Dancehall of Dreams

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Dancehall of Dreams – West Yorkshire Playhouse – Photo Kate Daley

 ‘You have to admit, that life, an ordinary life, your average life – is a bit of a mess’

Last Wednesday my new company,  The Performance Ensemble,  performed a piece, ‘Dancehall of Dreams’ on the Quarry Stage at West Yorkshire Playhouse. It was the culmination of  a three month project working with people over the age of 60, exploring how to make contemporary theatre for audiences of all ages, working in the space between professional, amateur and community theatre practise.

We started this project in Mytholmroyd in the Calder Valley and finished it in West Yorkshire Playhouse, collaborating with hundreds of individuals and many organisations across West Yorkshire in the process

We created the Calder Valley Performance Ensemble, a new performance company, of performers over the age of 60 that will continue to create performance work locally.

We worked with Heydays, a long standing institution of the West Yorkshire Playhouse’s community programme, working with people over the age of 55.

We formed a collaboration with Citizens’ Orchestra, established in 2009, which offers older musicians – of all abilities – an opportunity to enjoy playing music together.

We delivered 3 performances in Mytholmroyd as part of The Hebden Bridge Arts Festival to an audience of 200 people and one at West Yorkshire Playhouse as part of their Open Season programme to an audience of 175.

'Dancehall of Dreams' Mytholmroyd - Photo Kate Daley

‘Dancehall of Dreams’ Mytholmroyd – Photo Kate Daley

Activities began in Mytholmroyd at the beginning of April 2014. Working with established community groups. Joe Standerline, who lives in Mytholmroyd and myself met with a range of people over the age of 60 across the town. We made contact with Calderdale Council Neighbourhood Scheme, Elphin and Elphaborough Sheltered Housing, Tea Dances, Hebden Bridge Arts Festival, Mytholmroyd Community Centre, Amateur Theatre Societies as well as a number of community groups.

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Dancehall of Dreams West Yorkshire Playhouse Photo Kate Daley

At first there was a degree of suspicion about what we were doing. Older people sometimes can find new ideas unsettling and it was difficult to engage at first. It was important for us to build relationships with people with no agenda. We needed to listen and to be open to people in environments where they felt secure. Sometimes it seemed as if we were intruding into their lives so we needed to wait and allow people to come to us. We just were always there offering cups of tea and an opportunity for a chat.

The collecting of stories from older people became easier. We went to social events and met people on their own terms and soon we were getting, literally, dozens of stories. They were happy to meet us and even looked forward to our visits. We set up a little team of local story gathers to explore the community for more stories and eventually we were inundated. All these stories will eventually be published on a new web site in Mytholmroyd, 

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‘Dancehall of Dreams’ – West Yorkshire Playhouse – Photo Kate Daley

I also  worked every Wednesday from 23rd April until 9th July with the Drama Group of Heydays at West Yorkshire Playhouse. This group was well established and had members who had been attending sessions for nearly 20 years alongside people who had joined recently. This created a complicated dynamic at times with some people resistant to change and others who were hungry to learn new things. I worked on a methodology that encouraged people to present themselves in front of an audience rather than playing a character. My intention was to make theatre based on their own stories, memories, thoughts, aspirations and fears. This of course made many people feel vulnerable. Some of the ‘old guard’ left the process but well over 30 people remained throughout the process and on July 9th we shared the work with other Heydays groups. I was amazed at the response to our 20 minute piece. The audience was genuinely moved by what they saw.

This sharing was one highlight of the project in that it reaffirmed my belief that ‘community/amateur’ performers were capable of creating deep and meaningful performance work that was equal to any other performer.

My ultimate aim is to create work that cannot be simply described as community arts, but rather to create performance that transcends labels – I don’t want to make professional theatre, or community theatre or applied theatre or any other type of theatre – I just want to make high quality contemporary theatre that engages audiences/spectators. I felt that the sharing performance went a long way to achieving this goal.

