Anchors In Time

photo Sara Teresa

photo Sara Teresa

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’

‘Anniversary’ is on at West Yorkshire Playhouse from 14th to 17th September 2016. Tickets available here.

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.

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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

ANNIVERSARY

Photo Sara Teresa

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

Anniversary – Looking Back, Looking Forward

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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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

‘Anniversary’ Work in Progress

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The Anniversary Company of Performers

‘Anniversary’ is a new multi-media dance and theatre performance created by older artists, including performers from a ‘various and wide’ life experience. It involves true stories, original live music, dance and video imagery to be performed at the West Yorkshire Playhouse (Leeds, United Kingdom) next year produced by The Performance Ensemble in co-production with West Yorkshire Playhouse.

On July 4th 2015 the company performed the first ‘Work in Progress’ of the piece to an appreciate audience of a few hundred people – part of the process of developing new work and funded by The Baring Foundation’s LateStyle Project. The Baring Foundation has pioneered support for a wide range of programmes supporting older people to enjoy and take part in the arts  This latest programme,  funded professional artists (all of whom are over 70) to bring their original and exceptional artistic craft and insights to the theme of “Age”.  We choose the choreographer Royston Maldoom to take on this role.

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Royston Maldoom

Review of ANNIVERSARY Work in Progress

THE OPENING SET for ‘Anniversary’ is curiously unpromising: a broken-down sofa, with its back drawn defiantly to the audience; old crates scattered randomly across the floor; tatty clothes abandoned on a metal rack… Already the metaphor is in place – something, or someone, has been chucked on society’s rubbish heap. For what we see is not a place of prestige. An air of abandonment prevails. Then, out they come crawling, from behind the detritus, like alley cats, into the open space. Dancers. Stealthy, defiant. Vibrant. Full of mischief. And the mayhem begins.

This is a company of ten performers. Five long-term professionals, five total newcomers with zero experience or training – except the two-week intensive rehearsals they have been through with director Alan Lyddiard and choreographer Royston Maldoom. The one thing everyone has in common here is their age. For this is a piece about being older – in your sixties, seventies, eighties. In other words, on the human scrapheap, right? Wrong. So very, very wrong.

From their first audacious appearance amongs the rags and tatters in the studio corner, to their final triumphant flop, in a heap of tangled bodies, onto the old sofa, which has now been turned to face and embrace us, centre stage, these performers hold us in a spell of virtuosity and celebration. They mesmerise, with their rich presence, their wisdom, their humour, their LIVES.

‘Anniversary’ is not so much a story, more a series of loosely interconnected scenes, in movement, original music (by Chris Benstead), and words, all evoking the complex, multi-layered experience of getting older. It would have been so easy to go for the sympathy vote. To have the audience say, ‘Bless them for having the nerve.’ Not for one second does that happen in this piece. This is a piece of art, powerful in its own right.

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It’s sometimes rueful – a group of women mournfully examine their bingo wings, their spreading girths, their wrinkles and eyebags, in front of an imaginary mirror. Sometimes there is defiance – a man walks slowly, with his walking stick, to centre front, looking vulnerable, alone, only to be joined from behind by a chorus of stick-thumping, loud-chanting dancers, turning loneliness into sudden, anarchic, joyful solidarity. Elsewhere, tenderness surfaces – two people sit close, gazing into each other’s eyes, a hand placed to their partner’s face in exquisite understatement. And often, it is thrillingly dynamic, beautifully strong – the whole company moving in ensemble dances that are brimful of energy, chutzpah and hope.

The choreographer, director and composer have done a fine job here of melding their considerable respective talents to create a jewel of physical theatre. But more than that: they have fostered a palpable sense of connection, of integration – between professional and non-professional dancers; between the performers and the audience. This is something increasingly rare in a contemporary culture that is often elitist, youth- and celebrity-obsessed, a culture somehow disconnected from our everyday lives – our memories and our dreams.

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‘Anniversary’ is aspirational in the best sense of the word. It certainly tells some sanguine truths about the world it depicts – that of the elder, the “senior citizen” (how hateful is that term!) – but it also shows the sheer glory of the human spirit: raging, raging and DANCING against the dying of the light.

Written by BARNEY BARDSLEY

(Barney Bardsley is a freelance writer and dancer)

barefootbarney.wordpress.com

From Others That Saw It

A profound, inspiring, integrated and very humorous piece!! Very well done all.

Enjoyable performance, good to have the post performance talk. Well done everybody!!

 Not too sure when I was given a ticket but found the whole thing amazing. Well done to everyone.

