Conversations between passing strangers

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‘Bed’ at (B)old Festival, Southbank Centre, May 2018. Photograph by Roswitha Chesher

A week ago today eight older performers from Entelechy Arts performed their street art work ‘Bed’ in and around the terraces of Southbank Centre London as part of the (B)old Festival celebrating the work of older artists.

Last year the Gulbenkian Foundation published their Phase 1 report of their inquiry into the civic role of arts organisations. The report focused on arts organisations already reimagining their civic role in impactful and creative ways, seeking ‘both to engage more deeply with and involve their different publics’. The report found that organisations were playing several different civic roles in a number of different domains. They served to encompass arts organisations as:

  • Colleges (places of learning)
  • Town halls (places of debate)
  • Parks (public space open to everyone)
  • Temples (places that give meaning and provide solace); and
  • Home (a place of safety and belonging)

The presence of an older woman in a bed in one of the most public spaces at the centre of our city seemed to have created an intermingling of all these domains.

In her essay ‘The Space Crone’ Ursula K. Le Guin wrote:

‘If a space ship came by from the friendly natives of the fourth planet of Altair, and the polite captain of the space ship said, “We have room for one passenger…so that we can converse at leisure …and learn from an exemplary person the nature of the race” …I would go down to the local Woolworth’s…and pick an old woman…only a person who has experienced, accepted and acted the entire human condition – the essential quality of which is Change- can fairly represent humanity’

Over the last three years the presence of older artists lying with their wisdom and their vulnerability on beds in streets and public places across the country has provoked thousands of detailed and intimate conversations between passing strangers.  With permission, we have captured some of these conversations to glimpse into the ripples created by the simple and provocative act of making theatre by this group of older women. What follows is the transcript of one bedside conversation that took place last Sunday afternoon:

‘Is it an installation. Yes, that’s what I said to my son.’

‘There’s another one up there.’

‘There’s a lot of charities and this one deals with isolation.’

‘You know what’s so beautiful is people just coming up and just talking to you.’

‘Which is the whole point because you know elderly people get ignored because you’re getting on with your life thinking things are important and all it takes is a minute or two out of your time to stop and have a conversation…they have so many stories that could help us you know’

‘Over the last few days there have been events down here and at Tate Modern and I’ve been involved, there’s different dance groups for older people and they’ve all been performing today and it’s all free and I think there are three or four of these Bed installations’

‘You know that ‘J’ runs a charity for older people this could be something that they get involved in.’

‘How do you get involved?’

‘My son and I walked up. My son said: “Why is she there?” I said “I think it’s an installation son.” He said, “What’s that?” He didn’t know what an installation was. “Well look over there”

“Oh I’m interested, I want to find out”

‘It just remind me of, when we talking about the whole installation thing …it’s a statement to provoke conversation…let’s find out. ‘S’ ‘s instant response was “Your so nosey.” I said “No. I’m interested.” I think that’s the thing about being nosey…take some time because you never know if you can help them or they can help you, it’s that kind of exchange.’

‘I actually was going to have a conversation before I saw you.’

‘The lady’s got loads and loads of stories that can benefit a younger generation.’

‘And I think it’s this idea of making contact with people. I mean a lot of people walk by and think “Oh I don’t know. I don’t know about that.” ‘

‘But that’s society…that’s the way we’ve been made. To mind your own business.’

‘Not even mind your own business even like… “I haven’t got time to stop, cos its gonna stop me from doing what I wanna do which is get an ice cream, cos the ice cream is not going anywhere or its going to disturb me from the sun”…well the sun is still here…you can still speak to the lady. And that is the problem. Elderly people are forgotten and we don’t time out for them.’

‘It depends on the society because my dad’s eighty-three’

‘When you say society you mean as in ethnic’

‘As in culture.’

‘Like he’s just turned nine and I’d get my dad to pick him up from school for me if I’ve got something on.’

‘And they wanna still feel involved.’

‘In my family that will still happen.’

‘And I think sometimes people are anxious. “Oh I don’t want to say that” You don’t know how people are going to respond…they’ll ignore you.’

‘Then that’s your response.’

‘Many people are out of touch. Just someone smiling or saying hello to them.’


‘Something different in the day.’


