Theatre director Elizabeth Newman tells how neurological condition shattered her dreams of becoming a ballet dancer
WHEN the Octagon Theatre’s Elizabeth Newman was just a teenager she was told she would never walk again.
Suddenly struck down by a neurological condition at the age of just 13, her dream of becoming a ballet dancer was over and she faced a long and painful road to recovery.
Now the 28-year-old is bringing two heart-warming, witty and moving plays to the Octagon — one she could relate to at that difficult time in her life and which helped her overcome her losses.
Duet for One, written by Tom Kempinski, was inspired by the life of cellist Jacqueline Du Pré, who contracted multiple sclerosis (MS) in 1972 and had to give up her remarkable career.
Ms Newman, who has been at the Octagon for five years, will also direct another of the playwright’s pieces, Separation, which sees a young American actress begin a love affair with an English agoraphobic playwright through a series of transatlantic telephone calls.
They will be performed in repertoire, between Thursday, April 10, and Saturday, May 10, and it will be the first time the two plays will have been seen together with the same cast — West End actors Rob Edwards and Clare Foster.
Ms Newman turned to directing when she was unable to continue her promising career at the Royal Academy of Dance and, after directing her first full length play at the age of just 16, her drama teacher introduced her to Duet for One.
It tells the story of concert violinist Stephanie Abrahams, who is forced to re-evaluate her life after being diagnosed with MS.
Ms Newman, who runs the Octagon’s new writing department, has wanted to direct it for more than 10 years and now feels the time is right to share her own story and put on the plays which deal with the physical, social and emotional issues the characters face.
She said: “At the time, I was using a wheelchair and I was struggling in the way that Stephanie was struggling.
“I was probably a fair way along with that struggle because it had been going on for a few years.
“Directing was kind of my new purpose in life, it wasn’t my original purpose.
“I think I was struggling with not being the person that I was before and mourning for that — being angry, but not wanting to be angry.”
The complex neurological condition, caused by an infection, affected Ms Newman’s motor skills and she had to use the wheelchair for many years and learn how to walk again.
She said: “At 13, I didn’t know what to do with myself. My way of coping had gone. What I loved, I couldn’t do any more. That was really hard.
“You don’t expect your body to abandon you. From the neck down, I lost my faculties. At one point, my speech was impaired as well. I experienced spasms.
“At 16, I was told I would never walk again.”
Treatment suggested by doctors included breaking her legs in several places before resetting them and further hours of intense physiotherapy.
She said: “I wasn’t convinced that was the right way to go.
“Stephanie in Duet for One and Sarah in Separation, they both talk about being basket cases.
“It makes you very depressed, but I had managed to finally get through that.
“I had directed my first play, I had got a friendship group back. I was trying to live.”
Unable to stand up unaided, she contacted a woman who dealt with geriatric neurology patients for help and her doctors agreed she could be treated by her, but wanted to see signs of improvement within six months.
She said: “I had to go back to being a baby. I learnt to walk again from rolling on my belly, pushing up, crawling. It was horrible. It must’ve been so much harder for my mum and my pops. It was pops who used to have to put me in my splints every night and it was so painful.
“It was my mum who had to be strong when I didn’t want to fight any more. I’m one of the luckiest women alive. I’m incredibly lucky because of my family. I wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for them. They wouldn’t let me give up.”
Ms Newman, from Croydon in south London, graduated from the Rose Bruford College with a Directing BA (Hons) in 2007 and became associate artist of Southwark Playhouse the following year.
She said: “It was a big thing for me getting on that train and moving to Bolton.
“I was still having some hospital treatment when I moved to Bolton, which no-one really knew about.”
Duet for One, adapted into a 1986 film starring Julie Andrews, and Separation, first staged in 1987, see Kempinski look deep into his own heart to explore the courage with which people can face their pain and despair to find meaning and purpose in their lives.
Ms Newman said: “They’ve never been put together before, not that that’s a reason to do anything, but it kind of feels right that these two plays should be put together.
“They are so wonderfully different, but they are both very hopeful plays although they are about people struggling.
“Both of them are big journey plays.”
Speaking of her own journey, Ms Newman has not had to use any walking aids for six years, while she has friends who remain bedridden or still rely on wheelchairs.
She said: “I’m all right because I’m lucky.
“I can walk to the shops. I can walk upstairs to our rehearsal room and I have found a new purpose in life, a different purpose but a new one.”
- Duet for One and Separation will be performed at the Octagon Theatre, in repertoire, from April 10 to May 10. For tickets, contact the box office on 01204 520661.
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