THE KEYS ARE IN THE MARGARINE: a verbatim play about dementia

Fortune Theatre Studio, Dunedin

19/06/2014 - 29/06/2014

Herald Theatre, Aotea Centre, Auckland

22/08/2015 - 29/08/2015

BATS Theatre, The Heyday Dome, 1 Kent Tce, Wellington

11/11/2015 - 14/11/2015

Production Details

“I’m slowly disappearing”
“Do you notice you’re disappearing?” 

Q: What do you get when you combine an actor, a doctor, and an Emmy award winning IT company? 

A: You get “The Keys are in the Margarine: a verbatim play about dementia”. 

Theatre-maker Cindy Diver and GP Susie Lawless first conceived the idea for this moving and thought-provoking play five years ago when they met during the creation of Hush, the University of Otago’s acclaimed verbatim play about family violence. Working from filmed interviews, this unique form of verbatim theatre calls on the actors to learn as accurately as possible every verbal inflexion and intonation, every physical gesture and every facial expression from the original testimony. To achieve this the actors perform with an MP3 player in their pocket and an ear bud, delivering the original speech synchronously as they perform. The only changes that are made are those necessary to protect the identity of the participants, where that is desired.

Having been interviewed for Hush, Dr Lawless was impressed by the power of the medium to present difficult issues to an audience in a new way: “We could see an opportunity to allow the voices of those living with dementia to be heard. The stigma around this heartbreaking but increasingly common illness makes it difficult for these patients and their families to tell their stories. And we know that the burden for carers is immense.”

Because of the difficulties in reaching and working with such vulnerable people, the help of a Kaitiaki group was enlisted, and so the Still Life collective was born. Taking advice from a doctor with an interest in ethics, a lawyer expert in issues of mental competence, a researcher whose field is spirituality at the end of life, a kaumatua working in Maori health, a dramaturg and Stuart Young, a director skilled in verbatim theatre, the project gradually took shape. The Alzheimer’s Society of Otago provided invaluable help in finding suitable participants who were both willing and well enough to tell their stories.

Documentary or verbatim theatre is an art form that involves conducting filmed interviews with participants with various perspectives on a subject. These interviews are then edited into short clips and combined to create a story around the themes that emerge.

“One of the fascinating aspects of documentary theatre is you don’t know what story you will be telling until it emerges from the participants’ testimony,” says Ms Diver. “Once we had edited the interviews, we had over twenty key themes to choose from for the play. Many hours of collaborative editing later we had a script that is in turns thought-provoking, funny, and incredibly sad.”

The next stage involved bringing on board another collaborator, Ian Taylor from Taylormade and Animation Research Limited (ARL), to design a more sophisticated system for transmitting the audio files to the actors. Mr. Taylor has always been passionate about innovation, and he was enthusiastic about supporting this project.  His team of technicians has now created a seamless transmission system which allows the actors to be hands-free from the MP3 players and which adds extra precision to the performance.

“Communication is about much more than just the words,” explains director Stuart Young. “It takes a great deal of skill and rigour from the actors to engage the audience while being absolutely true to the source.”

“The Keys are in the Margarine” has involved a unique collaboration between medicine, art and cutting edge technology. 

It will open in the Fortune Theatre Studio on
June 19th and run for a 2 week season until June 29th. 
Bookings at the Fortune Theatre Box office 4778323

The Keys are in the Margarine
Herald Theatre, Aotea Centre
Sat 22 – Sat 29 August 2015
Tues, Wed 6.30pm | Thurs – Sat 8pm | Sun 2pm
Tickets $35 | Conc $25 service fees apply 
Bookings or 09 970 9700 

BATS Theatre – Dome, Wellington
11 – 14 November 2015
$20 / $15 

2014 Actors (Dunedin)  
Clare Adams 
Cindy Diver 
Julie Edwards 
Ross Johnston 
Francis Kewene 
Dougal Stevenson 

2015 Actors (on tour) 
Clare Adams
Cindy Diver 
Julie Edwards
Karen Elliot
Ross Johnston
Will Spicer

Production team 
Producer: Susie Lawless
Dramaturg: Simon O’Connor
Stage Manager: Clementine Flatley
Design: Martyn Roberts
Lighting: Audrey Morgan
Sound: Nick Gelling
Technology R&D Taylormade Productions: John Jenkins
Writing assistance: Phil Braithwaite 

