Is This Proper Community Theatre? 

Making Theatre in Huang Pu Village, Guangzhou

Performers Huang Pu Village

I have spent a long time in my working life trying to overcome the labels others, including funding bodies, set as descriptions for a particular type of creative activity, and the conflict that can occur between these different forms. The most obvious include Amateur Arts versus Professional Arts, Community Arts versus Professional Arts, Community Arts versus Amateur Arts and Process versus Product.

Labels can be extremely problematic and when discussing community and participatory art they seem to have huge amounts of baggage and differing understandings.

Community arts ‘process versus product’ debate was raging in the 1990’s when I was Artistic Director of Northern Stage in Newcastle, UK. The company were often accused of just being interested in ‘getting bums on seats’ and not showing any interest in local community activities. This was patently not true, and we prided ourselves on the three strands of our work, all of equal importance, ‘Producing, Presenting and Participation’. We achieved this through the vehicle of an Ensemble Company of performers and artists. We were committed to the creation of great art with and for everybody, long before the Arts Council of England thought that was a good idea. We worked with great world-class artists as well as with local people, young people, old people, people with disabilities, (celebrating their abilities), people in prisons etc etc. We toured across Europe with shows. The local was international and the international local

‘A Clockwork Orange’ one of my first productions at Northern Stage 1994

During my time in Newcastle I got to know the work of Helix Arts. an organisation based in Newcastle, that undertakes Participatory Arts Programmes across the North East of England. They believed that

‘participation in creative activity is fundamental to the well-being of individuals and communities and should be accessible to all’

We also believed that.

But somehow there was a schism between organisations who worked in the larger ‘mainstream’ organisations and those who worked with smaller, local, grass root organisations. This was probably because the funding for large regional theatres was very much larger than the neighbourhood projects. But there were other more important reasons why the mistrust existed. I remember having conversations with Toby Lowe, then Chief Executive of Helix Arts about his Spectrum of Participatory Arts Practise where he puts forward the view that –

‘ …. we think that it’s possible to define a spectrum of participatory arts practice that could help us to understand the differences between different practices. At one end of the spectrum lie projects whose purpose is to facilitate a creative enquiry for a set of participants, at the other end lie projects in which an artist uses a group of people as material for a creative process that they define’.

He went on to explain that he named the different ends of this spectrum Kester and Bishop in homage to the debate between Grant Kester and Claire Bishop about the quality or otherwise of different elements of “collaborative art practice”.

The use of the word ‘uses’ troubled me. It feels judgemental. Nobody likes to be used.

But I always thought I was at the Bishop end of the spectrum, where I worked with people to understand them better and ‘used’ the process, in a way that I defined, to create contemporary performance pieces. Is this proper community theatre? On many occasions I was accused of using people for my own purpose – somehow exploiting them. I carry this thought with me in every piece of community art I engage in.

Walking into work at Huang Pu Village Gaungzhou

I was thinking about all these things as I travelled to Asia this November to work in Guangzhou, in mainland China, to undertake a 5 day workshop organised by Jade Liu at 72 Life Theatre Project.

72 Life Theatre Project is currently sponsored by One Lab of One Foundation in China and is helping to support people from different communities, particularly marginalised or disadvantaged groups. Jade had attended a previous workshop I held with Joyce Lee, Mind the Gap Resident Director, in Hong Kong last year and she had invited me to Guangzhou.

My job was to develop a piece of theatre with a group of professional social workers, teachers and community arts workers based on the methodology I was exploring in my recent theatre work in UK, including Contained in Bradford  and Anniversary in Leeds. Jade felt that the way I worked might be used in the different circumstances in which 72 Life Theatre Project was working. Also that the people attending the workshop might use some of the methods in their own work.

Ancestors Hall – photo Feng Shu

I wanted to make some theatre that came from the stories of people who I didn’t know, who did not speak the same language as me and whose culture and life experience I didn’t have knowledge of. By listening to their stories I imaged I would learn more about them, myself and the world we live in.

I always describe the work I do as ‘contemporary performance for people who are interested in people’. I think the work can be defined as community arts and I think it can also be defined as professional theatre. But to be honest, it is other people who want me to define it – I prefer to think about it as theatre performance that ‘works with the most appropriate people necessary to create the work’. I don’t have some lofty ambition to change people’s lives, although sometimes the work contributes to life changing attitudes, I am interested in what happens on the sidelines of life. I want to explore those seemingly insignificant moments of life that become meaningful to me and to others.

Telling stories photo Feng Shu

Lyn Gardner wrote about my work in a Guardian Newspaper review of William Trevors’s Ballroom of Romance I did at Northern Stage as follows;

Like so much of director Alan Lyddiard’s work, it has a diffuse quality: often, the important things are on the periphery. There are no big statements, only tiny gestures: a woman picking a hair off a man’s suit, the men strutting. It takes the lives of ordinary people surviving on the margins and makes them seem special, almost blessed

That is where I feel happy and where I can make a little bit of sense of the world. Through the process of sharing the work with audiences, I believe others can enjoy being with people, enjoy their stories, enjoy watching them and feel an empathy for them. The generosity of sharing stories, the generosity of listening to others – A Theatre of Generosity.

Mr Hu’s Ancestors Home
photo Feng Shu

So back to Guangzhou. I arrived mid October after having some problems getting my visa for China. (You can’t currently get a Chinese Visa in Singapore if you don’t live there permanently ).