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 Thank you – you brought a tear to my eye and you saw it as well. Beautiful music and choreography, lovely vocals and competition. I loved it all. Can’t wait to see more next year. Tell ACE to come and see it tonight!!

 Totally riveting – such variety, smoothness, exploration of themes – music, movement, character, humour – great! Onwards to the next venture!

It was just wonderful. Gives me hope for the future!

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 From the outset it was a captivating and very moving piece of theatre. I was entranced and unaware of the fact that the performers were in the older age group. I appreciated the variety of the movements as the more voting sections were interspersed with humour. The music brought it all together into a whole performance that was inspirational. I came to see a friend – one of the ‘community’ dancers and left feeling that I had seen a quality work.

 A fantastic, emotional and inspirational performance.

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Tamara Mclorg

 I came to the performance because I have a friend performing, but I have thoroughly enjoyed it. I found it very expressive and moving. I was mesmerised and felt the performance really flowed. I liked the variety – the mix of sadness at times and optimism. As a person coming up to retirement age myself I find it optimistic to know that these projects exist for older people so that we can enjoy a fulfilling and creative retirement. It is never too late to learn, start something new and be creative and active.

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 A truly moving and thought-provoking performance! Beautifully presented with some personal touches. There’s so much stigma around community art, but this piece proves how valuable it can be. My only reservation is that you have to Abe older to get involved – I’d love to, but am 30 years too young!

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Alex Elliott, Villmore James & Namron

 It was brilliant to see artistic expression at this level and it is always ageless and universal.

What a fantastic performance. I could have watched it all afternoon. A brilliant example of the importance of art in the community. Life-affirming and inspiring. Looking forward to seeing how it develops. So many possibilities!

 A feasts of talent. Makes me proud to be ‘old’. Well done all. Good luck with the funding.

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Christopher Bensted

 Loved your comments about ‘not just being a memory bank’, ‘the potential within’, ‘looking forward to developing…’ Was inspired by the movement, energy and being in the moment, avoiding the cue from the armchair to just sit. Broom and radio in the kitchen here I come!

 This has inspired me to explore what I can do in the future to keep feeding my soul (I sing with a choir and am on my way to listen to our sister choir ECHO at Leeds College of Music. I want to stretch my boundaries and really come out of my comfort zone. Too long being timid! Thank you!! For a bright future!

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Royston Maldoom, Sally Owen & Alex Elliott

 It was very inspiring and heart warming. Thank you! Congratulations on combining dance and age! Hum’s appearance on stage was very touching and made me cry! You were ALL fabulous! I truly hope you will carry on to inspire future audiences. Thank you! Thank you! Thank you!

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 Wonderful, inspiring performance. Very moving! Brought more than one tear to my eye!

 You guys have made me rethink ageing and how I look at ‘older’ people. You were all graceful and inspiring, thank you so much for a wonderful show.

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 Congratulations. I’ve been working with the Calder valley performance ensemble on what turned out to be a beautiful nostalgic piece – however, what I’ll take – mainly- from your powerful work is to focus on the ‘now and next’ and start the art from there. ‘Two roots of the same tree’.

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 Inspirational. I came to see Namron perform as he taught my children’s father, Brian Claxton-Payne. I love to dance and still perform when I can and was blown away by the depth of the piece, the humour and technique. The professionals definitely still have it and the community performers definitely brought it. Keep dancing all of you. PS – jazz saxophone, lovely touch.

Namron and Pat White Heydays Members

 It was inspiring to see everyone dance together. I like the way fun was integrated into loss in all it’s many ways. I loved the salsa bit. Thanks for a great evening and I hope to see more!

 Fantastic show, we need you to show us younger people what ‘true community’ is about. Very poignant moments but so much energy. Doesn’t matter how old you get, life is always in a state of constant flux. Blessings.

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Royston Maldoom

 A fabulous experience, want to see how it grows and realises it’s potential. Thank you.

 I thought that the performance was inspiring – the woman on her own when the couples dance…breaking out themes… Look forward to watching older people dance without having to think about being old.

 Lovely, would have liked to see a bit more.

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Royston Maldoom & Villmore James

 Well done. Keep it up!

 Congratulations on a beautiful and moving performance. Please keep me in touch with future activities. If you are thinking of touring this, please come to Corby.

 I work as an older person’s physio in Dewsbury and meet people in hospital with a passion for dancing. Do you know if there are any similar groups in Dewsbury?

 Love the performance, full of heart. Please keep in touch -the family Halifax.

