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

The Pictures Tell The Story

In The Kingdom That Danced

(c) David Wardle

Myrna Venters ‘In The Kingdom That Danced’

Some beautiful photos from the Scottish project from the Performance Ensemble (Fife Performance Ensemble) In The Kingdom That Danced

The Fife Performance Ensemble (FPE) was established in September 2013 and in its first year successfully engaged a group of 30+ over 60s in creating a performance and installation in collaboration with Internationally renowned artists.

(c) David Wardle

Gerry Mulgrew in The Kingdom That Danced

The resulting work was performed at Pathhead Hall in Kirkcaldy in October 2013, in conjuction with Luminate, Scotland’s Creative Ageing Festival.

(c) David Wardle

Gypsy Hip Hop from In The Kingdom That Danced

The success of this first programme resulted in the development of ‘In the Kingdom That Danced’ which sought to build on the first programme and delivered a high quality performance piece which worked between community, amateur and professional arts practise engaging people over the age of 60 from the heart of the community and creating site sensitive and immersive, performance work in which the audiences contributed to the performance

(c) David Wardle

More Gypsy Hip Hop from ‘In The Kingdom That Danced’

The creation of this new piece of site sensitive performance work was performed 3 times over during the Luminate Festival in October 2014 at The Glen Pavilion in Dunfermline. We involved over 150 participants aged over 60 over the period of the project. Starting in June 2014 we ran 42 workshops to encourage new participants to get involved. We ran a week-long summer school in August which attracted 35 participants and then rehearsals 4 times a week from the end of August in different locations until the performances. 38 people were in the final performance.


Paco ‘In The Kingdom That Danced’

We ran a workshops programme in Dunfermline, Lochgelly, Glenrothes and Kirkcaldy with the Summer School in Kirkcaldy and the rehearsals in Dunfermline, Lochgelly and Glenrothes encouraging people over the age of 60 from a wide location in South East and South West Fife

(c) David Wardle

The Princesses from In The Kingdom That Danced prepare to go out for the night

We gathered over 100 stories from the community participants, which has been collated into an art installation by local artist Alan Grieve and published on social media. We worked with Fife College Media College on sound recording and photography

(c) David Wardle

The Princesses trying on their shoes

FPE’s way of working is designed to create a new style of professional/community contemporary theatre that emerges slowly from a community. Successfully occupying the space between community, amateur and professional arts, recognising that each sector has a lot to learn from the others.

(c) David Wardle

Betty Cunningham  is nervous ‘In The Kingdom That Danced’

We want to continue to engage older community participants in high quality artistic processes which will provide them with personal and social fulfilment. In this phase of the project, we wish to engage more participants and create further outputs from the project which will lead to an enhanced experience for the community participants and the professionals involved.

(c) David Wardle

Sally and Sandy ‘In The Kingdom That Danced’

FPE created an ensemble of equals with everyone encouraged and supported to contribute their unique view of the world where they can celebrate those small, seemingly insignificant moments of life and express their meaning in a word, a touch, a glance or a movement. We will use the project to advocate to partners the opportunity to develop a lasting legacy establishing FPE as a permanent company

Liz Banks 'In The Kingdom That Danced'

Liz Banks ‘In The Kingdom That Danced’


(c) David Wardle

The audience dancing ‘In The Kingdom That Danced’

All Photos © David Wardle





Performers Being Themselves

Special People Creating Special Performance

Elixir Festival

Mats Ek and Ana Kaguna at the Elixir Festival (Picture: Stephanie Berger)

Last week I was at Sadler’s Wells Theatre in London seeing performances at Elixir Festival. Brilliant performances by some amazing people.

Joan Hewson is 96. She sits on a chair with her stick and then she moves gently with delicate grace with her partner. Her movements and smiles touched my heart. I imagined what her long life might have been and I see her now, in that moment, as a beautiful expressive performer telling us her story through the way she moves.

The night before I had watched some dancers from my past. Retired dancers from London Contemporary Dance Company, and other companies, who are now in their 60’s and 70’s were back on stage, telling their stories through small anecdotes projected on the wall behind them as they dance.

I have long been excited by performers presenting themselves on stage. I am a believer in the principle that audiences/spectators like to see who the performer is, as much as ‘what they do’ on stage. Dancers dance, but in doing so they reveal a lot about themselves. We see them as people first and performers second.

Mind the Gap

Last week I was also in the rehearsal rooms of Mind the Gap Ensemble  in Bradford watching rehearsals for their new show ‘Trickster’ a co-production with That’s Life, a group of people ‘with intellectual disabilities creating art & celebrating life’.

I have long been an admirer of the work created by Mind the Gap. I can’t remember the first show that I saw of theirs, it was many years ago, but I do remember their brilliant production of ‘Of Mice and Men’ in a studio theatre in Bradford.  I felt moved and inspired by the work.

photo credit

Mind the Gap ‘Of Mice and Men’ (photo Tim Mitchell)

The performers gave performances of such depth – Seeing that production made me realise the major reason I make theatre. For me it always starts from my interest in the performer, first as a person and secondly what they do.

It does not matter to me whether they are ‘professional’, ‘amateur ‘ or ‘community participant’, ‘able bodied’ or ‘with learning or intellectual disability’, ‘an older performer’ – I wish we could get rid of these labels.