Guangzhou traditionally romanised as Canton, is the capital and most populous city of the province of Guangdong in southern China. Located on the Pearl River about 120 km  north-northwest of Hong Kong. Guangzhou has a history of over 2,200 years and was a major terminus of the maritime Silk Road and continues to serve as a major port and transportation hub today.

Listening to Sean – photo Feng Shu

My workshop took place in Huang Pu village where Jade had organised a week long residency. We had 17 participants from all over China with some people travelling from as far away as Beijing and Wuhan City to take part in the workshop.

Tuesday 31st October

Jade, I and interns Carol and Venessa travelled to Huang Pu Village and moved into our accommodation for the week. A delightful apartment alongside a charming river running through the village. We met with Mr Qi, The Fixer, and visited Mr Hu’s Ancestors Hall to prepare the space for the next day. There are many Chinese Ancestral Halls in Huang Pu, it was once a very rich port. We cleared the space of everything we didn’t need and made the space welcoming with the help of Mr Hu and his team of helpers. We met the Uncle who worked as a kind of caretaker/janitor. He became a fixture of the workshop – always there, always helpful, always sitting watching what we were doing.

The Caretaker – Photo Feng Shu

Wednesday 1st November

First days of workshops always make me feel a little nervous but the participants arrived early and I had a chance to get to know them a little before we started. Sean, one of the people I had worked with in Hong Kong was there which was reassuring. We had to work in three languages Mandarin, Cantonese and English, but with Jade acting as an interpreter we were on solid ground. At 9.30am we welcome everybody and introduced them to Mr Hu Senior who told us the history of the place and about some of his ancestors.

Mr Hu telling us about his Ancestor Hall

We learnt about the significance of the building and of the people in the photos that were on the walls. I wanted our performance to be about the place where we were performing and the people connected to it, people from the village as well as the participants.

I explained the work we would do over the 5 days. Everybody was given a little brown book where they could anonymously write about their thoughts and feelings. These books were collected every morning and distributed to other people so that the books became the stories, thoughts, observations and reflections of many people.

Slow walking – photo Feng Shu

Then the starting point of all my work – The Slow Walk exercise. I have been doing this exercise with people for over 40 years, with thousands of people from all walks of life. You can get details of this exercise, ‘The Slow Walk of Charisma’here

I am here – photo Zong

After lunch we split into groups and had a guided journey through the village. Groups went to visit locals to hear their perceptions of the village. We visited another Ancestral Home, that had been turned into a art shop, a wood-carver’s studio, a oyster restaurant and other places. We needed to get a real sense of the place we were working in.

We started telling each other stories.

Thursday 2nd November 

Slow Walking, Stories/reflections/observations, reading from the little brown books.

Gathering material.

I introduced the group to the 5 Principles of Authentic Living as devised by Robert Rabbin

Be Present

Pay Attention

Listen Deeply

Speak Truthfully

Act Creatively

Choreography – photo Feng Shu

I find this mantra useful in getting stories from participants at workshops. A simple guide to compiling stories that will fully engage audiences. I work with them to achieve a state of ‘living and performing’ in the moment. It is difficult for people just ‘to be’, to let go of all the things that occupy our minds.

Letting go of thoughts is an important step in delivering authentic stories, stories that come from a deeper part of ourselves and get beyond all that stuff that preoccupies us every day. Just as the space must be clear of debris so must the mind and the body. As Ricky Gervais once said, approximately, ‘I like performers to be the equivalent of a cold glass of water’. That sounds perfect to me – natural, cool and life giving.

I also introduced the group to The ‘Nelken’ Line from the piece by Pina Bausch. This choreography is being taught across the world as part of a project from The Pina Bausch Foundation – Details here

The Nelken Line photo Feng Shu

We worked on the choreography – simple movements representing Spring, Summer, Autumn and Winter. There were two reasons for including the ‘Nelken Line’ into our piece of performance. Firstly we would be part of of a world wide initiative that meant that we, in our little village of Huang Pu, would be connected to a global phenomenon. Secondly the Nelken Line has a clear connection to the slow walking exercise, in that it is a combination of simple walking and gestures. Slow walking is not in itself meaningful, but somehow it is always interpreted by an audience with their own understanding of what it means. Our performance was emerging as a series of personal stories interrupted by choral movement pieces, exploring both the presence of the individuals and the community as a whole. We we attempting to show the importance of community support and activity to empower individual aspiration. The group and the individual being of equal importance.

The Performance Space – Feng Shu

The movement sections were a collection of rules and instructions. They are a structure in which meaning emerged through the doing of the structure.  All the “rules” are actually arbitrary, any rules are only the outward representation of an intention. The intention is 100% commitment to what one is doing, and taking 100% care to complete the task without thought.  A mediative process that connects with a deeper understanding beyond thought.  Incidentally it is worth also looking at the Japanese Actor/Director/Teacher writings about taking pleasure in daily tasks, fulfilling them completely with 100% focus.  (Yoshi Oida’s The Invisible Actor)

One of the aspects of the work that we did not cover enough, because of time restraints, was to get to know the village better. We did what we could. In the afternoon Mr Qi, the fixer, had invited a number of people living in the village to come and meet with the group and to exchange stories. This was a really great session with about 30 people sitting in a circle listening to each other, sharing stories, getting to know each other. Mr Bu the singer, songwriter sang us a song which we used in the performance, one of our favourite restauranteurs shared with us why he called his restaurant ‘The Auntie That Always Laughs’, a small business woman explained to us why she never locks the door to her house and a Sushi chef played a tune on a Xiao (flute). We heard many fascinating stories of artists who had come to the village to work.

