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.

Reflections 

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.

Anniversary

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”.

'Anniversary'

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

Projects, Performers, Performance

Mind the Gap

photo Denis Darzacq

Jack Riley and Liam Bairstow from Mind the Gap ©Denis Darzacq

Travel broadens the mind, so the cliché goes, so here I am sitting in a sunny top floor flat in Budapest thinking about the work that I am currently doing in Bradford for Mind the Gap.

I’ve gone a long way in my attempt to understand the nature of things. I am often confused and exasperated at my inability to explain what I am doing and why I am doing it. Sometimes a little clarity emerges and I can explain things a bit better. That normally happens when I am thousands of miles from the place that I am doing it. So coming to Budapest was important in doing my work in Bradford better.

©Denis Darzacq

Susan Middleton Mind the Gap Ambassador ©Denis Darzacq

I first worked with Mind the Gap in 2003, when I was at Northern Stage, and asked Tim Wheeler, then Artistic Director and one of the founders of the company, to collaborate with us on a touring production.  We decided to create a new version of ‘Don Quixote’ adapted by Mike Kenny, and it toured to 18 venues across UK, with a company of learning-disabled and non learning-disabled performers, from two ensemble theatre companies, to great critical acclaim. Tim and I became good friends and I have been loosely involved with the company, over the years, since that time.  Last year Tim resigned as Artistic Director of Mind the Gap and I was asked to join the company as a consultant and ‘critical friend’ to help them through a process of change.

©Denis Darzacq

Euan Evans Thirlwell Mind the Gap Academy Student ©Denis Darzacq

It has been a fantastic opportunity for me and I have learnt much more than I could ever have imagined through the process. I have of course my own methods and idiosyncratic ways, but the time spent with Mind the Gap has made me question some of those long held beliefs. What is emerging for me now is a new way of thinking about theatre and how to make it.

What I have learnt working with Mind the Gap.

I am currently in rehearsal for a new piece of theatre called Contained which opens at Mind the Gap Studios on 16th October 2015 at 7.30. Come and see it.

Listening to the Mind the Gap performers’ stories has been up-lifting and I have learnt so many things from them, including some pretty deep thoughts about what it is to be human.  Their stories have become the true centre of our work, reflecting their lives with honesty and finding new ways of presenting themselves through story telling, music, dance and just by being who they are. Sometimes the simplest of tasks takes on a sense of deep meaning, for example, watching them go about a series of jobs on stage, moving a speaker, plugging in an amp, testing a microphone become powerful moments of self expression.

©Denis Darzacq

Chloe Shaw-Champion and Israr Abbas Mind the Gap Ambassadors ©Denis Darzacq

One of the aims of the work has been to create the environment in which the performers have been able to say, in a sincere and complete manner, I am me, I am here and I am fine.  It takes a lot of guts to say that and mean it.  Many of us find it really difficult to do. It makes us vulnerable and unsure, yet if we can believe it, it can make us powerful and lovable. The Mind the Gap performers’ have become experts at presenting themselves. Nobody does it like they do it and it is wonderful to watch.

Which, of course, is true of anybody presenting themselves in front of you with complete sincerity.

One of my favourite stories, that I repeat a lot, was told me by the Russian director Yevgeny Arye, artistic director of Gesher Theatre Company in Tel Aviv.  He explained that he was watching rehearsals one day when a door opened in the wings and a cleaner just swept the back area of the stage without noticing anything else going on. Yevgeny explained that it was mesmerising and beautiful to watch, much more interesting than the ‘actors’ working hard in front of him. I hold that story close to my heart. Let’s bring the cleaners to the front of the stage.

©Denis Darzacq

Jez Colborne Mind the Gap Resident Artist photographed by Denis Darzacq

Collaborations

The Music of Jez Colborne

I got to know Jez Colborne when he was a performer in the Northern Stage/Mind the Gap co-production of Don Quixote back in 2003. Years later I went to see ‘Irresistible – Call of the Sirens’ written by Jez.  It was amazing.  Jez as a composer and performer was just brilliant and it was obvious that I wanted to collaborate with him on Contained. He started writing music for the piece and it suddenly occurred to me that a great narrative for our show would be the making of a music video. The performers would create a band to play Jez’s music. They would seem to learn it and rehearse it during the show and finally they would perform a finished version at the end of the show.  ‘Im Me’ music composed and with lyrics by Jez is produced by long-term Mind the Gap Associate Artist Si McGrath.  It will be accompanied by the music video directed by French photographer Denis Darzacq.

©Denis Darzacq

Khadijah Afza Mind the Gap Academy Student photographed by Denis Darzacq

 The photography of Denis Darzacq

I was introduced to the work of Denis Darzacq by Mind the Gap when I saw photographs from his exhibition ACT some years ago. He had captured powerful moments that touched me deeply. When I started working on ideas for Contained I immediately thought of him as a collaborator. I believed that the authentic moments I was looking for, from the stories of the performers, could be achieved more effectively through the photography of Denis. It would give me a start. I would get to know the performers better by looking at them first in photography by Denis.

