I'M GLAD I ASKED - Lighthouse Poole, Thursday 7 November

Thursday, May 30, 2024

A lifelong connection with Lighthouse will be cemented this autumn when actress, artist and storyteller Michele O’Brien presents her deeply personal show I’m Glad I Asked in the Sherling Studio on Thursday 7 November. 

The funny, tender, heart-felt one woman show was developed in part at Lighthouse, in the Sanctuary artist residency, and drawn from workshops across the area with local women. It also channels life with Michele’s own 91-year-old mother, Gena, represented in the show by a life-sized puppet. 

“It’s an honest and truthful reflection of what it means to have an older parent diagnosed with dementia and the questions we need to ask, but rarely get the chance to,” explains Michele. 

“How often do we hear people say ‘If only I’d asked’ when a parent is no longer with us? In Covid times I resolved to ask Mum those questions and write down the answers. Some parts of the show are a verbatim record of those conversations, the words and phrases are hers – there’s so much love in them. 

“And to do this at Lighthouse is very special.” 

In 1978, at the age of nine, Michele’s parents put her on a coach on Ashley Road in Parkstone, near where she lived, that took her to the first Christmas show at what was then Poole Arts Centre. 

“I was furious with them when I realised they weren’t coming with me to what turned out to be a noisy panto, but I thank them now for starting what has been a long association with Lighthouse.” 

Since then, Michele has appeared many times on stage at Lighthouse, but never in a work that is quite as personal as I’m Glad I Asked. 

“The initial impetus to pursue this project came from an image of a daughter with her mother in the gardens of a care home,” explains Michele.  

“There seemed to be no connection between the two. The daughter seemed to be talking to her mother and yet the mother did not move. For some time, the image bothered me – would that be how Mum and I would be in the future?” 

Working with people living with dementia in care homes, Michele came to realise that even in groups people are all individuals – a diagnosis does not take away the person. There were moments of pure clarity for some participants.  

“I think it’s important just to be with someone. I adopted an attitude in acceptance, being present, being responsive and interactions became joyful moments of connection that were unplanned.  

“In one poignant moment, a non-speaking man who was not engaging with the hat-making activity found that his finger had stuck onto the tape I was offering him. I very gently played with the tension on the tape and for a moment we were connected by sticky tape, but also rhythm, music and eye contact. Smiling and laughter broke through.” 

And it’s that essence that drives the narrative in I’m Glad I Asked. Through her interactions with the puppet Michele explores the joys, heartaches, shared memories, love and conflict that bind families across generations. 

“The change in a person with dementia to me isn’t just the memory, it’s much more. I think now that the art of connection in whatever form this takes is the moment to cherish – connections that are physical, imaginary, or based on the learnt. 

“In the show I play two men – Mum’s teacher and a Spanish man we encountered at the beach. I also play Mum, I channel her, inhabit her… or is she with me? 

“I had a wide knowledge of my mum’s stories, but talking about them with her was comforting. I was also close to my nanny and remembered how she spoke about her daughters. My mum was one of three sisters, and they would say they were close.    

“I’m Glad I Asked is a one-woman show, but like all storytellers, I’m really telling other people’s stories. My great grandmother had 13 children and lived through two world wars with all the losses that brought.” 

The family link is further is the music for I’m Glad I Asked composed and recorded by Michele’s brother Mark, bass clarinettist with City of Birmingham Orchestra. 

Gena died in 2021, but her on-going presence in I’m Glad I Asked helps encourage all of us to keep our lost loved ones close. 

“I think it’s important for me to keep delivering the piece,” says Michele, “to keep reaching out to people who are affected by dementia, making new connections.” 

:: I’m Glad I Asked plays the Sherling Studio on Thursday 7 November. Tickets available now at https://www.lighthousepoole.co.uk.