Joyce McMillan: Invisible army of young carers in the spotlight

Think of a play about the lives of young carers, and you might imagine something a bit worthy and downbeat; a show with a tale to tell about an often-neglected set of problems and challenges facing tens of thousands of young people in Scotland, but perhaps too dutifully issue-based to offer much fun, or much artistic inspiration.

Young carers at Glasgow Southwest Carers Centre
Young carers at Glasgow Southwest Carers Centre

Yet in Scotland today, there’s a generation of theatre-makers who are far too restlessly creative to accept those stereotypes; in the best 7:84 tradition, they want their shows to be both socially aware and full of creative energy. So when the playwright David Greig worked with young carers in Fife back in 2010, the play that emerged was The Monster In The Hall, a brilliantly surreal and inventive piece about the inner life of a young carer called Duck Macatarsney, and her increasingly unwell dad. And now, Glasgow-based theatre maker Victoria Beesley has spent 18 months working with a group of around 20 young carers at Glasgow Southwest Carers Centre to create a show called Invisible Army, that reflects on the practical issues they face, but also explores the rich imaginative and fantasy life of teenagers who may face unusual challenges, but are in many ways typical members of their own high-stress generation.

“What was clear right from the start was that the young carers didn’t want this to be about doom and gloom,” says Beesley, whose company Terra Incognita, founded in Glasgow three years ago, specialises in shows that give a voice to the “extraordinary experiences of ordinary people.” “They feel so strongly about it that they’ve written a special welcome for audiences, pointing out that being a young carer is neither a difficult nor an easy situation, but a complicated experience with both pros and cons.”

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The pros, according to the young carers group, include helping you prepare for life as an independent adult, and encouraging you to be compassionate and responsible; and when Victoria Beesley began to workshop and improvise with the young people it soon became clear that they not only saw both a comic and a serious sides to their situation, but were also bursting with imaginative ideas about the inner life of the show’s hero Robbie, who is confronted with the apparently simple task of getting to the shops and back before school, to pick up a few things that his mum needs.

The result is a one-hour show – written by Beesley, but shaped by the young carers themselves – that will be delivered by a professional cast and top-flight creative team, including director Emily Reutlinger, sound designer Danny Krass, and actors Rosalind Sydney and Michael Abubakar; and Beesley is clear that she wants both to raise awareness about young carers, and also shake up a few assumptions about a way of life often framed as a problem.

“I was only seven when I first started going to the Carers Centre,” says 14-year-old Robyn, one of the young carers in the group, “and before my Mum told me about it, I didn’t even know that I was a young carer, or that there were other people in the same situation. I found it really helpful - everyone at the Young Carers Group is facing the same things. It’s also good to be able to get away for a while, and just relax.

“So we started by giving Vicky ideas about what we could put in the play, and then working out characters and the basic structure of the story. We put a lot of imagination into it, particularly when we began to improvise scenes. Parts of the play are quite fun, and parts will be quite serious; and we do want people to realise that it’s not all negative. Would we want to do a show ourselves, about being young carers? Well, I don’t feel like getting up on a stage in front of people, although I am very interested in some of the other aspects of theatre – sound, filming video images, and so on. But some of the others would, I think.”

And fellow-carer Erin, who’s also 14, is even more enthusiastic. “Oh yes, I would love for us to perform a show ourselves. I’d like to be part of a band or orchestra in the theatre, and be on stage too. Being a young carer is something you often tend to keep to yourself, and before I went to the carers’ group there weren’t many people I could talk to about it. So being there really boosts your confidence. And when we began to work on this project, it was really good fun. People’s imaginations could just run wild, and then we would give the ideas to Vicky, and she would make it happen.”

For her next Terra Incognita project, Beesley will be looking at a very different kind of outsider perspective: she’s working on a study of the nanny and photographer Vivian Maier, who took thousands of street photographs of life in Chicago in the 20th century, but gained no recognition until after her death.

For now, though, she’s focused on Invisible Army and her hero Robbie, as he struggles to get his day off to a manageable start. “I hope, in the end, that people will admire Robbie, rather than feeling sorry for him,” she says. “Some young carers do need more help than they get, and raising awareness of their existence is important. But in another way, these kids are heroes, tackling big challenges at a early age, and using all their teenage energy and imagination and sense of fun to help them on the way. So this show is a celebration of young carers, more than anything else; because that’s what they wanted it to be, and what they deserve.”

*Invisible Army is on tour until 29 October.