We had heard from Mr Hu on our first day of the workshops, but he was one of only a few older people we got to know. We got to know the uncle caretaker a bit, but it was a gap in our research. The young artists and entrepreneurs  who had come to the village to live and work told one part of the story of life in the village, we needed to learn from the older generation.

One older man attended the workshop everyday and would sit in a corner. We wanted him to join us. He had so many stories to tell us. He knew a lot and really wanted someone to listen to him, but refused to talk in public.

Sean and Helen talking to the older man who would not join us

Friday 3rd November

In the morning Slow Walking, rehearsing ‘The Nelken Line’, Story telling and readings from ‘The Little Brown books’

In the afternoon ‘Mise-en-scène’. I always liked the phrase Mise-en-scène rather than director or the term ‘blocking’. It makes more sense to me and what I do. I place things and action on stage in order to illuminate the text, or rather, in this case, the performers, who were the text.

The Mise-en-scène is the structure and frame in which the work or meaning exists. Everything the performers do is important and crucial to the meaning of the piece. Sometimes the most important action happens in the background or in the margins. Sometimes it is an accumulation of many things happening in different parts of the stage.

Choreography – photo Feng Shu

I structure the action to reflect the performers I am working with. The performers are creating the text by being who they are, doing what they do and saying what they say. I remember the Russian/Israeli director Yevgeny Arye, Artistic Director of Gesher Theatre telling me the story of one day taking a rehearsal in the theatre. All the ‘actors’ were working  hard to express the essence of some scene when a door opened right at the back of the stage, and a cleaner walked through and started brushing the stage. Yevgeny eyes where drawn to the cleaner. In fact watching the cleaner became more interesting and meaningful than anything the ‘actors’ were doing. I think of this story often when organising the mise-en-scène of any show I am working on. Today I think would be much happier watching people in a town square going about their business than I would be watching a ‘world-class’ production of Peter Handke’s ‘The Hour We Knew Nothing of Each Other’. A show that I was actually very enamoured with when I first saw it in 1992.

Saturday 4th November  

Slow walking, Choreography, Storytelling and readings from the little brown book.

A free walk in the village to try to meet older residents and learn more about the village.

On Saturdays and Sundays the village is full of tourists and locals set up stalls selling everything from sugar cane juice to sugared artworks, from small crabs on strings to the most delicious dumplings I had ever tasted.

We spent the most of the day rehearsing, discussing which stories people would tell. It was their decision, I just wanted to make sure that the story they had chosen was told in an engaging way and didn’t go on for too long.

Stories – photo Feng Shu

It is extraordinary the way the work matures each time we go through it. It is always changing and developing – it is never finished. As long as there are stories to be heard life will go on. The performance changes as people’s lives change, we just create something that is true for that moment in time.

Choreography – photo Pina Bausch

Sunday 5th November

Slow Walking, Choreography, readings from the little brown books, re-capping on the stories.

Mr Ding was still not sure which story he wanted to tell. He was the oldest of the group and maybe didn’t have as much performing experience as others in the group. He was nervous. He wanted to tell the right story. He had come to the workshop because he had been persuaded by his daughter. He told us about his relationships with all his daughters on the first story telling session and how he felt about them. A lot of love of course. Half an hour before the performance he still hadn’t made up his mind.

Mr Ding

He knew when he was due to talk but didn’t know which of the many stories he had told would be the one he would share with the audience that night.

There was another section of the piece that was not pre-defined. At one stage the whole company came to sit on the front steps, closer to the audience. They picked up the littlebrown books and started to read to themselves. These books had been passed to different people every day. Each day they would write about what they experienced, anecdotal stories, descriptions of people they had met, reflections on the work and whatever they felt at any particular moment. Everyday we would share some of the writings from inside the books.

In the performance one by one (not everybody) would read a section from the book that they happened to be reading. Nobody knew what was going to be read out and there was a sense of anticipation and a moment of spontaneity among the performers. Mostly these where completely new thoughts or feelings that were being read out.

We performed the piece to an audience of maybe 100 people. It was performed in darkness with artificial light for the very first time. On the whole the piece worked.

It was touching, funny and beautiful to look at, full of delightful moments from ‘lives in progress’.

Performance – photo Feng Shu

At the end of the performance we discussed the piece with the audience. The first question was why I had included the Pina Bausch choreography, ‘The Nelken Line’. I explained that, like so many artists, Pina Bausch is, and continues to be, a big inspiration in my work. She amongst other inspired me to create my company of older performers.

Performance – Photo Feng Shu

When I started to write about community arts on this blog, I named ‘Kontakthof’  createdby her, with a company of performers over the age of 65, from her home town of Wuppertal, as the best piece of community dance theatre I had ever seen. Most importantly the reason was because the Pina Bausch Foundation was encouraging people across the world to learn the piece and upload a video of it to the Foundation web site. I though that we would make our contribution to this from the village of Huang Pu so we could be connected to a global phenomenon. In fact I believe we are the first group from mainland China to do it.

Nelkin Line – Photo Fenu Shu

For more details go to

Monday 6th November

The last day of our workshop. Time for reflection. To put questions and to think about what the group had achieved. To think about what to do next.