Dunedin City Council
Amity Health Centre
Southern Neurology
Kiwi Tubs 

Kaitiaki Group 
Frances Diver
Alison Douglass
Richard Egan
Simon O’Connor
Phil White
Stuart Young

Verbatim , Theatre ,

1 hr 20 mins

Touching look at life with dementia

Review by Ewen Coleman 16th Nov 2015

It soon becomes obvious that, what at first appears to be a rather obscure title for a play, The Keys Are In The Margarine, is in fact a very common feature of dementia, the play’s subject matter. 

Arriving in Wellington as part of a national tour, Dunedin’s Talking House Trust has put together a very telling and informative, yet entertaining piece of verbatim theatre on memory loss and dementia, most commonly seen as Alzheimer’s disease. 

A well-used form of documentary type theatre, verbatim theatre is where the actors on stage listen to the stories of those concerned with the subject matter of the play and repeat to the audience what they are hearing. [More


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Deeply absorbing

Review by John Smythe 12th Nov 2015

Don’t be put off by this being about dementia. The Keys Are In The Margarine also offers a riveting array of Kiwi characters portrayed with that special sense of authenticity only verbatim theatre can manifest.

Certainly the seventeen people variously embodied by six actors are thematically coiled around the core theme of coping with dementia, be they diagnosed with it or be they a spouse, family member or care-giver. This combination of diversity and unity in confronting a common problem is essentially dramatic. While it doesn’t build to a climax where the ‘foe’ is vanquished, there is resolution in the greater awareness, understanding and acceptance they – and we in the audience – arrive at as each of the interwoven stories is concluded story-wise.

Credited as writers, Cindy Diver and Stuart Young (also the directors), and Susie Lawless, structured the 80 minute show from “dozens of hours of conversations with people who, in informal, filmed interviews, shared their stories and experiences of dementia.” Intriguing subtitles are projected to mark the progressions from early signs through diagnosis to living with it then going, inevitably, into care: “It’s not leprosy”; TRAIN, TUNNEL, APPLE, BANANA; “Do you notice you’re disappearing?”; “You’re sort of living on two levels”; “What the hell do you do?”; “Losing his marbles” / “When that time comes”; “I’m here for the long haul.”

The actors – in this touring version they are Clare Adams, Cindy Diver, Julie Edwards, Karen Elliot, Ross Johnston and Will Spicer – studied the body language of the interviewees as well as learning to replicate the inflections and intonations of what they say. In performance they wear discrete earphones and listen to the audio as they simultaneously reproduce the words and become the person.

The resulting authenticity is compelling in itself and the alchemy of their transitions from being one person to becoming another is astonishing. It is the inverse of the Stanislavsky method: truth is achieved by imitating and adopting external manifestations and absorbing them into the very core of your being. The actor is a vessel into which each person is poured and brought to life in all their subtle yet eloquent complexity.

Julie Edwards transforms utterly between gently caring Tania, wife of the “slowly disappearing” Nigel; the no-nonsense Abby who, with adult daughter Zoe, is coping with her mother’s demise in the context of their Jehovah’s Witness beliefs; and the tentative and small-voiced Dementia Unit caregiver, Rosanna.

Ross Johnson’s Nigel is poignantly delightful, as much for what he doesn’t say as for his verbal humour. As Peter, ex-mayor of Dunedin, his slow reveal of his wife Noelene’s demise and the loneliness that creeps up through his stoic loyalty has a very different tone and texture.  

Cindy Divers is wonderfully subtle in her ‘crossfades’ between school principal Sally, whose husband was thought to have depression until they realised it was “a memory issue”, and Myra, whose careful fiscal planning for retirement and world travel with husband Wal comes up for review in the light of his dementia – and her Zoe is something else again.  

As the need to go into care increases, the Dementia Unit nurses Kerry (Clare Adams), Erin (Karen Elliot) and Rosanna (Julie Edwards) become more apparent. As a comic trio – simply by virtue of how they blend and overlap their very different personalities in the process of alleviating what could be an awfully stressful job – no scriptwriter or actors could have captured them better. They are ideally placed within the dramatic structure.

