This month, I caught up with Irene to find out more about her love of storytelling. And how that’s led her to uncover hidden histories and secret stories, and give vanished voices air to breathe.
Tell us a bit about yourself – where are you from and what do you do?
Although I’m Bratfurt born and bred (proper Bradfordians don’t sound the ‘d’), I’m a mish-mash of Irish, Scottish, French, Spanish with some Viking mixed in. I first started storytelling in the playground at primary school, recognised on my school report aged seven – ‘drama is where she comes into her own.’ Nothing’s changed much in the intervening decades. Words and stories have connected all I do, whether as an outdoor instructor, management consultant, arts marketeer, award-winning educational publisher, site-specific community and heritage event developer, playwright and actor.
I’ve authored children’s short story collections, adapted JB Priestley stories for stage, written 25 plays, directed numerous theatre/radio plays, created online learning sessions for various public/private providers, edited story/poetry anthologies, appeared at the Edinburgh Fringe, on film, TV and as Claire Delius, led Tasmin Little in search of her brother Fred for a BBC documentary.
Where did your love of words come from?
I can’t remember a time without stories. There weren’t many books at home, but there were always stories and anecdotes. I learnt to read and write early, and after that there was no stopping me. I devoured books at school, and spent a lot of time in my local library reading haphazardly: fiction, non-fiction, encyclopaedias, dictionaries, maps. I loved history because it’s full of stories, and I used to invent tales I’d act out in the back garden on top of the shed. I got involved in plays and acting through my primary school and realised that writing plays was someone’s job, and I thought – that’s what I want to do, write plays, tell stories, act them out. It was some years before I focussed specifically on this (life does so get in the way), but today that’s my main focus: hidden histories, secret stories, vanished voices being given air to breathe.
What made you join 26? And how long have you been a member?
I came across 26 on a writing course I was on in 2014. I was so excited to be there; I’d got funding (first time ever), it was the first residential I’d ever done, and it was in France – so many dreams coming together. The tutors were Stuart Delves and Mark X, with a lovely mix of people in the group and a fantastic location and hosts at Chez Castillon. As you do, we discussed opportunities and ways of developing writing skills – and 26 was mentioned. I looked 26 up, had a nosey at what it was all about, delved into the projects and joined.
Have you been involved in any 26 projects?
My first involvement with 26 projects was in 2014 with ‘26 Designs’ that brought writers together with new designers exhibiting at the 2014 London Design Festival, and pieces were published in the very first issue of Fiera Magazine, brainchild of 26 member Katie Treggiden and magCulture Studio’s Jeremy Leslie. I really enjoyed the experience as it challenged my writing style and the editing process was so supportive. I’ve subsequently been involved in 12 other 26 projects, all of them stimulating, all with their own challenges in terms of length, style, research, and all of them have made my writing stronger and developed my confidence as a writer.
In fact I re-wrote my 26 Twits piece last year and submitted it to BBC Radio Leeds and was delighted when they recorded and broadcast it as ‘Green Shoots’.
The most memorable memory for me being asked by John Simmons to read Andrew Motion’s piece at the Foundling Museum when we launched ‘26 Pairs of Eyes’. As the ‘Four Yorkshiremen’ might have said ‘Ah ust t’dreem o’bein Poiet Lawriat’.
What’s your ideal scenario for writing? (A coffee shop? Quiet retreat? With or without music? What do you do to get yourself in the right frame of mind?)
I can write anywhere, and as a non-driver many things have been devised on trains and buses. Coffee shops are a favourite place to get ideas down or do edits; coming from a large family there was never any silence in the house and I learned to do homework amidst the sounds of TV, records, radio and bathroom singing. Being in cafes, on a train or in a park mimics this and I write more in those locations. They’re also excellent for people-watching and story creation.
What gets me in the frame of mind for actual writing (not just ideas, research, reading, etc) is a deadline!
What are you working on at the moment?
Current commissions include two online learning resources for Historic England: ‘Sense of Place’ explores local areas through time and our senses, the other Bradford City Fire looking at resilience and community co-operation. I recently made a short video as Anne Lister for The Piece Hall, and am working with them now on uncovering secret stories through creative writing workshops with schools.
For myself, I’m writing a bid to ACE for R&D to develop a verbatim theatre/radio play that explores ageing without children, which will explore what it’s like for individuals across generations, perceptions, reasons, choices and policy/provision for older childless people. My aim is to reach as wide an audience as possible through stage, radio, podcasts and training events for service providers and policy makers.
Could you tell us about a piece of writing you’re particularly proud of?
I wrote the pilot of my one-woman show ‘Words, Women & War: Forgotten Female Voices of the Great War’ about four Yorkshire women who were well-known during the early-mid part of the 20th century, back in 2014. Following feedback from the pilot audience, I re-wrote it and was lucky to have Yvette Huddleston agree to direct it. I began to tour it (Ilkley Literature Festival, Saltaire Festival, Grassington Arts & Literature Festival amongst many others) – not realising that I’d still be touring it six years later. It had a tremendous effect on audiences, and the Q&A after was sometimes as long as the performance. Bringing the women’s lives and their experiences back from the dusty shelves they’ve been consigned to gave the audiences permission to talk about their own families, and I know several went on to search through ‘that box in the attic’ and write their own memoirs. One comment was, ‘Bloody brilliant, with knobs on’. Can’t get better than that from a Tyke.
Where do you get your inspiration?
Inspiration is from everywhere: landscape, people, architecture, history, songs, overheard conversations, people-watching, books I’ve read, newspapers, walks, performances I’ve seen, cloud formations, maps, memories and more. As I write for many audiences, I don’t have a specific focus, such as crime or YA, so everything and anything can inspire a workshop, a play, a collection, a performance, a project, a podcast.