I want to say a personal thank you for all the people who participate in this workshop I learnt so much through the process of working with you

Janice, Nora, Gwan, Mi Qi, WenJing, Julia, Mr Ding, Michelle , Sean, Jing, Lynn, San Shui,  Sherry, Shuang, Banana, Kimi

To Jade Lui and all her team at 72 Life Theatre Project including interns Carol, Vanessa, Zong, Sharon and Jane

To Zong (again!) and Shuai and Feng Shu for documenting the process and performance

Performers photo Kong

The late night plane back to Singapore to continue my travels across Malaysia, Hong Kong, Indonesia arriving back in UK on the first day of February 2018.

Post Show – photo Feng Shu

Anchors In Time

Dominic Campbell has been working with The Performance Ensemble, in the role of  dramaturg for the last few months, on their latest production ‘Anniversary’.

The Performance Ensemble is an ensemble theatre company of performers aged 60 years and older.

They work with performers from various cultural backgrounds; creating contemporary theatre for audiences of all ages, working in the space between professional, community and amateur arts.

The Ensemble blurs the divide between community and professional arts.

‘We aspire to create world class theatre performance that emerges from the heart of communities’

Here are Dominic’s reflections from the rehearsal room.


The lives of the fastest growing populations in the UK are a bit of a mystery.

 “Since mid-2005, the UK population aged 65 and over has increased by 21%, and the population aged 85 and over has increased by 31%. The number of males aged 85 and over has increased by 54% since mid-2005, compared to a 21% increase for females.” 

The Office for National Statistics.

“There is a dearth of research into the lived experience of older people” 

The National Institute For Health and Care Excellence

Projections suggest 500,000 Centenarians will be living in the UK by 2050, 1 million by this centuries end. 250,000 more people than live in Leeds. Over the next 50 years the percentage of working people to retired will shift from 6:1 to 2:1. The extraordinary change in public health enabling UK populations to live longer is having miraculous affect. Our world is changing each day we age within it. The landscape of this change is our lives.  This is about us.

Except its not. Its about us a little bit after tomorrow.

Because one of the great mysteries of ageing is no-one ever arrives at being old. Currently it’s not something people easily accept.  When asked what old is five year olds say six,  twenty year olds say forty, fifty years olds seventy and ninety-five year olds point across the room at ninety-eight year olds and shrug.  Old seems always just out of reach of experience.

Except its not.

Old is not running up the stairs. Not being able to eat food you like or drink all night. It’s not being able to touch your toes. It’s living with news of an ever increasing number of friends becoming ill and frail. It’s living on after the death of loved ones. It’s giving up driving. Giving up on wanting to go to China, wondering whether you might go to Edinburgh again, or Wakefield, or can ever again be bothered to shop in central Leeds.

Old is richness born from living with loss. Experience tempered by resilience. Elusive it lies on the edge of our experience. A state we’re constantly moving into.

Tamara McLorg Choreographer & Performer Photo Thomas Hirst

Tamara McLorg Choreographer & Performer Photo Thomas Hirst

So how to put ageing on stage? And why?

To start with the obvious: artist’s are people too. They’re living longer healthier. They continue creating. There’s no retirement age for artists. There is need to adapt. Which is as true if they’re stiffening dancers, arthritic violin players, Leonard Cohen, Mick Jagger or Kate Bush. Or if they’re someone who at 70 brings a lifetime of experience to their emergent artistic practice. Or if living with dementia in a care home they are most engaged when listening to music or explaining what they see in paintings.


Theatre director Alan Lyddiard’s approach is to form a new company as he approaches 70. Then with his company, The Performance Ensemble, to explore ageing through the processes of performance making.

The Performance Ensembles’ “Anniversary” project connects people with a lifetime of diverse experience, including some whose lifetime’s experience includes performing professionally.  Through play, improvisation and experimentation they are making theatre from the raw material of lived experience. Every word in “Anniversary” is from the cast. The task they’ve set themselves to carrying the story of contemporary ageing.


Hum Crawshaw Performer Photo Thomas Hirst

Gradually with each show this loose group of associates is developing  deeper understanding and articulacy. 60, 70 and 80 year olds wrestling to find appropriate theatre language to carry  the story of their own experience of ageing is truly radical. Which stories to tell? Which keep and why? How do they honour themselves and their own sensations?

More complex than simply telling the story of a body changing its behaviours they are finding expression for mature emotion. Seeking to share the sensation of feeling 13 years old in a 73 year old body. Articulating the bitter-sweetness of new relationships after breakdowns or deaths of life-long loves. Being surprised by rich joys when doing something simple and long promised. Reconnecting or renewing a sense of who one is and is still becoming. Remaining in public, visible, struggling with memory and sequencing.

Equally they questioning the expectation they reduce their potential by acting familiar. People don’t only age with time, they age with an aggregation of experiences. “Anniversary” wonders why limit oneself by acting  “old”.


Barbara Newsome Performer Photo Thomas Hirst

I turn to see Barbara (87) bending to put on her socks and worried she’ll fall offer her my chair. “No. Fek off” she says, firmly but considerately.

“Sometimes they make us go to the theatre. Why? Its depressing. I can stay at home watch the telly  and do that” Attendee at a day care session in an arts centre”

If  theatre is only made by 20 – 30 year olds you may find yourself well versed in the challenges of first relationships and the vexed questions of family and career.

