Making it up as we go along

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Collaborative design for ‘LOVE’ Entelechy Elders company, Roswitha Chesher & Donkey Studio

 

Monday afternoon with our elder’s performance group. We are creating LOVE an immersive theatre experience to be disguised as a 21st Century Tea Dance in October of this year.

We find ourselves dissecting the anatomy of a relationship. Twelve of us huddled around a table encircling a vast expanse of white unmarked paper. It’s another ‘starting out’  moment in the company of our shared imaginations. We are working with a fictional provocation that somehow has taken the centre stage of our attention: a story of two people who have spent the last forty-five years living together and suddenly walk out of each others lives. Why would they have done that?

We’ve  talked of  narrative form and performance structure but the truth of it we don’t know where we are going, we don’t know where we’ll end up. We just have a vague idea of the sense of direction.  We are making it up as we go along. Inventing.

The contemporary Spanish novelist Javier Marías talks about the verb to invent, or inventar in Spanish, coming from the Latin invenire, which means to discover, to find out. That is, he says, what he likes to do in writing: finding out what he is writing about as he writes it. Deciding on the spot.

And that’s what we have been doing. Finding out together: listening, interrogating, deciding and moving collectively on towards a bit more of the unknown.

If you are as curious as we are in finding out what we’ll end up with book at ticket

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Taken by Surprise

 

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Writing in her theatre blog last week the Guardian’s Theatre Critic Lyn Gardner cites a recent study that suggests that outdoor arts are able to achieve what the wider cultural sector aspires to but seldom reaches –an audience that is representative of the population as a whole. Of course its easy for your audience to resemble a cross-section of those on the street if your theatre is actually on the street.

Theatre’s relationship with audiences in most conventional spaces is clear. You buy a ticket with a particular expectation. On the street it’s different. People are taken by surprise. If they become curious, entertained or provoked, they’ll stay; if not they’ll go.

But what if performance sets out to be sudden and disruptive? What responsibility has the artist to those s/he seeks to address? What if the performance brings to the fore the disturbing and uncomfortable?

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Hidden in the inside pages of last week’s Metro, London’s commuter newspaper, was an article with the headline ‘Pensioner survives on drips from fridge’. It’s a familiar story that we are all slowly becoming immune to.

Entelechy’s current touring street theatre performance BED seeks to bounce these hidden stories into plain view.  The design of the beds is quite theatrical but time and time again people initially imagine that they are witnessing a new reality:

‘I thought that she’d been abandoned. When I first saw it I genuinely thought that somebody had abandoned her there. And my understanding of that is because people can’t get care and families can’t cope and the only way to get them in anywhere is to abandon them there, literally in the middle of the street.’

It’s a fine balance treading this delicate line between fiction and reality. The sleight of hand that transforms the imagined real into a more approachable fiction; offering passers-by the context of a performance and the political and artistic agency of the older performers. Perhaps that gives a kind of hope, suggests a possibility for change.

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Talking with audiences

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‘Space reserved for being serious is hard to come by in a modern society, whose chief model of public space is the mega-store (which may also be an airport or a museum)”

Susan Sontag

So we’re back together again sitting around the office table eating delicious rhubarb cake. Its over a week since the first performances of BED at the Brighton Festival and we are sifting through the pieces, percolating audience responses, trying to unpick the elements of performance that transformed so many passers-by into audience or one on one confidents.

In a period of eight hours across two days over ten thousand people walked passed the beds. There was such a huge range of responses:

“I was on my way to a shop and I wondered why that lady was lying in a bed. So it just immediately attracted me to ask her what’s that all about. She just told me a story and showed me a picture when she was younger and she had a baby and the baby had been taken away from her. I started to ask her some questions because I wasn’t really sure…it’s quite intriguing …is this a story, is this real, or are you here for a reason?”

“You explore many things with it don’t you. Cos its quite dramatic when you see somebody lying on a bed in the high street. What’s that all about? It gets people thinking. I asked her if she was mobile. I thought she might be someone who was bought here for the day. Cos you just never know what people can do. You hear so many stories now like people taking horses into hospitals. I was impressed with it.”