I won’t detail the other stories. Suffice to say they interweave to create a comprehensive picture that each of us cannot hope to relate to in our own personal ways. As well as giving us Bob the medical professional, Will Spicer unobtrusively operates the sound and lighting, drawing our attention to each snippet in designer Martyn Roberts’ multi-levelled array of seats, each well-chosen and judiciously placed so we can keep track of whose story we’re picking up on.  

Despite the very different types of dementia and the different ways they can affect individuals, the abiding message is that, over the long term, it is harder on the families than on those who have it. For those in the thick of it, The Keys Are In The Margarine is doubtless a comfort. Others will benefit from the greater awareness this gives us of what is happening around us.  

Besides, it makes for deeply absorbing theatre.


John Smythe November 14th, 2015

Thank you Audrey, glad to have that clarified. 

Audrey Morgan November 14th, 2015

Hi John, 
I just wanted to clarify that the lighting, sound and projections were operated by Audrey Morgan. Colin Spicer only operated the audio going into the actors headsets. 
Thank you

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Shining a light on Alzheimer’s quiet heroes

Review by Paul Simei-Barton 24th Aug 2015

By giving physical embodiment to recorded interviews, verbatim theatre creates a remarkably powerful form of communication that is far more intimate than video but still allows for editing and shaping of the raw material into a coherent narrative.

In applying the technique to dementia, Talking House offers a richly informative guide to a seldom discussed topic and shines a light on the quiet heroism of ordinary people who take on the incredibly demanding task of providing care for partners and relatives as they progressively lose the ability to look after themselves. [More]


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Poignant tracing of changing relationships

Review by Bronwyn Elsmore 23rd Aug 2015

Having reached an age where the odd occasion of having to look for glasses or car keys might brings on a tinge of concern, and having observed the development of dementia in others, I go along to this play thinking it could present a personal challenge.

Six actors play 17 characters, a mixture of those who suffer from dementia and those who care for them; either their nearest and dearest, or as professional carers.

This is verbatim theatre – the script emerging from filmed and recorded interviews with a selection of such people. Verbatim to the extent that we are hearing the words of the interviewees exactly as they spoke them, with every pause, each um and ah in place, along with original gestures.

Because of this, it is difficult to assess the effectiveness of the work in relation to how it might have been had the interviews been used as the basis for a more powerful and moving script.  

As it is, it is divided into several parts or topics that explore the effects of the onset of confusion and development of dementia to its ultimate conclusion. A man has to leave work because of his failing memory, someone develops paranoia about being followed, a Jehovah’s Witness believes God is removing parts of her Bible. Carers find they are living on two levels: trying to understand what is happening to those they love, and just getting on with life, working out how to make life changes that relieve the stress.

Most poignant are the comments of what relationships have become. A man is no longer effectively part of a couple but he is not a widower either. A woman finds “he is not the man I married” and another says, “She’s not my mother.” For some it’s a huge test of “for-better-or-for-worse”. For others, though, their suffering relative becomes easier to love. The professional carers see the effect on the families, especially those in for the long haul, and conclude that the death of the sufferer is not the sad part as it allows the family members to “start to breathe again”.

The cast – Clare Adams, Cindy Diver, Julie Edwards, Karen Elliot, Ross Johnston, and Will Spicer – are all very well-rehearsed. Each plays two to four parts, Julie Edwards being most convincing in her changes of character. Clare Adams and Cindy Diver are sometimes a little soft in their delivery and harder to hear. The part of Bob, the neuropsychologist, is the least developed and convincing – no fault of the actor, but in the scripting. Effective design and lighting by Martyn Roberts and Audrey Morgan adds to the movement and assists easy transition from one part to the next.

I leave pondering the question does the play present the challenges I thought it might? Not really. Because of the strict adherence to the informing interviews it is more documentary-like than dramatic. I feel that had the actors been given the freedom to interpret and contribute their skills rather more, the result would have been more powerful.

The subject, though, is an important one and this makes The Keys are in the Margarine worth seeing.


