A University of Sunderland student has teamed up with an award-winning North East film company to help produce a gritty, interactive drama that tackles teenage pregnancy and how disabled people can be excluded from vital public health.
The 22-year-old, from Gateshead, also plays the role of disabled mum-to-be Nikki in the film, a character she created during a workshop with Trylife, which was held at the University back in October 2019.
Laura, who uses a wheelchair, said: “I was really enthusiastic about the idea of one of these characters being disabled, so I pitched the idea.
“Then the pandemic hit so I didn’t think anything of it, but in October last year, TryLife offered me a pre-production placement where I could learn about script-writing, character development and said I could get involved in anything I liked. I was absolutely ecstatic. We worked online and over Teams, as we were all in lockdown.
“Then a week before filming started in February this year, they told me they hadn’t found anybody right for the role of Nikki and as I came up with the character, the part is mine if I want it.”
After being a fit and healthy child, Laura became disabled when she was 11-years-old and has since been diagnosed with multiple complex health conditions, including Chronic Fatigue Syndrome.
Even though Laura admits she felt nervous about pitching the idea of a disabled character at first, she believes it is vital to have disability represented on screen.
“It was amazing to be able to get disability representation out there, especially a disabled mother, both of which we never see enough of on TV or in film,” Laura said.
“I love my character Nikki and her passionate rants on ableism, she takes absolutely no prisoners! I’m so pleased that an actual disabled person got to play a disabled role, as I feel there is a huge issue in the industry with able-bodied actors playing disabled characters.”
TryLife was set up 2012 and has previously produced films dealing with issues such as mental health, sexual exploitation, knife crime, drug use, loneliness, poverty and violence. At key moments in the films, the action is paused, so the audience can decide the outcome.
TryLife founder Paul Irwin, from North Shields, was himself a teenage parent and later a youth worker.
Speaking about ‘Jessica’s Story’ Paul said: “I know first-hand how difficult it is to be a young parent and I also know at that age if I’d been told to do something I wouldn’t have listened. That’s why our films give young people the opportunity to explore for themselves and experiment in a safe environment, letting them see the consequences of their choices.
“It is important young people are given the opportunity to learn for themselves and that’s what TryLife is all about. We also signpost the user to other information sites for any issue they encounter so they can get the advice they need.”
‘Jessica’s Story’ has been funded by the NHS’ North East and North Cumbria Child Health and Wellbeing Network (CHWN) – in partnership with the Perinatal Mental Health Network and William Howard School in Cumbria.
University of Sunderland researchers and the Participations Interdisciplinary Research Network also worked alongside the CHWN and TryLife throughout the project to evaluate both the impact of the film and the unique partnership between a media company and the NHS network that commissioned it.
Dr Caroline Mitchell, Associate Professor in Radio and Participation at the University of Sunderland, recently shortlisted as University of the Year in this year’s THE – Times Higher Education – annual awards, said: “The TryLife project has been very important to both research and student experience at the University.
“Laura’s involvement is a fantastic demonstration of how a partnership between the University’s School of Media and Communications and TryLife has led to a high quality placement for one of our talented Media Production students.”
Watch ‘Jessica’s Story’ here.