Q&A: Clare Prenton – Men Don’t Talk

Men Don’t Talk, a new play created by local writer and theatre director Clare Prenton and inspired by conversations with members of the Peebles and District Men’s Shed, will finally have its first professional reading on 29 January following a pandemic postponement. Ahead of that, Clare reveals more about the project and how she approached developing the play.

How would you describe the subject matter of the play – is it as simple as exploring the idea that men don’t really express their feelings? 

Quite the reverse, I’d say. Each of the workshops with members of the Shed ran over time – there was always more to talk about. I think the title of the play implies men don’t talk as the general perception and there is some truth in that borne out by statistics on depression and men’s health and suicide rates. The suicide rate for men over 60 is three times higher than that for women and that men over 65 are at the highest risk . That is why Inspiring Life: The Evie Douglas Memorial Fund were so supportive of the project and funded us to get started on the workshops. The project was about giving that voice to older men to create an outlet, a channel, a platform and a piece of creative work at the end of it.

What did you expect from conversations with members of the shed?

I didn’t go in with any pre-conceptions of where the conversations might go, although did plan various ‘starters’ covering areas such as retirement and ageing. I come from a family of very chatty men, so I felt confident about the workshops themselves. I did, however, think the men might be naturally wary of a woman asking them questions for a play and that they might doubt my sincerity or integrity. Thankfully, that just wasn’t the case and I have Malcolm Bruce (link to second Q&A), one of the shed founders, to thank for communicating what the project was about and the mental health and wellbeing angle of the piece.

Above all, I wanted to ensure that they trusted me to write a play that reflected the shed and its members. The play is a fiction with some verbatim aspects – the characters are not based on specific men, but naturally they may see themselves reflected. Some lines are taken directly from the men as I could not write anything as perfect; in that sense they became co-creators of the work.

What did you learn most from the conversations?

One thing that really struck me was the impact of family and women on the men’s lives. They constantly referred to their wives and children in their reflections, so this inspired me to create off-stage female characters who are very ‘present’ in the play.  Our fictional Tom is recently widowed; Jimmy is divorced but clearly still loves his wife and his marriage plays heavily on his mind; while Ken is caring for his wife and the shed becomes his respite from caring duties. Grief, alcohol, caring responsibilities, grandchildren, retirement and fear of death on retirement all came into the conversation. The conversations were often very moving.

It’s a special atmosphere in the shed – inclusive and warm. I was made to feel so welcome and became an honorary ‘shedder’! I’d advise anyone to join whether they see themselves as ‘practical’ or not. There are lots of opportunities to learn, to fundraise and all sorts of conversations to be had. There is a wealth of talent to behold as well, plus a lot of kindness – I hope that comes across in the play.

The conversations all took place pre-pandemic. To what extent do you think those conversations would be different if you had them now? 

It’s hard to say. I like the fact it wasn’t about the pandemic as I think it’s more purely about connection and community, though I know the men have not been able to meet in the same way since March 2020 and so getting back to the camaraderie I hope the play reflects is all the more important.

You wrote the play with three actors in mind (Billy Mack, Dougal Lee and Greg Powrie). Why them specifically? 

I think as a writer/director I have certain ‘voices’ in mind and have experience of working with these three actors in recent times. Billy and Greg are both very practical men and skilled in labouring, plumbing, landscape gardening and carpentry, so I thought of them immediately. Dougal had played a retired schoolteacher character called Brevis in the Alan Ayckbourn play ‘Improbable Fiction’ which I directed at Pitlochry Festival Theatre in 2015. When the play was finished, I realised there was more than a touch of Brevis in the character of Ken I’d created and immediately I thought of Dougal.

Like many get-togethers at the shed, the rehearsed reading of Men Don’t Talk on Sat 29 Jan begins with tea and cake (at 4pm), followed by the reading at 4.30pm. See here for details.

Also see here  for an interview with Malcolm Bruce, one of the many shed members who spent time with Clare.