Care home residents the real stars in evocative new film project

Lockdown might have closed the theatres, but Stephen Kelly of c21 Theatre tells Gail Bell there are imaginative new ways of creating drama – with a little help from care home residents looking Through the Glass

Stephen Kelly, artistic director c21 Theatre, with cast member Debra Hill and Damian Smyth, head of literature, Arts Council of Northern Ireland
Gail Bell

AN OLD pair of shoes, some powdered milk from the Second World War, a bar of Lifebuoy soap – it was an eclectic mix, but Stephen Kelly, even at his most optimistic, could never have guessed at the rich memories such vintage items would evoke for care home residents across Northern Ireland.

The nostalgia-tinged artefacts were among an assortment thoughtfully positioned in ‘reminiscence’ boxes and loaned from museums for a new ‘Through the Glass’ arts project created by Kelly, co-founder and artistic director of c21 Theatre which marks its 15th birthday this year.

Memories from residents have now been collated, scripted and dramatised by local writers (Tom Rowntree-Finlay and Gary Wilson), reimagined by local actors (Colm McCready, Christina Nelson, Debra Hill and Eoghan Lamb) and made into five short theatrical films, thanks to funding from the Arts Council of Northern Ireland’s National Lottery Fund, as well as grants from the Public Health Agency and regional councils.

Under the themes of Going Out, Home, School, Work and Community, the films will be broadcast during November and December on c21 Theatre’s YouTube channel, as well as going out on social media platforms – with the first to be released on November 24.

For Kelly, the project quickly became an unexpected passion after he was forced to “think outside the box” during the Covid 19 lockdown and the restrictions which continue to keep theatre doors firmly shut.

“c21 is a touring company, but that, of course, abruptly came to end in March,” he says. “We have always taken the theatre to the people, whether to rural, urban, national – and, last year, international – audiences, but suddenly we had no audience at all and we literally had to vacate our premises with no money coming in.

“It was all a bit overwhelming, but then a friend of mine, whose mother had been in a care home at the start of the pandemic, posted a photograph on social media of him waving to her through a window when visiting was banned. I found that a very powerful image and it struck a chord with me – how isolated older people must feel. Many of them weren’t even allowed to leave their rooms.

“I messaged my friend and asked about his experience of what it was like for residents and the lack of family connection and entertainment and he said it wasn't good and to please do something, if I could.

“Sadly, his mum passed away from Covid at the height of it all, when care homes were being really badly affected, but the thought of doing something to help didn’t go away for me. Of course, we weren’t allowed into the homes to talk to the older people directly but activity co-ordinators were pivotal and they organised workshops, brought in the memory boxes and recorded the stories for us to work with.”

The results unveiled a number of revealing portraits; of residents and their younger selves, with some recalling their youth with generosity and humour, some with sentimentality, some with sorrow, but all portraying a vibrancy and poignancy of days spent fully alive.

“It has been absolutely fascinating to work on all these stories and bring them to life again for the people who lived them,” says Kelly who has added to the overall effect of the 10-minute films by including music and the poetry of Shelley Tracey as voice-overs to the emotionally charged footage.

“In the early stages, we stumbled across some brilliant anecdotes, including the memories of Irish boxing team manager at the 1988 Seoul Olympics, Pat McCrory."

Mr McCrory, who now suffers from dementia, "found something relating to sport in a memory box being discussed at Inniscoole Day Centre, Rathcoole, where he is involved with the walking group", Kelly says. "His story in The Boxer film is phenomenal.”

Another resident in a care home in Co Armagh was similarly impacted by looking inside one of the boxes – and becoming transfixed by a pair of shoes from the 1960s.

“It transpired the lady and her husband had owned a boutique and she had always been passionate about shoes,” Kelly reveals. “The activity coordinator at the home was amazed by how animated she became when those shoes came out.

“Maybe they still had a smell... you can be taken back 30 years in an instant by a single smell. It can give you goosebumps.

"I can’t wait for residents and their families to be brought back again in time with these films. I hope they bring joy and make people realise that no matter what your age or circumstances, you still have a voice.”

:: Films can be viewed at the c21 YouTube channel on November 24 and December 1, 8, 15 and 22 (

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