PLAYWRIGHT Ruth Pieloor has turned her personal experience with her late mother into what she describes as “an oddly comic” realisation of dementia.
Armed with grants from ArtsACT and “Q The Locals”, Pieloor’s new work, “Demented”, premieres at The Q later this month.
Her mother, Janette, a well-known Canberra poet, died in April and the role inspired by her will be performed by veteran actor Chrissie Shaw, with Heidi Silberman, Rachel Pengilly and Caroline Eccles taking up the roles of daughter, carer, lover, artist and others to unravel a tapestry of memories in a multi-form production that includes puppetry and clowning.
“It traces four generations of women understanding and embracing dementia. It is partly a woman’s cry, made more profound because women live longer,” says Pieloor.
Embarking on such a difficult subject, Pieloor is assisted by her long experience in the theatre, a career covering mainstage theatre, short plays, puppetry, clowning and, in recent years, some screen work.
After finishing acting school at Nepean, she worked in Sydney where she met about-to-be Canberra Youth Theatre director Pip Buining. By the time she arrived in 2006 to be near her mum, she had a child and wanted to raise her family in something bigger than a cramped Sydney flat.
Buining pointed her towards Youth Theatre where she did workshops, then people told her: “You’ve really got to connect with The Street Theatre.” She did so and enrolled there in a mask workshop with actor William Zappa, her first real professional dive-in after having a break.
She also wrote plays for the Short+Sweet play festival, for which two plays went to Sydney, before The Street offered her a developmental project in its “Hive” project where she got to work with professional dramaturg, Peter Matheson.
Pieloor isn’t exactly a newcomer to Canberra. When little she lived here and did classes with Youth Theatre, then the family moved to Tasmania where she did a lot of ballet and acting and even got to work with Terrapin Puppet Theatre.
“I love both puppets and human actors enormously,” she says, explaining that puppets have been an important part of her career, possibly coming from “an imaginary person in myself who is really me”.
The roots of puppetry, masks and clowning go very deep, she believes, and are linked – “the clown’s mask is the smallest mask in the world,” she says.
Pieloor should know. By day, she’s a “clown doctor” in hospitals and she doesn’t see the evil aspect of clowns at all, saying: “Too many people have been influenced by the Stephen King clown character.”
Her clowns are the opposite, very gentle, she says, bringing “light and heartfelt moments while creating empathy for people suffering from dementia, not judging them.”
Ali Clinch, whom she met through working at Rebus Theatre, is directing the play and Pieloor is not in the performance, although she is understudying so that, “if anyone falls off the perch because of covid, I swing into their roles”.
“Almost everybody in the creative team for ‘Demented’ has some connection with dementia,” she says. “But for me it seemed heavier because my mum’s dementia dialled up during this past year, so I became curator of what was happening to my mum.”
But, she stresses, the play is fictional, not a documentary and with a lot of skin in the playwriting game, she believes that she has been able to orchestrate the material, balancing the funny and the dramatic moments.
“Almost everybody needs to laugh as much as cry – there’s a lot of theatrical joy,” she says.
“Demented,” at The Q, August 17 (preview) to August 20. Auslan signing performances signed by Brett Olzen, August 18 and 2pm, August 20.
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