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“It’s very intriguing. Is some one ill? Has someone got their bed out? At first I was panicking and then I realised it was the festival. When I saw the first bed: how did she get there? I was worried about her. But its very interesting. Everyone stopped. Everyone stopping and looking. I love old people. I was very close to my gran. It gives people a chance to talk to old people. You just ignore them don’t you. Just go walking past. It allows you to pay attention and ask questions. It’s a really wonderful idea.”

“I was quite struck. I didn’t know if there was a real human being inside the bed or not. I was a bit scared or a bit hesitant to come closer and see it. I wasn’t sure… is it a protest? Is it art? It was just there in the middle of the road. There wasn’t a sign so I assumed art. It’s definitely effective.”

“I found it moving that she was so exposing of her personal life. That’s very vulnerable lying out there in a bed. Even though its theatre it’s a statement of vulnerability. Very exposing.  It’s very exposing and the lovely thing was the courage.”

“You know what? I’m going to visit my grandmother this afternoon. I don’t see her often enough…”

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On taking care

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Cedric

 

‘If we had a keen vision and feeling of all ordinary human life, it would be like hearing the grass grow and the squirrel’s heart beat, and we should die of that roar which lies on the other side of silence.’   George Elliot

I exit the conference and walk out into the warm sunlit afternoon of a London square. In among the plane trees and the lunchtime picnickers I find myself wandering about in the company of Joan, Cedric, Elsie and Jessie: all people who had become woven into the fabric of Entelechy; all people who have died this year.

‘What will remain of us is love’ said Larkin. Trace elements of this remembering seep into my unconsciousness, surfacing at times when I least expect.

If you work in the company of the old, then I guess it is inevitable that at some stage you will be working with loss and death and uncertainty. You will be journeying alongside the seemingly impenetrable complexities that some people face (both physically and emotionally) in just moving from one week into the next. Waiting for the results of hospital tests, worrying about loss of memory, moving about with constant pain, living with the enduring absence of someone who you will love for ever. This is the emotional landscape within which we work, the landscape from which we emerge humanly together attempting to find meaning and joy and possibility:  through gossip and story, song, gesture, dance, created artefacts, poems. The tools that we have been using to make sense of things since the beginning of time.

Within our work at Entelechy (and our love child, Meet Me), our lives are continually enriched by intimate public encounters with so many people. It’s a relational practice (to use the jargon) We develop relationships, we build trust, we create art together. Sometimes building intricately woven performances that subvert form and establish new ways of being together. Sometimes creating guerrilla forays into the street or re-occupying public space; sometimes just uncovering tiny fragile transitory and extraordinary exchanges infused with beauty and risk.

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Elsie

 

And of course the key ingredient of all of this is imagination. A shared imagination that allows us to collectively respond the that nagging question: “What will become of us?” with possibility and hope.

This is a process that shakes up the social and the aesthetic to produce an underlying cocktail of care, that in our contexts often serves to become a propagating bed for the production of new works of art. Intuitively we find ourselves working with the underlying principles of attentiveness, responsibility, competence, responsiveness, trust. It is no coincidence that these ingredients have been identified as a set of values or moral principles that form an integrity of care[1]

How do we care for each other? It seems unnatural to continually move through this shifting and concentrated landscape of vulnerability and fragility. Although set within secure safeguarding frameworks, supported by a forensic attention to detail and attention to risk, the boundaries of identity become blurred. I doubt if our subconscious selves recognise the distinctions of artist, manager, volunteer, older participant.

Maybe its something to do with kindness. In the last few often quite difficult months at Meet Me at the Albany I have witnessed so many small acts of human kindness. The card that suddenly appeared out of nowhere, a touch, a smile.  In their slim volume ‘On Kindness’ Phillips & Taylor reflect:

‘Kindness…complicates one’s relations with others in peculiarly subtle and satisfying ways; and for a very simple reason. Acts of kindness demonstrate, in the clearest possible way, that we are vulnerable and dependent animals who have no better resource than each other’

Of course we haven’t got it right yet. Perhaps we never will. But we are starting to seek out times and spaces: to reflect, to remember, to question: walks, meals, shared silences. It’s the beginning of another journey…

[1] Tronto, J (2010) ‘Creating caring institutions: Politics, plurality and purpose’

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Scratch beneath the surface

Last weekend members of Entelechy’s elders performing company performed their nomadic street performance work BED on the streets of Brighton and Hove as part of the 2016 Brighton Festival. The work was commissioned by Without Walls, Brighton Festival and Winchester Hat Fair.