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Entertains and enlightens with extraordinary intimacy and power

Review by Terry MacTavish 21st Jun 2014

The crowded stage of the Fortune Studio is a vivid visual metaphor for the chaos of a confused mind. There is an incongruity about the objects and furniture piled anyhow – a chair on top of a table, a telephone protruding from a drawer, pictures slipping from their frames. It is both amusing and unsettling, and makes it easy to imagine how terrifying it would be to inhabit a world where familiar objects lose their meaning. 

My guest, a respected local GP, notes with some satisfaction how many other health professionals are in the audience: “It’s good for us to see the issue from the patient’s side.” The Keys are in the Margarine has been created for this purpose, to get people thinking and talking about a subject that still carries some shame: dementia. 

Verbatim Theatre is well established in Dunedin, thanks to this innovative group of theatre professionals who have a proud pedigree: Still Life out of Talking House out of Otago University Theatre Studies. It is an almost alarmingly truthful form of theatre, in which actual interviews are filmed and edited. The words are then spoken by actors using MP3s, who copy gestures and facial expressions as well as intonations and inflections.

Dr Susie Lawless was one of those interviewed for Hush, the collective’s first verbatim work, dealing with domestic violence.  She was inspired to start a five-year journey, collaborating with Cindy Diver and Stuart Young, to produce a script wrought from hours and hours of filmed interviews with those affected by dementia both as sufferers and carers. 

The seven actors are all onstage throughout, simply moving to a different area while adding glasses or a cardigan, to represent different characters. Martyn Roberts’ lighting stabs down onto each specimen presented to us, and the actors address us directly, sometimes in supportive pairs, once as a trio of delightful nurses from the Dementia Unit, but usually poignantly alone.

They are identified by their first names projected onto the wall behind them, which is a great help.  Significant phrases that are spoken are also projected, to suggest the themes linking the interviews.  There is so much information that even with this assistance I don’t always make the connections, but the combined effect is meaningful enough for this not to bother me. 

The experienced actors, playing some eighteen characters, are uniformly excellent; all have moments I particularly relish. There’s Hilary Norris, for instance, as a gorgeous old lady who assures us she can still play a mean game of scrabble.  

Ross Johnston and Francis Kewene, as a couple facing his disease together (“He doesn’t get how he’s changed”) somehow make their scenes both cosy and chilling. Julie Edwards meanwhile recreates a wonderfully down-to-earth daughter telling us how “mum became a religious nutter”.  

Both Clare Adams and Dougal Stevenson enact health workers who calmly provide the medical facts we need, pointing out that people feel the burden differently.  Stevenson’s mellifluous voice even advises us on ways of avoiding aging (a good diet, of course, and exercise, mental and physical). We are reminded that dementia is not a punishment. 

Cindy Diver is touching as a carer-wife who is brave enough to talk about the impact of the disease on her sex life. Delightfully, it is her Tuesday morning dance class for older women that gets her through. 

Of course the script could have been invented by a writer – the theme has recently been tackled by Coronation St – but knowing this is all from actual interviews, and that some of the interviewees are sitting with us in the theatre, gives it an extraordinary intimacy and power.  

There is even a shocking moment when the audience suddenly realises the identity of the courageous ‘Peter’ who was caring for his wife while carrying out his duties as Dunedin’s mayor. Even in the darkened theatre, it is clear to see the respect directed towards Peter, who is present, while his words are compassionately interpreted by Ross Johnson. (Johnson’s are the compelling eyes on the poster which recall for me Dylan Thomas: “Do not go gentle into that good night …”)

Sure, this is worthy theatre fulfilling a social agenda, but it is as entertaining as it is enlightening, offering a chance to empathise with those going through an experience many of us will face, or to find comfort in shared experience, shared laughter even. How could it not be funny when my friend’s mother was convinced her tomatoes were chickens?  

Phrases continue to resonate after I leave the theatre: “…he doesn’t want a cuddle anymore”; “…you notice you’re disappearing”; “…she was convinced God was taking out bits of her Bible”; “…I wish I’d spent more time hugging him.”  The five years’ incubation wasn’t wasted time.


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