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Documental Theatre Will Air PROPS on Radio Stations This July

There will be six short documentaries featuring the voices of the participants, and six original radio plays inspired by their testimony.

Documental Theatre Will Air PROPS on Radio Stations This July

This year we have all been asked to isolate ourselves for the wellbeing of others. But there are thousands of people in British society who have lived with isolation for years, if not decades, to support someone they love. PROPS is a new radio series about the radical act of caring and the loneliness and stigma that often comes with it.

South West company, Documental Theatre has interviewed sixteen participants. These include, among others, a prisoner's spouse, a support worker in a children's home, the parent of a recovering alcoholic, a domestic worker sending money to her family overseas, a mother of an autistic adult, a Navy wife and a resettled Syrian who spent years trying to bring his mother to safety.

"The scope of the research is deliberately huge," says Documental artistic director, Lucy Bell.

"We started off thinking about the lives of unpaid carers pre-pandemic, then realised so many different groups of people submit to a life full of jeopardy and restriction in order to support someone they are invested in. We wanted to explore the intense moral dilemmas people face, and what helps them keep on keeping on. We discovered shared sources of resilience and rage that cut across boundaries of geography, politics, class and culture."

The result will be six short documentaries featuring the voices of the participants, and six original radio plays inspired by their testimony. There will also be a digital archive curated by the participants, featuring images of the domestic objects and personal keepsakes which give them strength and mark out their hidden routines. The PROPS participants also make some pertinent suggestions of how the world would be run if they were in control.

"I am shocked by what we have found out about the prison system. I had never really thought about it until we had lived experience," says Katherine, a PROPS participant. She has supported her ex-husband through his prison time and release.

"One example of the casual cruelty of the Criminal Justice System was when prison personnel refused to give up the room the pastor had booked for my ex-husband to watch the live stream of his Dad's funeral. They refused because they were eating their lunch."

"I associated immediately with the PROPS theme," says Lauren, a Navy wife and full-time working mum of two. Her husband is at sea for six months. "Although COVID has made isolation a hot topic, it already affected so many people's lives, without ever being talked about. As a military wife, I've been in a situation for many years of having plenty of support offered but never being able to take advantage of it, leading to a feeling of being a one-woman island. I'm so excited to see the plays come to life."

The six original scripts have been developed and directed by multi award-winning director Sarah Meadows (ONE JEWISH BOY Trafalgar Studios, BRICKS Old Vic).

"PROPS is an essential project that seized the moment. I knew I needed to direct it and champion its aims, as soon as I was approached," says Sarah.

"The plays we've created are deliberately accessible, but never simple, aiming to gently present the complexities of the stories we heard, and the fluctuating roles of carers and those being cared for. Each play is distinctly different in tone, but all share a message of hope and celebration for the incredible possibilities of humanity."

The score for the plays is being composed by Ben Kwasi Burrell (SMALL ISLAND National Theatre, Coventry City of Culture composer). Jack Drewry is editor and sound designer (Tremolo Theatre, associate artist The Wardrobe Ensemble). The project is made possible by the Arts Council, Audio Content Fund, Golsoncott Foundation and Exeter City Council.

"The thing that struck me most about PROPS was the opportunity to glimpse into the lives of so many courageous people," says Bisola Alabi, one of the PROPS writers. "Their stories have stuck with me, with many of them changing me."

The writing team is made up of a diversity of award-winning talent: Mina Barber, Cathy Crabb, Stephen Myott-Meadows, Lucy Bell, Neela Dolezalova and Bisola Alabi.

"I have been a carer since I was a kid," says Neela, "so writing my play, 'Disturbed', was in many ways a personal journey. My play is set in 2010, around the time the Coalition came into power, when the political and public discourse around chronic illness, disability and the welfare state was incredibly toxic."

Everyone on the creative team conducted at least one of the interviews, and in doing so encountered stories of almost super-human perseverance.

"Having the chance to talk to strangers about their submissions to the PROPS archive was really special, especially during a pandemic when I wasn't able to meet many new people," Neela says.

"Everyone has a story to tell. If only we all spent more time listening to each other I honestly think the world would be a kinder place."

The whole production has happened in and out of lockdowns. Rehearsals and recording happened chiefly over CleanFeed with the support of series producer Naomi Turner, sound producer Ant Hickman and assistant producer Katie Wood. Some location sound effects and sections of dialogue were gathered separately. As things started to open up, two of the plays were recorded on location at Ye Olde Rose and Crown in Walthamstow which, fittingly enough, is also a theatre venue. Landlady Joanna Simmonnet even played one of the parts for authenticity.

The twenty strong cast includes Lucy Speed, known as Natalie in Eastenders, and Alix Wilton Regan who will star as Mary Shelley in "A Nightmare Awakes" this year. Munish Kapil plays a driving instructor in Mina Barber's "Donut", a script which bites back at the exploitation of overseas workers.

"It has been an absolute pleasure to be part of such incredible story telling. The plays are inspirational, thought-provoking stories which feel immediately relatable."

Actor Jo Pickering wanted to be part of the series because, "this year has been about community. Working on a project which emulated that was really moving."

Jo performs in "Merman", and plays "The Fish Wife" a guardian spirit who watches over a Plymouth Navy Married Quarter.

"The script gripped me from the offset, and didn't let go until the final words. With a dream of a character, why wouldn't I want to play her?"

The six plays are an eclectic mix of comedy, drama and fantasy, designed to excite and entertain the audience of National Prison Radio and numerous community stations, where they will be broadcast. Documental hopes PROPS will offer some respite to prisoners who have faced an unprecedented amount of cell time this year.

"Drama is a great way for us to talk about some difficult subjects that are really important when you're in prison," says Andrew Wilkie, deputy chief executive of Prison Radio Association. "We broadcast into cells right across England and Wales, and during extensive lockdowns National Prison Radio has been a lifeline for many, as well as the primary source of information. We hope hearing these stories will give our listeners a chance to relate to a whole range of experiences, and to feel some hope in what can be an extremely difficult situation."

It is also hoped the premiere of each of the six plays will be hosted by a different regional theatre. Documental is a regional company and hopes the shock of the pandemic will lead to a "levelling up" of arts infrastructure across the regions, in turn producing a greater diversity of stories for audiences to enjoy. As restrictions lift, it will be easy to overlook the emotional labour of carers, in the widest sense. The team of 33 actors and creatives who have pulled together this series hope the vivid and visceral content of PROPS will make that contribution hard to ignore.

PROPS will air on various radio stations from July 2021. For more information visit @documentaltheat on Twitter.

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