Karen's Story teaches us all that chasing your dreams isn't just for those starting out on their career paths. No matter whether you are just leaving school or watching your children do the same, anything is possible.
From Chickenshed Theatre To The West End
All three of my children have been involved in Chickenshed. My middle son is autistic and when he was little the paediatrician recommended that he went there because he had a lot of musical ability. So, we started off by going to ‘Tales From The Shed’ and then put his name down to join. I remember turning up to speak to Charlotte at the time and I started to tell her about my son’s needs. I had a whole pile of paperwork, and Charlotte just said no, we don’t want to know, we will get to know him ourselves, understand the kind of support he needs and take it from there. It was such a refreshing approach.
After a while, I got more involved with Chickenshed, volunteering front of house. Then in 2017, I can’t quite remember how it happened, I think it was an email saying that they were looking to do a project bringing over 50s together with a youth group, called The Space Between Us. It sounded super interesting, so I thought I’d give it a go.
I hadn’t really come across Rachel. I wasn’t too sure what to expect, how it was going to work, what it was going to be like.
It was quite a difficult time, going through legal processes trying to get better provision for my son who was living in Brighton in supported living. We just kept hitting brick walls. It was so difficult and extremely emotional for me as well. Over the first few sessions, with some of the exercises I started to feel like my family was very different from everyone else’s. We also explored things like relationships with our parents. It seemed that a lot of people had very close relationships with their mothers and I felt very separate at that point. That wasn’t my experience. I found that quite an upsetting time, confronting things I already knew but had buried quite deep. One person in particular seemed to notice moments like these. Throughout the whole process she would ask me gently how things were. She always seemed to know the right time to ask, the right words to use and she really listened. If I hadn’t gone to those sessions, I wouldn’t have had anybody to give me that.
I remember I didn’t go to one of the sessions. I was so upset with other aspects of my life, I went upstairs, had a bath, lay on my bed and couldn’t face getting up again. Rachel messaged me after that session. I felt that I mattered, that I had been missed and that I was valued. That little act made all the difference to me.
During the process I couldn’t really see how what we were doing was going to turn into a show. We were creating a lot of things, taking quite deep journeys into very personal areas, but I couldn’t see where it was going. One thing I was really frightened of was not being able to remember the lyrics to one of the songs. I really felt at that point in my life that I was on the brink of dementia (I’m going to veer off to say that I am not. Throughout this project and following projects my memory actually improved. I definitely used to struggle remembering things, but a part of my brain has been exercised and that’s no longer an issue!). I had felt like I was on the verge of early onset dementia before, I thought I might have been on the autistic spectrum, I was even referred to hospital at one point but was told that I was neither experiencing dementia nor autistic.
What I was told was that I’d had a hard life. Three miscarriages, the difficulties of bringing up a disabled son, life threatening surgery that had gone wrong 8 years before. I spent a few years in therapy after that. It was helpful. The therapist pointed me back to the way I was raised, the way I was parented, and the demands and expectations put on me from a very young age. My parents also had difficulties: domestic violence, some borderline alcoholism, dependency on prescribed drugs. Both my parents are quite solitary, and we didn’t have much contact with extended family when I was younger. I think all of that made a big difference to the way I interact with the world. I don’t make friends very easily, but I like to belong to things where I come into contact with others to make something together with a shared purpose. That was easier to find when I worked and had young children. But my children are grown up now, the pattern of life and the people to interact with are no longer there. I needed to find new ways to connect with people, to matter, to do something meaningful. Belonging to creative groups through different theatre performances has given me that.
But back to the Space Between Us, there was a point quite late in the process, I was sitting in the bar at Chickenshed and lots of these memories from my childhood and teenage years came flooding back. I started writing little vignettes, very brief pieces. Some of them are quite funny, some poignant, and some nothing to do with any topic in the show we were preparing. I just felt a real urgency to write things down. In the end a lot of them ended up in the show which was amazing.
I hadn’t been involved in any theatre or performing for a long time, since school, and my overwhelming feeling is a sense of having wasted time. I just enjoyed it so much. I wasn’t in any prominent role and that’s fine, I wasn’t looking for that, but the whole experience of performing, the physical movement and the dance, I really enjoyed. It was really sad to only have a small number of performances. The atmosphere in the dressing room, I think that was the point we started connecting with each other in a more relaxed way. For me, when it all finished, I didn’t want it to stop. I took up a number of opportunities that were shared by people I knew. In the end in 2019 I performed in five different shows with four different theatre companies. It was a big development from many decades of not performing at all.
I’m a psychologist by background and I think that what this project provided was an opportunity to process things, things that have been quite life changing in earlier years. But also, the space to connect with people with similar experiences. I have found people who have struggled with the same things, or different things, and we can support each other. I don’t have very close friends, partly because I have difficulty developing relationships. I’m better at tasks, lists, structure. With an evidence base and scientific back up. It’s been challenging to try and step out from a place of safety into a space where there are no right or wrong answers, where it’s about you and your choices, where nothing is judged as being incorrect. I’m better when there is a joint purpose, and since the first show we’ve done that. I found the freedom kind of liberating, particularly when I was able to write. I hope that other people have the chance to experience what I did, in their own way. It is a gift that people use differently. I’m just very grateful.
My whole experience at Chickenshed has really changed my life. I still need encouragement, feedback and nurturing, to feel that what I’m doing matters and has value. I still feel fragile and thin skinned. I still don’t reach out to people as much as I should or could, but I appreciate when people reach out to me. In 202 the story continues. I’ve been in one show already this year, completed a directing course and assistant directed a play. I’ve also been cast in a show at the Donmar Warehouse and another physical theatre show later on in the year, which is quite something really.
So, my journey from Chickenshed to West End stage over two years is quite remarkable. Time is running out for me and I feel I have to try these things, see whether I can do them and to experience the feeling.
Written by Holly with Karen
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