The Archive of Educated Hearts debuted at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival in 2018, where it went on to receive immediate critical acclaim for its immersive and personal storytelling. Writer/designer Casey Jay Andrews talks to us about the show, her motivations in putting it together, and how it speaks to the impact that we leave on those around us when we pass on.

You debuted The Archive of Educated Hearts at Edinburgh Fringe, and you’ve now come to an unseasonably warm Adelaide Fringe. How are you handling the transition?

Casey Jay Andrews: When I left London it was snowing so the sun is a very welcome change! Plus a summer in Edinburgh doesn’t quite feel like a proper summer so I’m owed one.

I’ve been busy building this week at Holden Street as The Archive of Educated Hearts doesn’t take place in a traditional theatre space, but a unique, immersive installation. The audience sit with me among a treasure trove of memories and old photographs.

Needless to say it’s been sweaty work! But hopefully it will be worth it for the unique intimate experience of the show.

This is a very personal show for you. What motivated you to put it together and who was the biggest influence on the show?

CJA: I had wanted to write a play about the impact breast cancer can have on the mother-daughter relationship for a long time; my mum is one of four sisters who all have an unknown genetic form of breast cancer, and I am high risk, so it’s a subject close to my heart. But as with lots of subjects that are very close to home I didn’t quite know where to begin.

That’s where my high school drama teacher Emma Cairns came in. A couple of years ago, in the face of stage four cancer, Emma and her daughter Molly (who was 11 years old at the time) took to the skies and adventured the world together. They set out to make a lifetime’s worth of memories in the time they had together. I spoke at length with Emma about how important it was to her that Molly would know her for who she is as a person beyond a “mother figure”; Emma said finding that side of the relationship with our parents is something that most people don’t experience until much later in life, and so it became incredibly important to her to be able to share that part of the mother-daughter relationship with Molly.

Emma campaigned tirelessly to give people with life-limiting breast cancer diagnoses the right to access secondary breast cancer treatment – these aren’t treatments that will “save” a person’s life, but treatments that will give someone quality of life while they live with cancer, and will give them as much time as possible with their loved ones.

Needless to say, Emma and Molly’s story is a clear example of why those drugs and treatments are vital to the well being of not only the person with cancer, but the loved ones surrounding them. They gave Emma and Molly the chance to create new memories that would last a lifetime, and that would go on shaping who Molly is as a person long into her future.

A huge theme within the show is how we place beacons for our loved ones that remain prominent even after we’ve gone: signposts that anchor us to who we are in the world, that guide us far into our future, and that shape how we are able to look back on our past.

Following Emma’s updates of their travels I knew that I had to talk to her about sharing her story. It was such an uplifting adventure to follow, and it made me think about my own relationship with my mum; about living in such a way that you don’t look back with regrets.

Emma said in a speech to the UK Parliament:

As the months passed I couldn’t work out how to move from waiting to die, to living some kind of life in the time I had left.

I took early retirement from my teaching career on medical grounds and tried to decide how to live my life under the shadow of a life limiting illness. Deciding soon after that travel would be my saviour, if I was well enough to do it, I wanted to show my daughter the world.

I want my daughter to remember me living my life to the full and taking every opportunity that I have available to me, not wasting away quietly. I keep saying to her if it scares the pants off you it’s probably worth doing!

Writing and performing this very personal, very honest show absolutely scared the pants off me, and that’s exactly why I did it.

Devastatingly, just weeks before the 2018 Edinburgh Festival, as the play was being made, Emma found out that she only had weeks to live. Two weeks before the festival began Emma passed away, and her funeral took place on the day of the first ever performance. Only weeks before this my aunt Karen Baker (another one of the women who features in the play) found out that her cancer had progressed for the first time in years.

The themes of grief, loss and the palpable finality of our short lives came incredibly close to home as I began the process of creating the play and crafting the women’s interviews into a narrative. With each piece of bad news the process of writing took a new turn in direct response to the heart-­breaking circumstances under which the show came together.

These were not scenarios I had anticipated occurring during the creation of this show; cancer had sat at bay in the lives of my friends and loved ones for such a long time that I had almost forgotten how suddenly and heartlessly it could turn worlds upside-­down.

Breast cancer campaigns (such as Pink Ribbon) have been hugely successful in achieving their goals to raise awareness of breast cancer in the general public. Where do you think messaging on breast cancer awareness needs to go next?

CJA: The most important information to get out there is how to check your boobs and spot the signs of breast cancer as early as possible. Especially for younger women who may not yet have access to routine checks with their doctors.

I’ve been working with Worldwide Breast Cancer to promote their #KnowYourLemons campaign alongside The Archive. It is an amazing charity dedicated to educating people in an accessible and easy to understand format. When found early, breast cancer survival is nearly 100%. When found at Stage 4, it is terminal. The language around checking your boobs is focused on finding lumps or changes, but many people don’t know what specifically these changes might look or feel like – there is a lot more than a lump that women (and men) need to know about.

I’ll be handing out cards from Worldwide Breast Cancer to all of my audiences at The Archive of Educated Hearts and encouraging everyone to download the KnowYourLemons App. Who knows, it could save a life – I certainly hope so.

What is the biggest accolade you’ve received for your work?

CJA: In Edinburgh I won The Scotsman’s Fringe First Award for The Archive of Educated Hearts. A Fringe First is the most sought after award for writers at the festival, and to win this award for a show so close to my heart was an incredible achievement. I’ve been making work in Edinburgh for a decade, so to mark that anniversary with an accolade that I never in my wildest dreams imagined would be attainable – for a small scale, unfunded show – was a huge surprise and a wonderful way to honour the incredible women who helped me make the show.

Do you have any ideas you’d like to develop for future shows? Which direction do you see yourself taking in future projects?

CJA: I will be debuting my new show The Wild Unfeeling World at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe in August 2019. It will play in rep with The Archive as a sister show, and will be presented at The Pleasance. The show will take place in a bespoke immersive installation space – I’m currently in talks with The Pleasance about what this might be, and the possibilities are very exciting! It will adopt the same relaxed and poetic storytelling style of The Archive, and weave first hand stories of the angrier, uglier impact of grief on our mental health through the narrative of a very famous book about a whale — and that’s all I can give away at the moment! It’s going to be great: hopefully I’ll dress up in a whale costume, maybe I’ll get some water guns. At the moment the possibilities are endless!

Outside of the Fringe, what are you most excited to do while you’re down here?

CJA: After the festival closes up I have a road trip planned! I’m meeting a friend in Noosa and we’re traveling down the coast to Sydney. I need suggestions for an itinerary so any hot tips are welcome!

The Archive of Educated Hearts is running at Holden Street Theatres from 12th February to the 16th March. You can purchase tickets here.