©Denis Darzacq

Jack Riley Mind the Gap Academy Student photographed by Denis Darzacq

Contained

In creating Contained we started by filming every performer from Mind the Gap’s Academy and Resident Artists to learn their story. One minute on camera each. Then Denis took a series of portraits and ‘sofa’ shots. We were compiling material. Stories and images were quickly accumulated. We filmed with Denis in locations around Bradford for a week for our final music video of Jez’s song. This was the source material that we would use for the creation of our piece of theatre.

©Denis Darzacq

Alison Short Mind the Gap Resident Artist photographed by Denis Darzacq

Once all the stories were collected we started to devise a project that could accommodate that material.

So ……

Contained (The Project) is a ‘circle of projects’, that surrounds a piece of high quality theatre, that feed off each other artistically and build long-lasting relationships with people locally, nationally and internationally.

The ‘circle of projects’ are developed from a relationship with a new performance piece, Contained (The Performance),  which at its centre, is a collection of personal stories told by an ensemble of performers, with a range of learning disabilities, whilst they create a music video.

The activities include a series of one-minute films, a two day filmmaking residency, an Academy showcase, a music video, a documentary about learning disability, an exhibition and much more.

Ideas travel between each mini-project – informing, exciting and generating enthusiasm for the whole range of ideas and activities, developing an holistic/integrated approach to the project as a whole.

Contained (The Project) will grow experientially over time, changing and developing and deepening the experience for ourselves and the people we create the projects for and with.

The theatre piece is moving  towards its final stage. Rehearsals for the final production starts at the beginning of September. I will be back on familiar ground in a rehearsal room with a team of performers and theatre practitioners.

The place I love to be. It’s going to be beautiful.

©Denis Darzacq

Denis Darzacq and Euan Evans-Thirlwell ©Denis Darzacq

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Crossings Music United

refugees-darfur1

Bank Holiday Monday at The Holy Biscuit Arts Centre in Shieldfield in Newcastle and we are sitting in a circle with the open group of Crossings Music United.

Crossings’ aims to promote the arts for the benefit of refugees, asylum seekers and the general public. They encourage the development of their members’ skills and confidence, which in turn promotes their inclusion in the wider community. The members’ increased capacity to contribute more fully to the local community in turn promotes racial harmony, equality, diversity and human rights.

They build bridges across racial and cultural divides through music. Their project creates a welcoming space where asylum seekers and refugees come together with local and international musicians, to collaborate on the development and performance of  music.

On Monday night I was there with the group. I am hoping that I can persuade them to get involved in the theatre piece Searching for a City of Sanctuary

We sat in a circle and the workshop leader, Fred, asked us to remember a song that meant something to us. We went round the circle hearing songs from childhood and youth from China, UK, Tanzania, Iran, Ireland, Armenia and other countries. The man from Armenia had news to tell us – he had been given leave to stay in the UK. He was very happy – he asks for the drums to be brought from the cupboard and as they started to play  he was on his feet dancing – the circle was clapping. We were happy.

I wish there were no borders. I wish people to come and go as they pleased. I wish we were more tolerant of people who are different to us. I wish that immigration was not a problem and that people could travel where ever they wanted. I wish that politicians could articulate the benefits of migration and not demonise either migrants or their impact. I wish things were different.

Yesterday a man was not allowed into Britain because he could not give finger prints. The man had no arms. He was the artist Karipbek Kuyukov who had planned to attend an anti-nuclear conference in Edinburgh.

Other Artists who have been refused entry into the UK include:

At  a Womad Festival Kasai Allstars, a Congolese band; the Pakistani Sufi master, Asif Ali Khan, a protégé of the legendary Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, an Indian troupe, the Dhoad Gypsies of Rajasthan were refused entry

Russian classical pianist Grigory Sokolov has had two high-profile concerts cancelled in the UK including a show at the Barbican because of the necessity for the new biometric visa.

M P Landis, the Brooklyn-based painter, was unable to take up an artist’s residency at the Glenfiddich Distillery in Scotland last summer because he was refused a visa through the new points-based system.

Three internationally renowned poets, Dorothea Rosa Herliany from Indonesia and Hassan Najmi and Widad Benmoussa of Morocco, invited to last July’s Ledbury Poetry Festival, were denied entry to the UK.

The Iranian filmmaker Abbas Kiarostami experienced difficulties acquiring a visa to travel to Britain for the opening of his exhibition at Purdy Hicks, London, and the inauguration of his production of Cosi fan Tutte at ENO. He spoke of “disgraceful treatment … by the officials from the British Embassy in Tehran”.

The first comprehensive exhibition of contemporary art from Iraq since the first Gulf War, with a guest list including the Iraqi ambassador, the Foreign Secretary David Miliband MP and five of the war-torn country’s most promising artists  were to be flown over for the occasion.

Less than a month before “Contemporary Art Iraq” was to open at Manchester’s Cornerhouse Art Gallery the UK Border Agency had denied all the artists exhibiting entry into the country.

At my meeting at Crossings on Bank Holiday Monday we did not think about these things because we were relieved that a man who had suffered in his own country was safe in this one.

Today I saw him again as he was cycling into town. We waved at each other and his broad beautiful smile shone out to me from across the road. I felt, in that moment,  that the world was a good place.