If you watch only Shakespeare you may be able to arrange and inspire long bow men should you ever find yourself at the battle of Agincourt, or become eloquent in the language of summer sprites.

You’ll have an oddly balanced view of the world.

Anniversary Company Work in Progress photo Thomas Hirst

Anniversary Company Work in Progress photo Thomas Hirst

If you watch theatre made of the substance of lives growing old what might you discover to help you with your own?

But why should an audience gift time from their lives for an hours entertainment or engagement with physical failure?.  What’s entertaining about aches and pains, creaking bones and failing eyesight?

In an ageing population the odds are you will live to slow down. You won’t always be successful. The things you build from hard endeavour may crumble despite your best intentions. You may find yourself old with new uncertainties. Most will move with inevitably from the so called 3rd Age to the 4th Age. With intelligence and wit intact transfer from being independent, to needing help. From continent to incontinent while fully aware. From self reliant to reliant increasingly. You are going to need tolerance and resilience. You’ll need all the humour you can find. You’re going to need the consolations of beauty.

As audiences we’re used to seeing the beauty of a 24 year old extend exquisite limbs and pirouette. We understand its beautiful. We’re accustomed to poetics from 17th century bards. We recognise it as eloquent and it goes in the “poetry” box in our brain. We’ve even adapted to the shock of artistic ambassadors who wrestle plays from troubling experience.

But performers with arthritis look stiff. Fifty year olds backs bend less. Where is the poetry in failing memories and the articulacy in increasing deafness?.

Artists working with ageing populations face the challenge of framing and revealing in a way that reveals bounty. Audiences are invited to see older performance not as falling short of achieving what a younger body can, but as offering something that only an older person could. Echoing art built on an understanding of the social model of disability or rejecting the notion of neuro-normalcy, this is a performance language with its own values, its own aesthetics, with clear intent and its own articulacy.

“To be kind is to be on the side of life. Fucking. Lovely. Wild. Life” Jay Griffiths

A Generous Theatre

The work in ‘Anniversary’ has an aesthetics built from kindness and tenderness, from sensitivity between people, from awareness of the needs of others and accommodation toward them. It’s visible in a hand reaching out, or a glance, and that raising of a voice without change in tone that makes it possible to hear. It’s in clarity of communication. An allergy to patronising. In patience with repetition. Its built from mature adult empathy with human fragility. From understanding that we are all like that, and recognition we may be like that soon. Audiences thus engaged hold both the story and the storyteller in their collective breath. This is a ‘Generous Theatre’.

It is useful, this performance, in nations divided by economic wealth and poverty, by sustained inequality and prejudice, by an individual’s instinct to extend a welcome or to build a wall. By fear and the fear of fear. Its valuable to know we all end up the same.  It’s invaluable to know that people look out for people. That it’s possible someone will be looking out for us when we are in need. That its ok to place ourselves in the vulnerability of compassion.

That caring is beautiful.

And it’s funny. We get kindness wrong. We use care as a weapon. We get irritated. We get frustrated with ourselves and others. And that’s part of ageing. It’s absurd, unavoidably hilarious, full of telling cliché as we recognise ourselves on the point where we’re becoming other.

We make up the world we’re living in. As our bodies age and our souls grow separate we must continue to do so. It’s vital. We have choices to make about our legacy.

Connie Hodgson & Namron in rehearsal

Connie Hodgson & Namron

If lived experience is more than the consumption of lifestyle choices. If society is a culture and not an economy. Then we need bravery in old age on stage. We need people on the stage before us with the courage to embody care and compassion. To show wear and tear: time’s tattooing of bodies, experience’s patina of the psyche. To demonstrate that life isn’t a linear race where all the jigsaw pieces fall easily into place and it all makes sense at the end. But that its complicated and hard, and filled with humour and gloriousness, and unpredictable, and dull, and frustrating and rich and messy and vibrant and there is never enough time and all of this we may experience all the way everyday, until we too pass, and the light goes out.

“I am so forgetful. Sometimes I forget to breathe” Connie Hodgson, Performer ‘Anniversary’

© Dominic Campbell

Everyday Creativity

Community Arts Re-imagined.


Remembering Witch’s Blood 2017 photo Kathryn Rattray

It was with a great amount of pleasure that I read a recent report produced by the campaign group 64 Million Artists. It discusses the need to re-imagine the way that community arts are viewed in this country, calling for measures to make sure that ‘everyday creativity’ is embedded across society.

The report recommends that ACE should reconsider using language such as ‘excellence’ and ‘great art’, which ultimately discourages people who are perceived by the ‘arts establishment’ to have little talent  and consider a more ‘democratic’ use of funded buildings and future capital developments.

The report is the result of a five-month nationwide study into how to move from ‘Great Art For Everyone’ to ‘Great Art By, With and For Everyone’. It defines ‘everyday creativity’ as grassroots arts activity, encompassing everything from breakdancing in open spaces to guerrilla gardening and painting in sheds.

Personal Reflection

In Rehearsal Witch's Blood

In Rehearsal Remembering Witch’s Blood 2016 photo Kathryn Rattray

I first started getting involved in community arts programmes over 30 years ago, when I worked at Dundee Rep as Associate Director in the mid 198o’s. Dundee Rep was beginning to create work that reflected the lives of local people. At the time this seemed revolutionary. We set up youth theatre projects, dance programmes and an adult performance group.  We invited local artists and musicians to share their work. We developed a new programme of work to encourage new audiences to the theatre.  In 1986 I directed a production of  They Fairly Mak Ye Work written by Billy Kay with music by Michael Marra, which told the story of Mary Brooksbank who worked in the Dundee Jute Mills in the early years of the 20th Century. She was an active member of the Communist Party of Great Britain between 1920 and 1933, and spent three periods in prison as a result of her agitation. She is remembered today as a prominent figure in Dundee’s labour movement.