‘And some people find smiling very difficult. Even if you smile back at them. They look at you. Why are you smiling? You’re showing too much teeth!’

‘It’s really nice. Because usually installations are something really abstract.’

‘And also because Southbank attracts so many different cultures, age groups and interests…you’ve got these guys, I don’t know where you guys are from?’



‘There’s interest. Back home how do you treat your elderly? Like are they part of the family unit still or?’

‘Well I’m here with my mum dad and brother we came seven years ago to live here, my grandma when we came here we offered to bring her with us but she didn’t want to because she looks after a cousin of mine and my cousin didn’t want to go she was seventeen…….’

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Out of the ordinary

Tea DAnce 25th Oct 16-26

Meet Me Choir performing at a 21st Century Tea Dance in Albany Theatre Deptford. Photograph by Roswitha Chesher


For the last couple of weeks the office at Entelechy Arts has, once again, disguised itself as a rehearsal studio as members of our elder’s company prepare for a revival of their live art performance ‘Bed’ for Southbank Centre’s (B)old Festival at the end of the week. My desk is littered with revised and revised, revised rehearsal calls.

As a young theatre student I performed in a play staged by a visiting director. Before the start of rehearsals he made a speech about commitment. We were asked to leave all of our day to day pre-occupations outside of his rehearsal room: we had to commit ourselves, surrender ourselves, to the rigour of the empty space.

I have actively sought to ignore this advice for all my working life. If taken I’d probably have spent a great deal of time sitting alone in empty studios. For theatre and the arts to have a meaningful relationship with community it surely has to enter into a constant process of negotiation and renegotiation with the experience of the everyday.

Hence the constantly re-written rehearsal calls for ‘Bed’. People have hospital appointments, grandchildren suddenly get ill and need to be looked after, plumbers have to be waited in for. People fall down stairs, experience bereavement, need longer than anticipated recovery periods from surgery. All ordinary, everyday stuff for people living in the communities within which we work.

It’s a two-way process. Jacqui Channing-Hamon one of the choir members who will also be performing in the (B)old Festival says of her choir rehearsal days at Meet Me: ‘I look forward to my Tuesdays like you never know how. I say to the doctors, the hospitals, whoever’s doing the appointments: “I’m sorry I can’t have that date, it’s a Tuesday…I can’t have an appointment on that date.” That’s how much it means.’

Within these carefully negotiated moments in people’s day to day lives, the extra-ordinary process of making theatre transforms itself miraculously into the ordinary; ordinary amongst the litany of all of the other things that give meaning and value to our lives.

BED is performing at Southbank Centre’s (B)old Festival on Sat 19 and Sun 20 May
More details here


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Iced Tea

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Guest blogger Danny Elliot writes about his visit to one of Entelechy’s 21st Century Tea Dances earlier in this year. This article was originally published on Age UK London’s blog. Please visit for more quality blogs on the age sector, including older people and the arts.

Earlier this year, I was invited to go to ‘Iced Tea: Chill Pill meets a 21st Century Tea Dance’, a special edition of the Tea Dance featuring Chill Pill, a group of spoken word artists.

The Albany is a terrific venue, looking at their website, hosts a wide range of events for older people. You can have lunch in the ‘caff’, who use produce grown in the garden which is tended by some of the older centre users. It seemed to be a real hub of the community.

Entelechy Arts run 21st Century Tea Dances across London, and say:

“Entelechy takes the conventional form of the tea dance and brings it screaming and kicking into the 21st century. Dance events mix live music with video, theatre, dance performance, story-telling, tea, cake, social dancing and singing.”

This particular event certainly did that. Spitz Music provided incredible jazz musicians who performed throughout the afternoon. I won’t go into too much detail about their story, as we’re hoping to have a blog form them in the near future. Suffice to say, the musicians were expert – though that sounds too clinical. They could play anything, and did, changing the mood of the room, and changing to the mood of the room.

Chill Pill also performed – several poets did sets which were thought provoking. I have a friend who is a regional slam poetry champion, and have great respect for the medium – half way between classic poetry and rap, Chill Pill also gave flawless performances, enhanced by backing from the jazz musicians.

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Despite the excellent performances (and I do really admire the fact that this Tea Dance attracts such incredible talent – older people deserve the best) the stars of the show were the older people themselves. They were involved in everything that was happening, either as writers, performers or directors.