4. El Sistema Venezuela

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‘Socially, inclusion is the basic principle. Our motto is the disadvantaged first and for the disadvantaged the best tools, the best teachers, the best infrastructure. Culture for the disadvantaged cannot be disadvantaged culture. It should be large, ambitious, refined, advanced; not scraps’

Maestro José Antonio Abreu Founder of El Sistema

The story of the El Sistema revolution in Venezuela is one of the most powerful proofs that art can change the lives of individuals, communities and even nations. On 25th June last year I attended a ‘Festival of the World Summit’ at the South Bank Centre in London entitled ‘Art Will Change The World”. In Britain today such a statement generally brings guffaws of laughter from the rich and privileged and from the people that currently run our country. However much we explain, prove with statistics, give examples of people whose lives have changed through the arts and prove that money spent on the arts saves millions of pounds on other budgets and services the establishment doesn’t believe it.  Recently there have been 100% cuts to arts budgets from local authorities across the country in the mistaken belief that the arts don’t give value for money. But it is wrong – deeply and depressingly wrong.

On that day in June I was in the company of people that believed in the power of the arts to change lives and as I heard the orchestra play,  any doubts of the possibility that Art Will Change The World  were washed away in a tidal wave of passion and friendship and community and love and music

Jude Kelly at the South Bank had brought Jose Antonio Abreu founder of El Sistema (“the system”) to London, with the now world famous, Simon Bolivar Symphony Orchestra. They played 4 sold out concerts with live relays in the Clore Ballroom played to thousands more people free of charge

In 1975 José Antonio Abreu set out to help poor Venezuelan kids learn to play a musical instrument and be part of an orchestra. nearly 40 years on, El Sistema has seeded 102 youth orchestras, 55 children’s orchestras, and 270 music centers — and over 250,000 young musicians. Jose Abreu’s  visionary philosophy has, since 1975, been based on the notion that a free, immersive classical music education for the poorest of the poor might positively influence the social problems plaguing the country. His hypothesis has been overwhelmingly vindicated, with more than 380,000 children engaged in national music programmes, more than 80% of whom come from low- or middle-income areas. Of the two million graduates of the programme since its inception, many have gone on to become not just musicians, but lawyers, teachers, doctors and civil servants.

“Music has to be recognized as an … agent of social development in the highest sense, because it transmits the highest values — solidarity, harmony, mutual compassion. And it has the ability to unite an entire community and to express sublime feelings.”  José Antonio Abreu

Listen to the TED Talk  HERE

Many music education projects have been modeled after the Venezuelan program in more than 25 countries. Argentina, Australia, Austria, Bolivia, Brazil, Canada, Chile,Colombia, Costa Rica, Cuba, the Dominican Republic, Ecuador, El Salvador, England, Guatemala, Honduras, Italy, Jamaica, India, Mexico, Nicaragua, Panama, Paraguay, Peru, Portugal, Puerto Rico, Scotland, South Korea, Trinidad and Tobago, United States, and Uruguay are among them.

There is a documentary film by Paul Smaczny and Maria Stodtmeier called “El Sistema”

Link HERE

2. Semana Santa, Seville and Jerez de la Frontera

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Seville

The first time I experienced Semana Santa (Easter Week) was in Seville in 1995. I had given myself a sabbatical of a few months from Northern Stage to write an artistic plan about setting up an Ensemble Company. I wanted to be away from the company, I wanted a different experience, so I could write without thinking of budgets or the politics of  the North East of England’s Arts Community.  We were also planning to celebrate the anniversary of Federico Lorca’s birth and create a fiesta in his name so I travelled between Seville and Granada searching for the true voice and spirit of the poet.

In Seville I discovered authentic flamenco for the first time, I learnt about Duende,  I met and saw performances from the extraordinary El Farruco Family, I drank in Triana and listened to the rhythms in the streets – and then Easter time arrived.

In the months before I had seen the rehearsal in every corner of the city. Burly men practising carrying the makeshift paso, with a ghetto blaster on top blearing out the music. There were brass bands and drummers finding corners to rehearse. It was everywhere. Ordinary Sevillanos rehearsing obsessively, working to make extraordinary theatre happen in the streets.

Then the first day of Holy Week came and the streets are thronged with thousands and thousand of people – the first paso leaves the chapel for the four hour walk slowly through the city to the cathedral – the show has began. Large Scale Community Theatre – like I had never seen before.

Jerez

This year I was in Jerez de la Frontera – smaller city but even more obsessed with the spectacle. The streets are still full but I am aware of friends and neighbours in the crowds watching the pageant, the ritual, next to me. This is the community I have chosen to be with and today I feel closer. I am not religious, I don’t go to church, I am not a Catholic but something is making me feel closer to these people – something is holding us together. Is it in being part of something bigger than ourselves?  Is it being part of a history, a culture where the passion for life spills onto the street at fiesta time? Is it the cante jondo?  Is it the heat of the sun? Is it people coming together to celebrate in an expansive , open hearted way with no considerations for the reality of life in this moment? Is it about love and pleasure and excess and devotion and completeness? Yes it is. It is all this and more. It is art.