The production was a resounding success, sold out on its first run and was repeated a few months later and sold out again. The production gave the Rep confidence to explore other local work and a year later a large scale community production Witch’s Blood was produced in partnership with a number of Dundee based community organisations, under the chairmanship of Dundee Community Arts Festival based at Dudhope Arts Centre.

Witch’s Blood

Witchs Blood 1987

Witchs Blood 1987

This large-scale community production, Witch’s Bloodwas created in 1987 to great critical and popular acclaim and is regarded as a seminal moment in the development of the community arts movement that is flourishing in Dundee today. It involved taking an audience of 1000 people each night across the city in double-decker buses to see a performance inspired by DC Thomson employee, William Blain’s novel. Both family saga and Dundee history (approx 1650 – 1850), the piece explores community and family issues and particularly inter-generational relationships.

Today a team of local and international artists are currently working with members of the community on a re-imagined version of the production, to be performed in June 2017, the 30th Anniversary of the piece. Using available technology and new digital art forms we plan to re-imagine the story for a contemporary audience.

Remembering Witch’s Blood 2016 – photo Kathryn Rattray

Last month we launched an event as part of Ignite Dundee at an amazing space that is  West Ward Print Works in collaboration with the first Dundee Design Festival.

Witch’s Blood 2016 was again a great success attracting full houses for a short Work-in-Progress. It involved an audience of 100 people walking through the ground floor of West Ward Print Works to experience memories from the first production and songs from the original show.

‘Layers of recorded voices, captured through city-wide community singing sessions, will filter in to the space, augmented and edited digitally to create a haunting soundscape that builds anticipation. Recorded audio of Michael Marra singing from the original show will blend with his daughter Alice singing live, creating an ambience in which reality and fiction can hold equal sway. As the performance builds momentum the live vocalists in the space come to life, starting with a solo voice before a 40 strong women’s choir emerge from the darkness. A symphony of voices entwined with spoken word and fragments of narrative hint towards a bigger story unravelling; creating a glimmer of things to come in 2017 and inviting the public to be involved in the impending large scale production’

In the past much emphasis was made of the necessity, by arts funders, for community arts projects to devise ‘legacy’ or ‘exit strategy’.  I always felt it was nearly impossible to say how things would develop and what might emerge from one project into the future. It also felt a little presumptuous.


Remembering Witch’s Blood 2016 – photo Kathryn Rattray

I know that Witch’s Blood left an extraordinary memory in the hearts of hundreds of people. We didn’t have an exit strategy, we trusted in the people who had been involved to create their own creative path. The future was theirs. However, when we started to think about devising a 30th Anniversary project, people came back to get involved very quickly. The sons and daughters and grandchildren of participants, audiences and people who had just heard about it, all gathered for a public meeting at the end of March 2016. The stories and memories they shared were beautiful and moving and encouraged us to keep going with a re-imagined Witch’s Blood.  When Dundee applied to be UK City of Culture in 2017 their bid named Witch’s Blood as one of the projects that kickstarted an arts revolution in the city. In 1994 the city wrote its first cultural strategy. The philosophy and values that underpinned Witch’s Blood were firmly articulated within its pages. This was the start of the legacy, but now the wider community was taking the lead.

Dundee City of Culture


Remembering Witch’s Blood 2016 – photo Kathryn Rattray

The changes in Dundee since the mid 1980’s has been extraordinary, beyond what I could have ever imagined,  and the arts have played a major role in making the city so vibrant today. There is currently a 1 billion pound investment in developing the Waterfront, bringing the city’s relationship with the River Tay back to life. The V & A Museum of Design will open in 2018.  Dundee has recently been named as an UNESCO City of Design and, in a spirit of never giving up, it has just been announced that Dundee will bid for European Capital of Culture title in 2023.

The Arts and their Role in Civic Society


Remembering Witch’s Blood 2016 – photo Kathryn Rattray

There are many amazing examples of community arts projects on this web site and on our sister Facebook page.

Community Arts Projects continue to make a difference across the world.  There are some amazing projects and organisations working together, believing in the principle that everybody is creative and that the arts can make a difference in society for the better.

A recent interesting development comes from  The Gulbenkian Foundation who are developing an inquiry into the civic role of the arts

At the launch of the inquiry they wrote:

‘Arts organisations play an important civic role, sustaining individuals and communities and helping make many places across the country more creative and vital places to live and work. Today we are launching an Inquiry which will cast a spotlight on the civic role of arts organisations. 

We aspire through the Inquiry to increase awareness of the civic role that arts organisations play nationally and in their communities, develop an understanding of what constitutes ‘next practice’ and develop a movement of arts organisations committed to demonstrating it.

We are calling on arts, and other interested organisations, to get involved and help us to ensure that the full potential of arts organisations in promoting civic engagement and revitalising communities is realised. The first stage in the process is research and consultation and we invite you to visit the Inquiry website and join the conversation by, amongst other things, telling us what the civic role of arts and cultural organisations means to you and what needs to change in order for arts organisations to be able to fully embrace it?’ 