When I watch theatre I just want to feel connected and lost in the moment. Sometimes to be moved and sometimes to laugh and to learn and simply enjoy the theatrical experience.

The Elixir Festival, the rehearsal with Mind the Gap last week and ‘Of Mice and Men’ many years ago are all examples of a type of theatre that is becoming more popular with audiences/spectators. I am happy this is the case.

However Mind the Gap is still not well known by general audiences.  It is an award–winning company that works with learning disabled and non-disabled artists as equals. Based in Bradford, West Yorkshire, it has flourished as one of the UK’s leading disability-related theatre companies, placing a strong emphasis on outstanding drama and not disability.

Last week it was announced that Tim Wheeler, co-founder and Artistic Director of Mind the Gap has resigned from the company.

In 2003 I asked Tim and the Mind the Gap Ensemble to make a co-production with the Northern Stage Ensemble. We decided to create a new version of ‘Don Quixote’ adapted by Mike Kenny, and it toured to 18 venues across UK 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.

'Irresistible' (photo Tim Mitchell)

‘Irresistible’ (photo Tim Mitchell)

Not long ago I saw their production of ‘Irresistible’ , an energetic and entertaining live event combining music, theatre and sirens. It was performed as part of  the 2012 Olympic and Paralympic Games celebrations and has gone on to tour nationally and internationally. ‘Irresistible’ was a change in direction for the company. The idea was sparked by the creative mind of Jez Colborne, an accomplished actor, musician, performer – and fantastic siren impersonator – who has worked with Tim for many years. Jez has a condition called Williams syndrome where one of the benefits is that he has perfect pitch. He is an extraordinary performer and has been an important part of Mind the Gap

Tim and his colleagues have created a great company and I hope, that with him leaving, it will not cause too much disruption. Their work deserves to be seen it the mainstream cultural institutions where it still finds it difficult to get bookings

‘Irresistible’ played outside the National Theatre in London in 2012. Hopefully it will not be long before they are seen inside the building.

The last words are from Tim …

‘Mind the Gap is not a therapeutic organisation. Where our interest lies is in the unique stories and unique perspectives and looking at ways to spread its message in the artistic and theatrical sector.

We’re not just interested in the stories of people with learning disabilities we are also interested in the creation and development of ideas’

Tim Wheeler

Tim Wheeler














Dancing Days

children 023

Occupying the Space between Professional, Amateur

and Community Arts

I just found this report from the DCMS (Department of Culture, Media and Sport)


It seems to support my thinking that there are many things to learn in

The space between Community, Amateur and Professional Arts Programmes

I was exploring this notion in my latest project ‘Dancing Days’ in Kirkcaldy, Fife, Scotland

Dancing Days Poster stamp02

Born out of a belief that there are amazing stories to be heard from the dance halls of Fife we created a new theatre company, Fife Performance Ensemble as an off-shoot of my new company The Performance Ensemble – an ensemble company of performers over the age of 60.

We began a search to find those memories and to meet the dancers and the musicians who had played in the many dance halls around Fife in the 1950’s and 1960’s, notably the Burma Ballroom in Kirkcaldy.

It inspired, informed, and shaped the beginnings of a brand new piece of theatre, Dancing Days, which we will continue to work on for another year before opening it  in October 2014.  

In this project we will occupy the space between community, amateur and professional arts working with people from each of those areas to create an ensemble of equals, bringing different skills and experiences to the process.

An Ensemble of Equals

The project was organised by Fife Cultural Trust and was initiated by local writer Stuart Paterson, designer Neil Murray and myself  – who have been working together for 25 years – with local people who have reached the age of 60. Some of the people we worked with were from the local amateur dramatic societies, some were people who danced at social dances across Fife and others were members of the local community who had little or no experience of participatory arts but who brought their own uniqueness to the project.

We have been very lucky. The communities around Kirkcaldy are very interconnected – word of mouth got around very quickly, and with this place having such a strong community, it grows.

From attending the afternoon tea dances at the Adam Smith Theatre, I began to discover many more classes in Fife, including dances at Burntisland, Buckhaven, Windygates and The Coal Industry Social Welfare Organisation  (CISWO) in Glenrothes. All were eye openers for me. When you walk in, it hits you.

There’s something so special about that feeling you get at these dances. I hope that’s what our theatre piece will reflect, authentic theatre from the heart of communities .

(c) David Wardle

The first performances of Dancing Days was a short musical theatre piece informed by and created from the people who attended Fife’s dance halls. Passages were written by Stuart Paterson and locals Tom Young and Bob Christie, it was directed by me and designed by Neil Murray with a community cast from across Fife. Live music from some of the original Burma Ballroom band members joined with dancers from local dance groups lead by professional dance teacher Betty Cunningham.

This version was  ‘work in progress’ and lasted  just over an hour. Over the next year the plan is to develop the production, with the participants, into a full-length theatre piece involving a number of professional, amateur and community based practitioners to create an ensemble that makes theatre of the highest standard.

Making contemporary theatre – created by older performers – for audiences of all ages.

(c) David Wardle

Dancing Days was first performed on Mon 28th,  Tues 29th and Wed 30th October, at Pathhead Hall, Kirkcaldy.

The project was funded by Creative Scotland and Fife Cultural Trust with support from Luminate Festival and Fife College.


Screen Shot 2013-09-23 at 19.25.08          Screen Shot 2013-09-23 at 19.25.34Screenshot 2013-11-09 16.58.43