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.
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.
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”.
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.
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.
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