You can find out more about the inquiry here


Remembering Witch’s Blood 2016 – photo Kathryn Rattray

It seems to me that in these difficult times the arts are needed more than ever and that there are communities, artists, individuals and organisations who are ready to contribute to making profound change happen. Over the last 30 years I have learnt a lot and experienced for myself the power of the arts as a major contributor to changing attitudes, feelings, thoughts and emotions. I believe that the arts have been the stimulus to changing lives for the better. We all recognise those small, seemingly insignificant moments in life that suddenly become important and teach us something more about ourselves and the world with live in. I have experienced most of those moments when I am engaged with artistic and creative projects and places. Looking at art, listening to art, participating in art. It helps me to understand myself a little bit more and I believe I share this feeling with millions of other people around the world.

To finish this thought, here is a lovely little animation from Alain de Botton – What is Art For?




Dementia and Imagination Project

Doris and Ivor Outside Looking In Cartoon 140616

Born out of the Dementia and Imagination UK-wide research study, Doris and Ivor are fictional characters inspired by the humour that research artist Carol Hanson witnessed at Dementia and Imagination art groups.

The Dementia and Imagination project is led by Dementia Services Development Centre Wales, which is based at Bangor University’s School of Healthcare Sciences. The research is looking to understand how art may help people living with dementia, their relatives, carers and communities. The study has worked locally with Denbighshire County Council Arts Service to run art groups for people living with dementia who are still living at home.

Dr Teri Howson who is one of the study’s researchers said: “This newest installation is a fantastic way to share Carol’s art work with the community in Rhyl which inspired her and where people have been involved in the research. We hope that the exhibition will stimulate discussion and challenge perceptions of people living with memory difficulties”.

Carol is a designer and animator based in Cheshire. She has been observing some of the Dementia and Imagination art sessions with participants living with dementia in North Wales. Carol has used her illustrative style to create a number of art installations about the project.

Carol said: “This will be a static cartoon installation during day-light hours but will come to life with animation on Mondays through to Saturdays, from dusk until 10pm. Taking inspiration from the humour and artwork of the participants of the study, it will be constructed from unloved paper and packaging, mixed with labels, artist canvases and animation and will form Doris and Ivor’s ‘bungalow’, inviting people to look into their world and see those with dementia in a new light.

“The Research started in Rhyl because the first Dementia and Imagination session I was sitting in on was held in one of the rooms within Rhyl library. What I thought was going to be a very sad day was very uplifting and heart-warming. It was full of laughter and it was this sense of fun, Rhyl’s traditional association with having a good time and of course our British sea-side humour that led me to want to use humour to start conversation on this seriously unfunny condition.  I wanted people to see the positive rather than the negative in those people and things we label as having ‘had their day’. I am thus delighted to be part of any regeneration in Rhyl as I met some very real and inspiring characters here . They proved that dementia does not mean the loss of your funny bones or the desire to still want to be a valued part of the community.”

The Doris and Ivor project will be travelling to The Lakes International Comic Art Festival in Kendal in October. Before that Doris and Ivor’s cartoon front room will be the setting for the installation ‘Number 3, Muddle Street’. It will be found in Einstein’s Garden at The Green Man Festival, Brecon Beacons in August and will see Carol and team members from the Dementia and Imagination project share results of the project as well as dispel misconceptions about dementia.

Thoughts and Advice – Creative Aging International


Older Man in The Forest

Man in the Forest – Puszczykowo

At a brilliant meeting organised by the Gulbenkian Foundation in September 2014 called Sharing the Stages I met Dominic Campbell.

Dominic, like me,  was exploring news ways of working and developing projects. He had run the Bealtaine Festival, Ireland’s groundbreaking “celebration of creativity as we age” for many years and was now looking for like minded people who might share some of his philosophies and principles. He was a breath of fresh air to talk with.

Over the next year we kept in contact and discussed ways we might collaborate.

I was developing my own project with communities in West Yorkshire in collaboration with West Yorkshire Playhouse. The Anniversary Project is a long term project to create work and engage in conversations about creativity and older people.

I asked him to help me through my process – below  is what he wrote

Contextualisation of Creativity In Older Age.

Written to accompany a bid from Alan Lyddiard to ACE for support with Anniversaries, a developing project of Performance Ensemble.


“By 2030 half the population of Western Europe will be over 50 with a life expectancy at that age of a further 40 years. This will be historically unprecedented as we have never before had a region of the world with over half its population over 50.”

Dr Sarah Harper, Professor of Gerontology at Oxford University and Director of the Oxford Institute of Population Ageing.

May you live in interesting times.

As a consequence of public healthcare programs, education and scientific advancement we are living healthier for longer. Much longer.

On current projections one in two teenage girls has a 50% chance of living to be a centenarian. In the UK expect to see a lot more centenarians – 500,000 by 2050, 1million by 2100. 80+ is the fastest growing cohort of the population.

What might this look like? What will it affect? What will be the new normal?

If you get to 50 and you’re likely to live 40 more years might you start a new career?.

If you’re 90 and your kids are 70 and their kids are 50 and theirs 30 and they’ve got ten year olds then will we still be passing on wealth bound up in house ownership?

If the majority of the population are old who is working to create the tax base to pay for the care to support them?, and where do the younger professionals who deliver that care come from?

In economics there is talk of a shift from the Green Economy to the Silver as older populations become a significant source of disposable income seeking age appropriate experiences and products.

