

Although this play is not autobiographical, many aspects are drawn from excerpts of my own life. Over the years I have also fostered many children and adopted a few. What I have come to know, as a consequence, is that the relationship with the primary carer, usually the Mother, is by far the most profound we will have in life, whether they are in our lives or not. Whether it is functional or not.

Furthermore, as my Mother was dying, I came to realise that, as humans, we are connected through this experience. At some stage nearly all of us, in some way, will care for our dying parents. I feel as a society we do not talk about this enough. I, for one, was definitely not ready. Maybe you never are.

Deeply changed by the experience of caring for my Mother, I felt the need to write it. To be honest, I had no idea what form that would take when I started. Some weeks later, I was staring at a script and harbouring a newfound respect for Eugene O’Neill.

Q: What’s it been like watching the rehearsal process and the world you’ve imagined for so long, finally become realised by a group of artists?

A: I am so deeply humbled by what it is I am witnessing in rehearsal at present. Not in my wildest dreams could I have perceived that I would be working with such a passionate, committed, kind and talented group of artists.

On a more personal level, I am stunned by what I am finding in a script that I, myself, wrote. It is so bizarre how that happens. It’s only now, whilst actually in rehearsal that I am coming to understand and appreciate the depth of this play. Honestly, I think whilst writing it, it was too close for me to see it or allow myself to feel. Now, as the character, I am given unfiltered insight. What a view!

Given I am still a relatively new playwright I had little attachment to a clear vision on stage. Rather, I was engrossed in the presentation of the characters and their connection. Watching this come alive in the space, being moulded by talented artists is beyond anything I can find words for. I am truly mesmerized by the process.

Q: There are almost 500,000 people living with dementia in Australia and 1.6 million individuals involved in their care. How does Betty approach this tragic disease that effects so many lives?

A: Tackling the presentation of dementia in ‘Betty’ was not without its challenges. A disease such as this, experienced by so many, is also unique to all who live it. I was conscious, at all times, that I could only write from my own perspective, whilst trying to hold in mind the delicate and, no doubt, enormously varying experiences of others. I was, and still am, mindful not to offend anyone who may be affected by this tragic disease.

My own experience was so layered. As a consequence of other diagnoses, it wasn’t until after my Mother’s death that I was able to recognise that much of her behaviour was, in fact, symptoms of dementia. In order to accurately depict this in a broader sense in ‘Betty’, I have further researched the experience of others with dementia and those caring for them.

As much as most aspects of this disease are harrowing, I was not prepared for the many unpredictable, humorous moments; something I have delicately attempted to intertwine into the writing of the character of ‘Rose.’ I imagine it is impossible to depict all aspects of someone’s experience of this disease. It is my hope that those watching who have a shared experience may feel a sense of connection to, or even some of, the characteristics of the chaos evident in this disease”.

Q: The show is described as candid and incredibly humorous. Can you tell us how you balance humour with content that is equally tragic and heartfelt?

A: Dementia, to me, is insanely complex. It presented a multitude of colours that made for an incredibly vibrant fabric. Some areas dark and some surprisingly flamboyant. I could not write my experience honestly if I overlooked the lighter, brighter shades. To be honest, they are what I remember most vividly. That may well be my brains way of protecting me from the pain of the more difficult times. Regardless, I am grateful.

Furthermore, the density of tragedy would not be able to be digested if it were not broken up by moments of humour. As a writer, I, in no way, wanted to drown the audience. The humour gives the audience the opportunity to take a breath. In my opinion, it also allows for a closer examination of the darker aspects, as the fear of suffocation is removed. This was my hope, anyway. I hope it has been achieved.

Q: Can you summarise ‘Betty’ in 5 words? 

A: Compelling, hilarious, tragic and deeply moving. (sorry, one word too many!)

by Jules Allen
9-19 June

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