Associate Artist alumni Julian Dibley-Hall returns to Theatre Works next month with Jules Allen’s new play BETTY. Julian reflects on his first read, his discovery process of the play with Jules and Iris Walshe-Howling and how humour is a healing force in this play.
Q: Can you tell us about your initial response when you first read Betty?
A: My memory is that I was struck by the power of the story, and by the force of the love the two women must have for one another to find a way through the layers of grief and trauma they both carry. I remember finishing the play, sitting for a moment in the aftermath and then immediately turning back to page one and reading it again.
Q: What discoveries have you made about dementia during the rehearsal process that you were not aware of before?
A: I’ve had very little lived experience with dementia prior to making this show. Working with Jules and Iris and exploring Jules’ beautiful text, two things in particular stand out. The first is that every experience of dementia is unique to the individual and their loved ones, the disease functions and develops differently and the impacts are specific to their life. One of the great difficulties seems to be the loneliness of navigating the individuality of that path.
The second thing, at least in the context of this play and the experiences that inspired it, is that the changes wrought by dementia can be a catalyst for revelation. The relationship at the heart of this play is fundamentally altered by the shifting power dynamics of the mother/daughter relationship as child becomes carer, by the slippery nature of time and reality as the dementia progresses, and by the shared awareness of mortality. These forces break open previously closed aspects of this relationship and allow a reckoning with the past that would not have been possible otherwise.
Q: How do you safely approach topics such as family trauma and abuse in a rehearsal room?
A: Trust and open communication. Working with material that delves into these challenging and potentially triggering issues requires the whole creative team to be able to speak openly about their experiences both in the rehearsal room and in their lives. From the beginning of the process I’ve prioritised honest discussions with the team about the play’s content and about mental and emotional wellbeing, and have established regular rehearsal processes that ensure these conversations are ongoing. It’s important that we bring honesty to the creation of the world and the portrayal of these issues and it’s equally important that there is honesty woven throughout the creation process.
Q: Can you tell us about the world in Betty and Claudia Mirabello’s design for Theatre Works?
A: The main action of the play takes place in Rose’s new house in a retirement village. Working with Claudia, we’ve created a space that plays with used, comfortable furniture that clearly has a lived history in a space that’s stark, institutional, slightly soulless. Rose now lives here but it’s not yet her home.
Q: Have you made any unexpected (or accidental) discoveries in the rehearsal room?
A: If you’re working from a place of curiosity, exploration and rigour then every moment on the floor in a rehearsal room is full of unexpected discoveries. Of course I walk into the room with ideas of what things might look like, how moments might play out, how the mechanics of a scene could work, but then you do the work of “finding the play” amongst the text and between the actors. One of the great joys of making theatre is that it’s a communal activity and every person in the team brings themselves to the work and its development. Iris and Jules both bring such a wealth of knowledge, experience and skill to the floor that I’m surprised and thrilled by choices they make every rehearsal. My bigger concern would be if the show ever got to a point where I wasn’t making unexpected discoveries.
Q: How does humour play a role in a play that navigates through topics such as loss and grief?
A: Humour is a healing force in this play. Rose and Lucy find moments of love, care, solace and connection through the moments of humour they share. From a dramaturgical perspective, the humour allows the audience space to breathe and process what they’re experiencing and is an invitation to continue being with us in the world of the play. In my experience, humour is present in some way in most experiences of moving through loss and grief. Without it we’d drown, and it plays the same role here.
Q: Can you summarise Betty in 5 words?
A: Honest, surprising, love, family, grief.