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Older women tell their true stories of homelessness in this moving new show

UnHOWsed Theatre Works 2019 supplied
Photograph: Louise Chen

Before Susan VM McDonald-Timms became homeless at the age of 35, addicted to alcohol and amphetamines, she says her behaviour was obsessively ritualistic. "I had to go in a fantasy world to survive that violent house I grew up in, just to mentally survive.”

She’s one of several performers who have graciously opened up their lives for unHOWsed, a multi-disciplinary play about the lived experience of older women who have faced homelessness, debuting at Theatre Works this month. It's a collaboration between contemporary arts company Tashmadada and Voices of the South Side (VotSS). The latter is a community group run by Robyn Szechtman and Deb McIntosh dedicated to tackling the marginalisation of social and public housing residents. Centred on artistic endeavour and skills-based training, VotSS has been a fertile ground for McDonald-Timms. She focuses on memoir writing and documentary-making. “They keep finding courses for people and getting them funded,” she says. “So once you’re in, you’re fired up.”

Thankfully McDonald-Timms, now 57, is settled in a St Kilda apartment these days, not too far from where we meet on a sunny Sunday afternoon, sitting cross-legged in a palm tree-lined spot in front of Luna Park. Deborah Leiser-Moore, co-founder and artistic director of Tashmadada, joins us. She directs unHOWsed and was thrilled to meet McDonald-Timms and listen to her story. 

No matter how many elaborate homes I created, from cars to hedges, I could not get enough home within.”

Wrapped in a patterned summer dress and shaded by a large-brimmed hat, McDonald-Timms purposefully chooses a spot for us next to a hollowed-out hedge that holds a great deal of meaning for her. A poetic orator, she tells Time Out she compulsively created hideaways wherever she went. Many of the coping mechanisms she built back then remain today, preferring to cocoon herself in her bedroom. 

“My life became a pantomime of metaphorical indulgences,” she says. “I’d build homes in strange places like that hedge. I’d come down here and would set up in there, so I had the thrill of knowing that everybody going past had no idea that I was in there. This is the kind of thing that would make me feel safe. I’ve never really left that hedge.”

Later, she lived out the back of her Toyota Corolla. “The best car, you can't kill them,” she lights up a big smile. “I turned it into a home with curtains and decorations and hung my washing out of the windows to dry. But you need a lot of doonas to make a comfortable floor in a car and to cover the gear stick.”

 “We want audiences to feel it in their heart, in their bodies, so they get an experience of this.”

According to the recent census, the number of older women experiencing homelessness has increased by a staggering 31 per cent in the last five years. There has been an even more alarming increase of 75 per cent for women living in their cars, and 83 per cent increase in couch surfing. These startling numbers informed the early developments by the women of VotSS, several of whom perform in unHOWsed’s ensemble, including McDonald-Timms, Carla Mitterlehner, Jan Grey, Diann Pattison, Maurya Bourandanis, Catherine Samsury, Karen Corbett and Liza Dezfouli.

Their compelling stories, and this ballooning crisis, drew Leiser-Moore to the project. It’s very much in her wheelhouse. Her last work, KaBooM: Stories From Distant Frontlines, involved interviewing ex-soldiers and refugees about the devastating effect of war. She performed their truths in a solo show at fortyfivedownstairs. “Everything is from the woman’s point of view with my work,” Leiser-Moore says. “I’m looking at the women on the fringes.”

Not that she’d call what she does verbatim, as such. “I do very visual physical theatre,” Leiser-Moore insists. “I’m not interested in verbatim. That’s not my thing. It’s not just intellectual, not just the words. It’s a visceral experience. We want audiences to feel it in their heart, in their bodies, so they get an experience of this.”

It’s a way of warding off the invisibility often encountered by people experiencing homelessness, and by mature aged women in general. “The audience gets to see these beautiful women and how strong they are,” Leiser-Moore adds.

“The shame factor is so extreme. I don't even know how to explain.”

The work has evolved enormously in the rehearsal room and is very different now from the initial kernel of an idea. McDonald-Timms says she feels empowered voicing her history, but it’s confronting too. Especially knowing that she will perform it in her local neighbourhood while opening up raw truths about her past that she’s still addressing. “The shame factor is so extreme,” she says. “I don't even know how to explain. I still battle with it. I battle it every day. You’re realising a whole lot of things about your life and homelessness, and there’s the responsibility factor of turning up and doing it.”

Leiser-Moore is clearly in awe of her performer. “Suse is the most amazing woman,” she offers. “Elegant, beautiful, articulate and super-inspiring. I will say that of all the women. I mean, from the first time we all met, I came home more inspired than by anything I’ve ever done before. There’s a great spirit in the room.”

As difficult as it is, McDonald-Timms is grateful for the opportunity to speak loud and proud. “I always wanted to act, so this gave me that chance,” she says. “As I tell my story to others, I realise I was homeless inside. And no matter how many elaborate homes I created, from cars to hedges, I could not get enough home within. But doing this has really helped.”

UnHOWsed is at Theatre Works from October 23 to November 3.

Check out the best theatre in Melbourne this month and our guide to scoring cheap tickets.

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