In the health sector there is talk of the shift from acute medicine to a population at scale that live with chronic illness, and a shift to community care to respond to the challenges.

Across transport and travel, leisure and lifestyle, from city planning to the human resource departments of DIY retailers, the affects and opportunities of an aging population are slowly starting to influence decision making.

Often this influence is framed by a medical model of older age. Age is seen as a healthcare issue. How are the frail older people supported. So there are calls for better planning, senior ministers and system change. There is a demand for better co-operation between agencies, more resources, more research.

But what if at its core this isn’t a medical issue but a cultural one?

If we can’t look clearly at the issue how can we address the challenges? And in our youth obsessed, individualistic, consumerist landscape old age is a hard sell.

Surely the heart of the challenge is how we feel about ageing, and why we avoid thinking about it. It is with the narratives we tell ourselves about aging.

Perhaps the core issues are stereotyping and invisibility. We fear becoming vulnerable and we fear death.

So how might we fall in love with our older selves?

“If health is about adaptation, understanding and acceptance, then the arts may be more potent that anything that medicine has to offer” Richard Smith, British Medical Journal Editorial December 2002.


“ If you didn’t know what are you are, what age would you be?” Satchel Page

Considering life through the lens of contemporary old age is a truly radical act. It reframes values and debates. It repositions individuals in relation to society. Questions previously long fingered for another day become instantly foregrounded or irrelevant. Time shifts. Legacy rather than career comes into play. Emotional articulacy. Care. Friendships. It is not a time for living in the past or the future but living fully in the moment.

And we mark out those moments with anniversaries. Anchors in time.

But human “old” does not run on an industrialised timepiece. We don’t all clock on at the allotted start time. It’s organic and arrives by accrual. Its affected by poverty and happiness, by loneliness and location, by diet and career. We find ourselves there, or nearly there, certainly more nearly there than we were before, definitely older, but never quite arrived at being, old.

Perhaps “old” is measured by a yardstick of loss. A loss of mobility, a loss of ambition, a loss of connectedness. The loss of friends and family members. A loss of muscle tone, a reduced of sharpness of vision, a blurring in hearing, a fuzziness in thinking, some change in clarity.

Yet that’s only no more than half a story. We have collected. We have gathered. We have seen, we have listened, recorded and we have understood. We are the experts of our own experience and became so simply by continuing. We embody the extended past in the present. We are the living libraries of our own knowledge. We can do breadth and depth of understanding. We can accept two emotions in the same incident as a true reflection of life’s capriciousness. Bittersweet and Happy-sad. The Glorious Temporary. The mundane everyday exists in porous exchange with an infinite magic as we reach the edge of our own individual transition back and forward to unknowingness. Ashes to ashes. Dust to Stardust.

How to share these experiences? How to enrich our understanding of this period of being alive?

How do people gathered in a room begin to acknowledge and exchange all this complexity?

To bear witness to their own growing understanding at the moment of its continuous lived occurrence?

Is this not reason enough for theatre?

Dominic Campbell November 2015



Anniversary – Looking Back, Looking Forward


In July 2016 ten performers came together at West Yorkshire Playhouse to start work on a new piece of theatre called Anniversary. 

The Anniversary Project is a collaborative process, bringing together people from different walks of life to create one piece of work. Including a combination of five older professional performers and five performers from Heydays, West Yorkshire Playhouse’s creative programme for older people.

Working with older people is really important for many reasons. As a consequence of public healthcare programs, education and scientific advancement we are living healthier for longer. Much longer. On current projections one in two teenage girls has a 50% chance of living to be a centenarian.

Yet in the busy life we lead we can forget the elderly. Perhaps “old” is measured by a yardstick of loss. A loss of mobility, a loss of ambition, a loss of connectedness. The loss of friends and family members. A loss of muscle tone, a reduced sharpness of vision, a blurring in hearing, a fuzziness in thinking, some change in clarity.

Yet that is only part of the story. We have collected. We have gathered. We have seen, we have listened, recorded and we have understood. We are the experts of our own experience and became so simply by continuing. We embody the extended past in the present. We are the living libraries of our own knowledge.

We have something important to say

Here is an introduction to the performers involved in the project












International Community Arts Festival

Debajehmujig Theatre Group at ICAF 2014

In 2014 I visited the The International Community Arts Festival in Rotterdam it was one of the most moving and extraordinary events I have ever attended.

I would like to introduce the Festival to as many people as I can.

I believe their work can help us change attitudes, help us change politicians’ minds,  help us change the way people view the arts, help us change the way we live our lives for the better.

I want to support them in their endeavours

The following is taken from  their website.

What is Community Art?

“It is a huge spectrum of practices, but they are all connected by the belief that the arts are essential to human life and that everybody should also have the right to create. Because they believe, and we believe, that that is very important for who we are as human beings.

International Community Arts Festival  is a temporary school, a lab, a gathering, a seminar, a meal, a dance, a moveable feast, and, yes, also very much a festival in the festive sense, both for insiders and outsiders. We clearly have a history. We are connected to a worldwide cutting edge and highly relevant arts movement. We hope, finally, that our words and images intrigue you enough to come find out more about it at our next ICAF in 2017. So don’t be a stranger.”

Eugene van Erven, International Community Arts Festival Rotterdam

This is their Newsletter for August – Their next festival is in 2017 – I’ve blocked out the days to be there already.


Can You Come Too?