With less than a fortnight to go until Culture Night, towns and cities across the country are preparing to throw open their doors on September 22nd to welcome new audiences for a free feast of cultural delights.

Derry and Strabane will be hosting a full programme of events at a range of venues right across the district, offering the chance to experience entertainment in all its various shapes and forms, from the serious to the downright absurd.

One of the more unusual themes to emerge this year is a focus on the realities of aging, with two special events exploring perceptions of growing older and questions of identity in some rather unexpected venues.

Locally based artist Sue Morris has chosen former residential care home Nazareth House as the atmospheric location for her mixed media site responsive installation titled The Unfamiliar Familiar. The piece attempts to look at our concepts of aging and the impact of Dementia, and uses the backdrop of the care home as a space to create a sense of the experiences and effects of mental distress.

Originally from England, Sue has made Derry her home for the past three years, and her work uses a range of genres to explore notions of the known and unknown, particularly around re-imagined and alternative histories. Her interest in Dementia stems from her memories of her own grandmother who was affected by the condition, so the creative process of exploring that world has been a challenging one.

Sue spent two months drawing floor plans and photographing the Nazareth House site, before moving on to more sculptural works, incorporating objects and materials found at the home. The building has significantly influenced how the work has evolved, as she explained.

“The building itself was very challenging to work in, as I was restricted in what I could change within the building. I had no information about the general layout so I was working there entirely by myself in a sprawling network of rooms. It took me a long time to find my bearings.

“I also had to be mindful of my surroundings, and was restricted in what I could change within the building, so I’ve used some of the existing features in my work introducing additional items which I’ve brought into the environment. For example there are communal bedrooms and railings above the beds from which I was able to suspend items.”

Nazareth House closed its doors in 2013 after 120 years as a care home, and is now earmarked for future redevelopment as a residential complex for the ‘active elderly’, so this may be one of the last opportunities for the public to view the original building. While working on the piece Sue was very conscious of the building’s history and the many local people who have connections to the home.

“I wanted to create something that was challenging but not distressing for people,” she stresses. “In a cultural sense Dementia is somewhat taboo, and the condition isn’t represented much in mainstream art – it tends to sit on the periphery. A lot of the work around Dementia also focuses on the loss of memory, but a huge issue is simply not being able to complete everyday activities - navigating stairs and doorways for example - and I’ve tried to capture that sense of confusion. Everyone will take something different from the piece based on their own experience. I’m not dictating, everyone will bring something different to it, I’m just trying to create a space to reflect.”

Culture Night explores a number of alternative spaces for cultural experiences, and what could be more unconventional than Baldies Barbers, where a cutting edge black comedy also exploring the realities of aging will be played out in a real life setting. The Barber of Moville is the work of local writer and director Ronan Carr, who stars in the short play alongside actress Anne Gallagher. The production focuses on the relationship between the two elderly protagonists as they prepare to finally shut up shop.

Ronan explained that the play challenges perceptions of identity and how people learn to adapt to life changing circumstances. “It’s obviously a play on the ‘The Barber of Seville’ the opera - if I’m honest the title came first and I’ve been desperately trying to write a play that lives up to that title,” he admits.

“It’s a dark comedy. In a nutshell it’s about two barbers - a husband and wife - who are preparing to head off to see the opera in Italy for one final holiday. You see, Molly, the wife, is not well, she has what the characters describe in the play as the ‘forgetting thing’. To call it dementia in this context would be ill-judged because the play doesn’t really portray the reality of that disease. We just use an illness to talk about identity and how something like Dementia is a shape-shifter. Basically the play asks, if you can’t remember you are, do you really exist? And Molly is determined to make her ultimate exit while she still knows who she is.”

Despite the serious undertones of the play, the characters manage to maintain a humorous note and the audience is literally immersed in their world.

“As in life there is humour everywhere even in the most desperate situations,” Ronan explains. “As I say it’s a dark humour and the play rattles along at a great pace and it’s not too heavy at all.

“For starters the audience is surrounded by the set. There is also an intimacy between spectators and performers as if they are eavesdropping on a conversation. In response the actors can be less theatrical and more natural. They don’t have to project to the back row.

“We owe a huge debt to Brian Gallagher of Baldies Barbers and to Ollie Green of Greater Shantallow Arts for giving us the rehearsal space. It’s generosity like that, that allows things like culture to function. It’s really, really difficult to get punters into the theatre so Culture Night offers the opportunity to bring the theatre to the people, whether they like it or not.”

You can view The Unfamiliar Familiar between 6pm – 9.30pm, Nazareth House, Bishop Street and The Barber of Moville, 7pm, 8pm and 9pm, Baldies Barbers, Castle Street, on Friday September 22, as part of the Culture Night programme. Over 40 free events will be taking place at venues across the city – you can find out more about what’s on offer at www.derrystrabane.com/culturenight

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