From 14th July we spent 10 days putting our final performance together. Working every day, both in Mytholmroyd and Leeds we put together a new version of ‘Dancehall of Dreams’

A young theatre director, Joyce Nga Yu Lee who works for the theatre company Mind The Gap, came to the performance. Afterwards she wrote to me with her response to the piece – Her words are generous, beautiful  and helpful to me in articulating my work – Thank you Joyce.

‘Congratulations and thank you for a fabulous performance last night. It was a shame not being able to catch you last night, but I reckon you must had been busy too. I loved the sounds (voices through microphone, band, music, footsteps, chatters and laughs during dances, clinks of tea cups) and I loved the sights (set and design, people’s faces and physicality, gowns they chosen). On Facebook this morning when I said the ensemble was really strong, you replied and mentioned the way they care and look after each other. I am sure the process must have demonstrated a lot of love and care among members, but what attracted me the most was not about how they care for each other, it was their “togetherness” and honesty.

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‘Dancehall of Dreams’ – West Yorkshire Playhouse – Photo Kate Daley

This is, to me, what make the performance beautiful. “Authentic” is an overused word which no longer bears the same meaning and power when it is uttered. Maybe I can use honest instead. I have experienced your ‘this is me, I am here, and I am fine’ exercise and understand how powerful its transformation ability is to me as a performer. The performers had not hidden under a mask or a character. It is not about acting. It is about being themselves. It is not about being their everyday selves. It is about being a heightened self, a persona on stage which come from life but higher than life. This brought an interesting relationship between the two sides of the proscenium. There was no superstars or divas in the performance. It was not about performers on stage showing off what they can do and audience sitting in the dark admiring super humans on stage. The 70 minutes was as much a time for the performers as it was for the audience. Performers utilised theatre to breath life into their own persona, by doing so lived a life that is higher than everyday life. Audience benefited from the stories that were imparted by the performers. The ensemble’s honesty make them strong and vulnerable at the same time. By this I do not mean: “look, how brave they are to be honest!”, I think I mean they were “daring” us audience members. They looked at us as who they are, do we dare looking back at them in their eyes as who we are, not as critics, not as admirers, not as charitable patrons, but just as who we are? This is what make this ensemble aesthetically pleasing. What was on stage was a variety of human existence with brilliance, and we are, again another overused term, all equals. There was a mutual respect between human beings. I did attempt to find a story or narrative to this piece in the beginning. Soon enough I found myself being totally happy with the discourse. Fragments of conversations/ stories/ soliloquy were strung together in a fine balance between room for interpretation and suggestions for direction. I guess the discourse formed something like a starry night, where we can put lines to join up individual stars to make star signs. I have heard fond memories, laments, anecdotes, nostalgia. But at the end, we are not trying to go back to good old times, or making wishes for a better future, it is just what it is, the here and now. Now I suddenly realized it is all about “this is me, I am here, and I am fine”!  Thank you again for a wonderful piece, please pass on my thanks to your team. Thank you for welcoming my sharing, this gives me really good opportunity to reflect and learn.’

Joyce Nga Yu Lee

 

 

 

 

When Community Theatre Is Just Theatre

Yukio Ninagawa

World famous, 71-year-old Japanese theatre director, Yukio Ninagawa announced in 2006 that he was setting up a year-long acting project for non theatre professional people aged 55 and over. Called the Saitama Gold Theatre it ran at Saitama Arts Centre, where Ninagawa was artistic director.

The company was formed out of Ninagawa’s desire to search for a new form of theatre based on the histories of older people. It drew applications from 1,273 hopefuls from all over Japan.  After auditioning 1,116 people face-to-face, Ninagawa finally chose 19 men and 27 women with an average age of 66.9. The company met Monday to Friday every week to undergo intensive lessons from some of Japan’s leading theatre specialists. After the year was up, Ninagawa was so excited about the prospects of the company, he continued to work with them creating  a production every year.