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Sally Owen & Alex Elliott

 

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Anniversary

West Yorkshire Playhouse rehearsals for production of ANNIVERSARY directed by Alan Lyddiard

West Yorkshire Playhouse rehearsals for production of
ANNIVERSARY
directed by Alan Lyddiard

 

I am 66 years old. I’ve got my state pension and my free bus pass and I am counting it as income towards my new company, The Performance Ensemble. I feel like I am an emerging artist again, working on a limited income, starting on a new enterprise that will keep me going until I can work no more.

I am developing an Ensemble Company – working together over a long period of time, creating work and improving it over years. I made a version of “Animal Farm” that stayed in the Northern Stage repertoire for 12 years. My adaptation of “1984” is still being produced across the world. That’s the way I like to work, with people I admire over long periods of time, growing the work together. We create work that never stays still, always looking for more depth, more nuance, more clarity.

We start by working within a community setting, creating work, then develop that work with the introduction of professional performers and other artists. The community participants teach the professionals and, in turn, the professionals teach and help develop the skills of the community/amateur participants. The important thing is that we learn from each other.

One of my main inspirations for the setting up of The Performance Ensemble is world famous, 72 year old Japanese theatre director, Yukio Ninagawa. We presented Ninagawa’s work at Northern Stage and I had the opportunity to meet him and discuss his work. I met him again recently when I travelled to Japan to see the work of his company.

West Yorkshire Playhouse rehearsals for production of ANNIVERSARY directed by Alan Lyddiard

West Yorkshire Playhouse rehearsals for production of
ANNIVERSARY
directed by Alan Lyddiard

Over the last year I have established a very strong relationship with West Yorkshire Playhouse (WYP) that has allowed me to develop The Performance Ensemble to a place where it is now capable of creating a higher quality of performance with older people. I work closely with the arts development programme and the producing, technical and marketing teams at WYP in the creation of the work and its relationship with audiences. This is invaluable, and will allow me to expand my capacity to produce theatre with one of England’s leading regional theatres. It is a professional partnership founded on open, respectful communication working to the shared aims of valuing and empowering older people through performance. There is great value in working together, pooling our expertise gained over many years of practice at the highest level of integrity and professional achievement. One of the key relationships is with Heydays, WYP’s flagship creative programme for people over 55.

West Yorkshire Playhouse rehearsals for production of ANNIVERSARY directed by Alan Lyddiard

West Yorkshire Playhouse rehearsals for production of
ANNIVERSARY
directed by Alan Lyddiard

‘Anniversary’ is a new multi-media dance and theatre performance created by older artists, including both professional and community performers. It will involve true stories, original live music, dance and video imagery to be performed at WYP next year.

The first stage, a work in progress will commence shortly.

The final piece will be created in 2016. It will be directed by me, choreography by Royston Maldoom, with a new musical composition by Christopher Bensted and will include a combination of five older professional performers including Namron (dancer with London Contemporary Dance Theatre) Tamara McLorg (Choreographer/dancer) Sally Owen (dancer with Ballet Rambert), Vilmore James (Founder member of Phoenix Dance) Alex Elliott (Founder member of Northern Stage Ensemble) together with five performers from WYP’s older person project, Heydays’ drama/dance group.

West Yorkshire Playhouse rehearsals for production of ANNIVERSARY directed by Alan Lyddiard

West Yorkshire Playhouse rehearsals for production of
ANNIVERSARY
directed by Alan Lyddiard

 

In the first stage these performers will work with Royston for two weeks to create a piece of dance. This two week development process will be filmed and will include documentary footage of all the performers’ lives outside the rehearsal room. We will capture their home life, travelling to work, the rehearsal process and their social lives and outside of these two weeks we will capture the birthday celebrations of the choreographer and some of the company.

This material will be used as part of the final performance. We will create a film and sound/music score as the piece is created. We will project/display images of the lives and careers of the performers over a period of 25 years, creating a kaleidoscope of images and text that crosses many different styles of presentation. This would include storytelling, conversation, dance, music, film design and other visual theatre techniques. The piece will reflect the lives of a unique group of older people and their relationship with creating the performance and how it affects their daily lives.

West Yorkshire Playhouse rehearsals for production of ANNIVERSARY directed by Alan Lyddiard

West Yorkshire Playhouse rehearsals for production of
ANNIVERSARY
directed by Alan Lyddiard

The first sharing of the piece with the public will be in July 2015, when the piece of dance will launch at WYP’s Open Season 2015.

In 2016 the dance piece will be developed into a theatre piece to be performed on the Courtyard stage at WYP. After these performances the piece will be developed further in Scotland for performances for the Luminate Festival 2016. The Performance Ensemble have a long association with Luminate, having performed in the last two festivals. ‘Anniversary’ has also been invited to Sadler’s Wells Theatre, London for The Elixir Festival 2016

 

 

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.

DoD

‘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!