Walking and talking in the shoes of older people

Mikel Murfi takes to the road with one-man show based on the stories of older people


‘With mirth and laughter let old wrinkles come,” so wrote William Shakespeare in The Merchant of Venice , observing perhaps how social interaction helps counter the fears and angst of ageing.

When he was asked by the Sligo Arts Office and Hawk’s Well Theatre to interact artistically with active retirement groups in Sligo as part of the Bealtaine Festival, actor Mikel Murfi had little idea the engagement would lead to a one-man show which he is now touring nationally.

As well as its artistic dividend, the process also reminded Murfi about the value of using the arts as an effective way to positively impact on areas of public health.

During the project, Murfi visited many active retirement groups in Sligo and asked people he met to tell him stories about themselves and their county. Over the course of many months, Murfi extended the project to take in visits to nursing homes, and worked also with specific older groups in Sligo.

The theme he adopted was laughter, and the premiere of The Man in the Woman’s Shoes took place in the foyer of St John’s Hospital in Sligo last year. “I examined two things in the play,” says Murfi. “One is the nature of madness – that moment when people move into other territories in their life and their mind begins to fail them and they end up, for example, with forms of dementia. I try to gently talk about the nature of the development of those things. The play is about mental health and about a man who has a very positive attitude to his life and the nature of growing old.”

When Murfi was training to be an actor in Ecole Jacques Lecoq, Paris, he would visit children’s hospitals and apply some of the clowning techniques he was learning. He began to notice the impact the arts could have not just on patients but also on the hospital environment. “I remember seeing the direct results of that engagement. Sometimes as an actor, you take step back and you wonder are you of any value at all? In theatre terms, a small percentage of the community will go to see shows. What I got from this engagement was how positive and healthy the minds of older persons can be. One lady said to me: ‘My heart has never been old.’ That encapsulated for me the people I met.”

One of the people Murfi met was 70-year-old Angela McLoughlin, who is a member of the Ballintogher active retirement group in Sligo. Angela joined the group after she retired from work and they have 18 members in total and meet every Tuesday. The group was very important for Angela as she transitioned from work life to retirement.

“It has been really important to me as I love meeting people. When I was working you could go from work to bed and didn’t really get to know your neighbours properly. We have keep-fit and dancing classes, and we ring each other up and go on outings,” she says. The importance of the group is in keeping depression and other mental health issues at bay, and after telling Mikel their stories, the group heard some of them relayed back on stage. “Depression can very easily set in after retirement,” says Angela. “A lot of people, especially farmers’ wives I have met, often did not live their own lives and have separate identities. If their husband dies, they are sometimes lost. When we went to see Mikel’s show and he presented back to us some of the stories we told him, we nearly died laughing. Everyone came out of it smiling.”

For Dominic Campbell, artistic director of the Bealtaine Festival, which runs until May 31st, the project fitted perfectly with the remit of the event to celebrate creativity as we get older. The health benefits of social engagement and creativity are tangible, Campbell says, but there is also huge benefit in groups getting together for a night out at the theatre.

“Aside from being part of the creative process, the positives in going to see a show like this are in what happens with you interact with a group – you share things and discuss and debate about what you saw. What we see sometimes with Bealtaine is that some people in their 60s or 70s really lose all interest and disengage from life. Our activities encourage them to come and try something that might reignite their lives.” Being able to articulate your place in the world – be it through theatre, or art, or dance – has known psychological and health benefits then and is one of the key ideas driving the Bealtaine Festival.

Murfi agrees, and while highlighting his own work, he also points to the work of others in the arts currently engaging with stories, which might otherwise be forgotten. “Pat Kinevane, for instance, is doing some great work out of the stories of lives of gentle people. I suppose what we are about is honouring those people we meet, documenting their stories, and, I hope I’m not overstating this, keeping them alive in a way.”

The Man In The Woman’s Shoes was developed with Sligo County Council Arts Service and Hawk’s Well Theatre, Sligo as part of Bealtaine 2012. The show is now touring to a number of venues across Ireland until May 31st. See bealtaine.com for details.

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