Seven years later in May 2013 The Saitama Gold Theatre performed at the Japan Cultural Institute in Paris.
The great thing for me to learn about the company was that it had started off as a gathering of amateurs who got into drama as a “second life.” Yet, under Ninagawa direction and training programme, the quality of their performances became very high. After six years a Japanese producer living in Paris suggested that Ninagawa put on a production in France.
Interviewed by the Japanese press Ninagawa said:

“Without a doubt, this is one of the world’s unique troupes, with seniors performing on a continuous basis. It’s three times as tiring as a normal performance to direct people with more experience than me, but putting together a production with non-actors is interesting in a different kind of way from a professional play. The joy of being seen by others makes a person healthier. Some of the performers were bedridden, but now they can commute to the rehearsal hall on foot. I wanted to create a new performing art by refining physical expression according to accumulated age.” 

Saitama Gold Theatre

One of the leading actress Etsuko Shigemoto of Saitama Gold Theatre spoke about her experience of performing in Paris, saying she forget that she was 87 years old.

“I have weak hearing and poor sight. I have problems all over my body,” she said. “But I am still young in spirit. I have already reached the afternoon of my life, but it’s wonderful to spend my last days with the company”

“Drama makes me vigorous. I am too busy to get senile. I still feel as if I was 20 years old and now my dream is to become a good actor,” said another member of the company, actor Kiyoshi Takahashi, 85.

Ninagawa has spoken lovingly about the members of Saitama Gold Theatre. I was particularly interested in an interview with him on Performing Arts Website, Japan where he analysed the quality of perfomance by one of the group:

“There is an elderly member named Mr. Toyama, and watching him perform I see qualities that no ordinary professional actor can match. In his voice, his gestures, the way he speaks and his timing  he has a completely different quality of acting that no professional actor could begin to approach. Seeing that has made me realize the value of this programme”

When I was at Northern Stage we presented The Ninagawa’s Company with a production of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” in 1996 and we had the opportunity to meet with him and discuss his work . He was a guiding inspiration in the creation of  The Northern Stage Ensemble.  Years later his work with older people, and more importantly what he learnt from creating Saitama Gold Theate, has been another of the inspirations that has guided me to create a new company, The Performance Ensemble.

The Performance Ensemble

We started out developing The Performance Ensemble in London. We ran a two week workshop based at The Royal Central School of Speech and Drama in August 2012. We gathered a group of professional performers, all of them over 60 years old, to come together and explore some different ways of working. We wanted to hear their stories. It was unusual for them as professional performers, with a wealth of professional experience in theatre, television and film, to play themselves and not pretend to be somebody else. Through working with them to present themselves on stage we created a beautiful, endearing and piece of ‘work in progress’.

Fife Performance Ensemble

A year later in Kirkcaldy, Scotland, we created a two month project, “Dancing Days”, with amateur and community based performers based on their own stories from the dance halls of Fife. These performers had less inhibitions in talking about themselves and telling their stories through performance. Most of them attended a weekly afternoon tea dance. They enjoyed dancing. We worked with them to let their stories emerge from within the structure of the tea dance, that they were already familiar with, and where they felt comfortable. Others joined in from various amateur theatre groups. Slowly we created an ensemble of performers who felt comfortable with a performance style that was not like that of professional performers, but one that felt completely authentic.

The common ground between professional and community/amateur performer, in both projects, was that they presented themselves completely, sincerely and with an openness and vulnerability that I have found rare in theatre today.

The Calder Valley Performance Ensemble

Mytholmroyd

Our next step is to work with a mixture of professional and community-based/amateur performers. We are making a new piece with people from the  community in Mytholmroyd in the Calder Valley of West Yorkshire. After performances at Mytholmroyd Community Centre at the end of June, we will transfer the work into the professional setting of West Yorkshire Playhouse in Leeds, this July. We will work with other local community/amateur performers as well as professional performers.  We will see what progress we make.

The most important lesson I have learnt so far in this process it that we can learn equally from the professional and the community/amateur performers and they learn from each other. This process is not a well intentioned community project, rather, it is the way we have chosen to make our piece of theatre.

We expect it to be good enough to be performed in front of a paying audience who, in turn, are expecting quality theatre. They will be moved and entertained by a company of performers, all of whom will be over 60, from many different experiences and skills. They are a theatre ensemble of equals, creating contemporary theatre of substance.

Or at least that is the plan!