Manchester Theatre Awards

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Declining Solo - a new play about ageing and identity

Declining Solo is a new multi-media show, written and performed by Katherina Radeva and Alister Lownie. The show explores questions of identity, belonging and culture by focusing on the emotional impact of geographical separation on the parent-child relationship towards the end of life.

Bulgarian born, Katherina talks to Carmel Thomason about her relationship with her ageing father and how it inspired the show.

What inspired you to create Declining Solo?

Most of us see our parents ageing. It doesn't seem to happen slowly and evenly, but in great leaps of difference from how you remember them. After an accident which happened to my sister, (which formed the starting point for another of our works, Near Gone), I noticed the impact on my parents, and started to think about a piece which dealt with that experience. Towards the end of the Declining Solo creative process, Alister's 104-year-old grandmother passed away: the sense of what a person takes with them, the knowledge their passing renders permanently inaccessible, was really with us in the rehearsals and left its mark on the work.

How did it feel to write about something so personal?

We often begin from personal experiences in our work. That doesn't mean everything in it is strictly true, but none of it is untrue! 

We can play with scale, with timelines, with emotional intensity, as we seek to create for the audience a space in which to relate their own experiences to those in the performance. A little niggling doubt can explode into something completely absorbing. But this piece is also about the place where I am from: it needed to have that specific connection. As we were making the piece during political debates around Brexit, the sense of distance from home (I have lived most of my life in a country where I am foreign), and what that meant for me, became just as important as the story of family. A person is shaped by so many things: family, social connections, cultural inheritance, and various ways in which they feel they belong. A sense of belonging is key to much of our work, and it's necessarily quite personal.

In the show you use a video taken in your father’s home. Did you record the footage with the piece in mind?

Right at the beginning, I came back from a trip to Bulgaria with a little bit of text and some videos of driving and eating cherries. The cherries are long gone, as is most of that text, but the idea of driving – travelling with the audience through space that is both home and alien, friendly and dangerous – remained with us. Once we were a bit further on in our development, the creative team took a trip together to listen to Bulgarian music and to create video especially for the show. We wanted to feel like we were collecting the right images. The trip to Buzludzha really opened up the iconography of communism to the fragmented style of the work: a remote ruined monument, deliberately abandoned when communism fell, but recognised now as a real loss.

How important is it to the piece that you and your father live in separate countries?

Distance between people is so much more than geography. For this piece, though, it matters because culture and family are intertwined: I found not only a family and a familiar place much changed in my absence, but a whole shift in culture to negotiate. That encompasses the impossibility of finding a perfect political environment: neither communism nor capitalism provide all they promise to everyone. So, this story comes from a particular pairing of places and times: the end of communism in Bulgaria, and contemporary Britain. The countries themselves are only a small part of the difference.

For this production why did you choose to mix music, text and dance?

The complexity of the relationship between two family members is incredible. Their shared and separate experiences are the weft and warp of a tapestry that builds through their lives. It's an overwhelming thing when you try to define all that the relationship encompasses. Getting something of that into the story was part of our motivation, and weaving together these different layers of the performance made that possible. The whole is something that you can just about get a sense of, but never properly put your finger on. Working with a composer allowed us to shape the emotional feel of the places and experiences the piece visits, drawing the audience with us on the journey. 

What does it mean to you to have your father’s story told in this way?

Well, it's the story of family and culture, not just one man. It's about what we inherit in different ways – biology, personality, culture. It's about using that very inheritance to explore those things. So, the concept of the piece and the subject matter are inextricable, really. Reaching that point is the real challenge in rehearsals, but once it all slots into place, there's something that feels wonderfully complete. It's only when the work reaches audiences, and we hear of the ways in which it has touched and stimulated them, that we know that completeness is really there.

What do you hope people will take from the performance?

After the show, people have told us about their own parents, those they've lost, those they still care for. They've spoken of the intensity of what they miss – a person, a place, a feeling. International audience members have really connected to the strand about belonging and feeling alien in both their adopted and native homes. We've heard about men who've shaped their homes around their families, and the ways a space reveals a person. And people have told us how much they've enjoyed the environment of the performance – the work with simple materials live on stage. It's a piece which resonates in many different ways, and that makes the conversations afterwards so exciting!

Declining Solo, produced by Two Destination Language is at The Lowry on 8 November 2017.

Carmel Thomason