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Photograph Roswither Chesher

Saturday morning. George Street, Hove. Scratch beneath the surface and it’s there. Most everyone is walking up and down this pedestrianised seems to be living with one degree of separation from stories of loneliness and isolation: their own stories; those of an older relative; experiences that have been encountered in their family or working lives. Maybe that is why the simple act of placing two older women in their nightclothes on two beds abandoned on the public thoroughfare has caused such a complex outpouring of reflection and emotion:

“I work in customer services and we get people phoning in to pay a bill. They’ll want to chat but it’s difficult because you’ve got other people to deal with. They just want to have a chat. And those little five minute things are a little window where you are sharing a bit of compassion; an interest in things: that makes a difference to somebody. It really does. That’s the problem. The world’s so busy. And I think that is where a lot of the problem is.” 

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Photograph Roswither Chesher

“I’ve come across that at times. Loneliness. More so as I’ve got older. I mean I’m in my late sixties now and, yeah, you find that people ignore you. It’s horrible.”

“ ‘What is it?’ We asked a few people on the way up: ‘is it a strange art thing?’  I didn’t know and now I understand and I think its very good because there a lot of people who live with themselves alone and have nobody to see them or nobody cares. It is sad. Very, very sad. It caught my interest. It made me aware.”

“I live on my own. I’m on my own every night with these two dogs. And everyday. It’s bloody lonely you know. Nobody understands if they haven’t got family and I haven’t got family. It’s a brilliant idea doing this.My dogs keep me going. If it weren’t for them well I’d have jumped out of the window ages ago. That’s how things are. The loneliness is like you are in a goldfish bowl on your own. How would I describe the loneliness? To me personally I feel like I’m in a bubble in a goldfish bowl.”

“Some leaflets came through our door inviting us to partner lonely people in our communities on a one-on-one relationship basis. My partner wanted to do that but its just one of those things that got left to the bottom of the pile of paper work in the kitchen with the school forms. I think its really fantastic. It’s made my day. I found myself telling her about my twelve year old daughter’s birthday party and how I’m really pleased that she’s having it at home today after years of, you know, being too cool to have it at home. Its nice for women to speak to older women.”

“I’ve got a cat and her name is night club and she goes clubbing like me out and about late at night. I’ve been in care since I was eight years old. My mum died when I was ten years old. I’ve been looked after for a while but where I am its only a short stay. They should be doing something about care shouldn’t they?”

“In our block there was a chap, lived on his own. No one had seen him for a while, like the neighbours and that. The council came up and they smashed the door down. Went in there. Could find nothing. This went on for a year, the bills piling up. They found him finally slumped behind an armchair. He’d been dead for months.”

 

 

 

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BED

 

 

Bed 8

BED is a nomadic street event performed by older members of Entelechy. The work has been commissioned by Without Walls, Brighton Festival and Winchester Hat Fair. The performance has been co-created by members of the performing company and is one of the new generation of work nourished by Entelechy’s collaborative venture with the Albany in Deptford: Meet Me at the Albany.

“Sometimes I just sit indoors hoping that the phone will ring. Even if it’s a wrong number: just to hear another voice”, reflects performer Rosie Wheatland. She is one of a core of artists from Entelechy taking theatre into the street: “It feels like when you get to our age you become invisible. We want to be seen. We want to be heard.”

“Understand who your audiences are. Discover who they could be” advises the website of the Audiences Agency. In order to understand their ‘markets’ Entelechy’s seventy and eighty-year olds performers have taken their theatre literally out into the market on their doorstep. Here in Deptford, you can almost feel the tectonic plates of the city shifting underfoot as you wander down the High Street. Regular shoppers brace themselves against the unseasonal late April chill with the newly arrived affluent apartment owners, flea market bargain hunters, the street drinkers and the evangelical preachers.

The stage is set. Its like an inversion of immersive theatre. Instead of inviting the world to submerge itself in the art this is a theatre throws itself into the world. In the midst of the Saturday afternoon street scene, far apart from each other, there are two abandoned beds each occupied by an older woman. In different ways, both performers share fragments of their character’s experience as they inhabit the delicate space between waking and sleeping. There are stories of loss, isolation, longing and hope.

