Tea Talks:
Connecting through the power of stories

Beth Sedgwick, Community Programme Manager at Oxford Playhouse, tells us about Tea Talks, a storytelling project engaging with older audiences which was shortlisted for the Best Age-Friendly Outreach Award in the Fantastic for Families Awards 2022.

How we developed an inclusive storytelling project to engage later-in-life participants remotely

In 2021 we developed a radio play, From Oxford, Around the World and Back Again with older people, told in their own words. We wanted to offer an opportunity for meaningful creative stimulation during an uncertain time, particularly for people living alone, with limited access to creative opportunities.

  • We telephoned twenty-eight older people over the course of 6/7 weeks.
  • The oldest participant was 99, the average age was approximately 84 years old
  • Two participants lived independently with dementia

The project was three-phased:

  • Phase 1 – Phone calls took place during Spring/Summer of 2021. We noticed recurring themes and then started shaping the calls around stories of travel & adventure.
  • Phase 2 – We then created a radio play with sixteen of the same participants and recorded the contributions on the phone & on Zoom. During this process we offered one-to-one phone sessions focusing on storytelling skills, as well as a group zoom workshop. This approach worked well as it was flexible to participant needs and technological literacy.
  • Phase 3 – We hosted a Tea Talks listening party in an area of regeneration in Oxford, as well as a Tea Talks Tea Party event in 2022 at the Playhouse (with tea and biscuits of course!) To maximize outreach, we released the play on both the Oxford Playhouse website and Cherwell Hospital Radio in December 2021. CDs were additionally posted to participants, as a way of celebrating the project.

Participant-Led Learning

Our job as facilitators was to offer support & shape the wonderful life experiences that were shared.

However, participants were sometimes unsure about the prospect of being in a radio play, particularly to begin with. Aware of this challenge, we asked for participant feedback half-way through our series of phone calls in order to monitor progress and levels of comfort.

It was noted that “a clearer understanding of the project and the final target” would be useful. If the project ran again, we would clearly stress in the project marketing materials that you can just take part in Phase 1 of the project, with the goal of easing any pressure on participants to entertain as part of the radio play.

Age UK Oxfordshire was a tremendously supportive partner in helping us reach older people that may be living alone. They provided contacts to areas of multiple deprivation in Oxford and also advised on GDPR, safeguarding & pastoral support.

“[The project]…brought me out of my shell.  It has been very nice to talk about my life to someone who is interested…”

– Tea Talks Participant, 2021

Top Tips for Remote Creative Working

  • We found working in partnership with an older people’s service useful, as their support helped us offer reassurance to the older participants about chatting over the phone to someone they didn’t initially know.
  • The involvement of an experienced sound editor was also helpful. This was due to the varying qualities of phone lines.
  • Ask participants if you can make loose notes from conversations. This helped us as facilitators to build rapport and provide a personal touch to calls.
  • Establishing a project structure but continuously adapting to feedback worked well, to offer flexibility for participants.

The Future

We would like to build upon the success of Tea Talks by creating a hybrid in-person and remote programme. This would include:

  • In-person monthly creative events at the theatre with discounted tickets to see a matinee show
  • Phone calls for isolated individuals that may live independently
  • Storytelling and musical initiatives in local care homes

We are planning to combine these strands and deliver a revised ‘Tea Talks’ initiative for 2023/2024 and beyond. The Playhouse also has ambitions for a bigger community project focused on oral storytelling which will prominently include the experiences of older people.

13 December 2022



Beth Sedgwick is the Community Programme Manager at Oxford Playhouse.

Beth’s role has included creating the later-in-life strategy and on removing barriers to creative engagement.

Oxford Playhouse is a regional mid-scale receiving theatre which programmes classic work, new plays & comedy acts, alongside its county-wide outreach work in schools and communities.

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13 December 2022