My journey with Mind Walking

Philippa Vafadari in Mind Walking

I have lived with Mind Walking - BandBazi’s current touring production - for a while now.  Three and a half years to be precise.  And it’s not over yet.  We tour nationally in March and April this year, including a return visit to the Brighton Dome Studio Theatre (formerly The Pavilion Theatre), on Monday 25th March - and we’re open to offers of taking the piece out again in the future if there is interest, which there seems to be. Why there is this interest it that the play (or aerial drama as we call it because it uses aerial circus imagery of a circular trapeze to illuminate the storyline and for the characters to interact with), deals with such universal theme and contemporary issues it seems to resonate with a wide variety of audience members.

As with all BandBazi’s projects and productions, Mind Walking started as a germ of an idea.  I was visiting my husband’s Nan in a dementia care home in Tolworth on a fairly regular basis along with my husband and our two children.  Whilst there my Mother-in-law introduced me to Malik, an elderly resident with Alzheimer’s disease.  She thought I might like to meet him because he was from Iran and I am half Iranian.  I was really surprised to find that Malik didn’t speak any English, yet he had lived in the UK since 1979 when he fled the Iranian Revolution.  He had worked as a Doctor, had two children but was divorced from his Iranian wife.  He had been living with his daughter who had reluctantly placed him in the home after giving birth to twins, finding it difficult to cope both with them and a Father who’s condition was deteriorating.  That’s all we knew about him.

I spoke to him in Farsi and was amazed at the response.  He replied - in Farsi as well - and began to weep.  My children said a couple of words which made him weep even more.  I knew very little at the time about Alzheimer’s but it seemed that Malik had lost his English and no longer understood what was being said to him in that language, but he did still understand Farsi.  He must have found the home a very frightening place.  The nice young man who came in once a month to play The Lambeth Walk and other such classics from Nan’s youth on the piano, meant nothing to him.  The traditional Sunday Roast with all the trimmings must have been bland and stodgy compared to the herb and lime stews typical of Iranian cuisine.  

When we spoke to him he seemed to be weeping with relief.  At last he could understand someone!  I brought him Persian cakes (shirini) on my next visit and he savoured every one as his tears flowed.  As I watched him eat I wondered what was going on in his head?  If Nan thought herself to be at most 14 - more often 7 or 8 - what age did Malik think he was? 10?

This meeting with Malik was the grain of sand around which we created Mind Walking. My Father is Iranian and the play is a ‘what if?’ scenario.  My Mother is British and doesn’t speak any Farsi.  Of 3 children I am the only who does speak any and I’m definitely not fluent.  Say he developed Alzheimer’s and forgot his English as a result.  How on earth would we communicate with him?  Relationships in our family are good but the cross-cultural marriage has had its history of problems and we don’t say ‘I love you’ to each other much - if at all.  As one’s parents near the end of their lives it’s a time to try and say those things you haven’t been able to express in the past.  How can you if you suddenly find you no longer speak the same language?

The play that has resulted out of this chance meeting has many more layers than the above, by virtue of being an artistic collaboration between myself, John Binnie my long time Associate Director, and Tanika Gupta, the playwright BandBazi commissioned to write the piece.  My initial idea, the loss of language, is not as dominant a theme as Tanika has expanded the idea from her own personal artistic perspective.  Bobby, played by Peter D’Souza (a Zoroastrian Indian grandfather), is ostracized by his family for marrying outside the Zoroastrian Community - a taboo that was strong 40 years ago and still exists to a lesser extent today.  John was Dramaturg on the play, which means he looked at the structure with Tanika, as well as being the Director.  For him the mature love affair of Bobby and his British wife, Moira (Kate Dyson), is the most significant element.  We have all brought to it something that has enriched and deepened the story and increased its relevance to a wider audience.

Younger audience members (it’s suitable for those aged about 11 upwards), seem to identify with the 16 year old Grandson, Matty’s (Dylan Kennedy) strong relationship with his Grandfather, where he is happy to humour him and go with his Alzheimer’s wherever it wanders.  Those in their 40’s often say they identify with my character, Rosa, the daughter.  A single mum struggling with the demands of work, a teenager and elderly, increasingly dependent parents, as well as the shock of finding that she has a whole new family and heritage she didn’t know about because they had excommunicated her Father when he ‘married out’.

At the root, the whole process of creating Mind Walking has reaffirmed to me that art can be a creative outlet for personal issues and traumas.  Collaborating with other artists, as I like to do, deepens the artistic process.  Sharing the resulting piece with an audience, even if they have no personal experience of the situation, makes the issues accessible because they are communicated via Art rather than Polemic.  The strong storyline, identifiable characters and dramatic aerial metaphor of a circular trapeze allow the audience ‘in‘ so they can empathise with the characters and story.

Mind Walking toured the South of England and India in 2011 funded by Arts Council England, Brighton & Hove City Council and The British Council.  It has received funding from Arts Council England for a National Tour in Spring this year.





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Charity number: 1091276