Some people pause, choose to ignore and pass by. Some people pause and get drawn into the narrative. Somebody whispers that an ambulance is on its way. A prayer meeting has formed around one of the beds and suddenly everyone is singing hymns.

Small clusters of people are stopping to talk: “I was shocked. I’ve like never seen anything like that in my life.  I think its amazing. Absolutely amazing. The elderly are treated in such a poor way.”

The lines between what is real and what is fiction are edgily blurred.  The minty ‘tic tac’s mimic hypotension medication in a plastic pill box; the glyceryl trinitrate spray for angina is real. It must take some courage to inhabit this other self, to be present and engaged, wrapped in your nightclothes, out on the street lying on the bed with only the protection of a duvet.

“Anything could happen to us but we take the risk. There’s a lot of trust. We belong to this body of trust, like sisters to each other. Sometimes you’ve got to take risks for the unknown. You don’t know what you are going into but you’ve got to take that risk,” says company member Gwen Sewell.

It was a trail run but I  think that the older artists achieved their ambition. They successfully engineered this collision between everyday Saturday afternoon moments and a glimpse into the experiences and stories of the isolated old: the hidden, the avoided, the unknown, the willfully ignored. They took people by surprise. They placed them off balance. Maybe they made them think.

BED next appears at the Brighton Festival on the weekend of May 14th and 15th.

 

 

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Memory and Place

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Memory and Place: Illustration by Anthony Meyer

Memory and Place is a complex multi-stranded work that has been uncovered and nurtured by a team of artists led by Rebecca Swift, Creative Producer at Entelechy. It has been commissioned by Siobhan Davies Dance Studios situated near the Elephant and Castle district of south London, an area undergoing massive social change and redevelopment.

Yesterday afternoon Sarah Wigglesworth’s beautiful dance space at Siobhan Davies Dance Studios was transformed into a gathering space for it’s local community becoming the embodiment of the Warwick Report’ s aspiration for the changing role of the arts spaces in the 21st Century. Tony Kushner the playwright once described the USA as the ‘melting pot that didn’t melt’. Here on this sunny early spring Saturday in south London there is no melting going on, more of a delicate threading and weaving. The room is full of older people from African Caribbean, Columbian, East African, Irish and White British Communities.

In an earlier post I quoted Rebecca Solnit describing how places ‘offer a familiarity that allows some portion of our lives to remain connected and coherent’. But what happens if the places that provide the backdrop for our day to day lives are systematically erased and taken away from us? What happens then to the communal sense of who we are and who we could become?

Outside the dance studios the neighbourhoods around the Elephant and Castle are undergoing a massive transformation. The Guardian recently reported that while the Heygate area of the Elephant was home to 1,194  social rented flats at the time of its demolition, the new £1.2bn Elephant Park provides just 74 such homes among its 2,500 units.  ‘Just launched…’ announces a property developer’s website: ‘an exclusive boutique development … in an historic location embodying over 800 years of history.’

‘Each of us is part of history’ says the older man from the day centre just around the corner. His words and the words of so many others, don’t fit into the new narrative. His voice and the voices of so many others are being written out of the script. ‘In some countries if you don’t have a name you don’t exist. You’re like a kite in the air’ he says.

Back in the dance studio the afternoon gently unfolds. There is a delicately  structured anarchy to the proceedings. It is one of a series of gatherings that are weaving together fragments of movement and gesture, memories, song and stories from this part of London that is slowly being taken apart. “Almost every time I get up in the morning there is something changed” whispers one voice. It’s the culmination of months listening and notating; months of working alongside people in clubs, day centres and a nursing home; months of moving alongside people through change.

Towards the end of the afternoon a man steps into the centre of the floor and starts to sing in Gaelic:

A Naoimh Phádraig ghlórmhair ár nOileáin Iathghlais

Cuir gáire ar bhéal do pháistí ar ais[1]

It could be difficult to describe: part wake, part ceili, part dance improvisation, part poetry sharing, part choral performance. It could be easy to describe: people coming together to make meaning out of a time of great uncertainty in their lives, people coming together to make art.

[1] O glorious Saint Patrick of our emerald isle

Put a smile on the mouths of your children again

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