‘Meet me at The Albany’, an older people’s group linked with the Theatre, had been to Deptford Market and filmed market traders talk about their first experiences of love. The film was screened for us and was fantastic – you felt those being interviewed opened up to an older interviewer more than they would have done to someone younger.

One of the Chill Pill performers wrote a poem called ‘Blank Cheque’ while she ate lunch with some of the older people before the dance. She had asked them what they would do if they were given a ‘blank cheque’ (a reference to a newspaper article that day) and wrote a poem inspired by their answers. The poem was inspiring partly because it was so good, partly because it had been written so quickly, and partly because each of the older people had expressed incredibly generous attitudes as they spoke – every one of them wanted to use the ‘blank cheque’ for someone else, or for the greater good of society.

The most moving part of the afternoon came when the audience were asked to recite a ‘half-remembered poem’ and were told that ‘the less-remembered the better’! One older lady recited a poem she had learnt as a child in the Caribbean for a school inspection. She got a few lines in, and stopped; she said she couldn’t remember. ‘That’s fine’, the MC said, ‘but try again… maybe another run up to it will unlock the memory?’ She started again, and she got through the whole thing. You could see her mind transport her back to a sunny, warm climate, a more innocent time, a younger body – and it was so incredibly emotional, we all stood and cheered. Another lady quoted a few lines of a poem that were also the last words her father had ever said to her. Someone else quoted a stanza from ‘If’ by Rudyard Kipling.

Another gentleman apologised for bringing down the tone. He quoted Spike Milligan:

The young cabin boy

Stood on the deck

As the flames

Surrounded him.


We all laughed, a perfect release after the emotion of the other poems.

And then there was the dancing! The dance floor was packed. People danced in their seats. People danced in pairs, and in threes. People swung each other round. One older lady danced with her zimmer frame, and I counted seven wheelchairs on the dancefloor at one point – it was beautiful, all backed by the best live music I’ve heard in a long time.

I had been invited by Kurban Haji, who I first met over four years ago. Kurban is the life and soul of most parties, and he didn’t disappoint here. He was in the choir at this tea dance, and is hugely appreciative of all that the staff and volunteers do to put on such a show for older people – but the fact that he gets to be involved himself is of greatest benefit to him.

I interviewed Kurban last year for a London Age article (page 13) in an issue themed on ‘Arts and Older People’. On being involved in groups like this, Kurban  said:

“It has changed me completely. After my heart attack I didn’t know what to do. I was looking for the right path to take. Now I’m doing and enjoying things and meeting more people than I ever have. It’s up to you how much you want to give – you can take it as far forward as you want. I’m never bored anyway, always busy. Arts and culture have an incredible impact on the individual.”

I agree, and the 21st Century Tea Dance was a great example of just that.

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In praise of the ordinary: a day trip to Eltham Palace


Photo: Tom Hayward

We walk slowly around the beautifully restored gardens of Eltham Palace in south London. Unexpectedly the sun shines. ‘Let’s go slowly’, says Dahlia, ‘I need all the vitamin D that I can get’. The sight of us arriving in the entrance lobby had excited great curiosity. ‘Are you all social workers?’ asked a man with an expensive camera hanging around his neck. ‘How much is this costing?’

You could say that this is nothing special. Just a day trip, a day out, a hark back to the old works beano. But somehow this early August day has morphed into a gentle uncovering, an un-hiding of people: the placing back into the public gaze of so many who we just don’t get to see. The very act becomes political: as if we are reclaiming the right to ordinarily inhabit public space, to stitch ourselves back carefully into the fabric of community.

The trip to Eltham is part of a suite of Meet Me activities called Meet Me on the Move. For the last year, we have been going out and about on different journeys across the city.


The coach steps magically transform themselves into a stair lift

To museums and galleries, to parks and open spaces. There are fifty of us on this expedition: (formerly) isolated older people, artists, volunteers, befrienders, project staff; fifty people curious and interested about each other’s lives. 

Perhaps as we grow older it becomes more complicated to stay ordinary, to be recognized, valued and celebrated for the beauty of our ordinariness. There is so much more planning and careful preparation needed to achieve moments that decades earlier wouldn’t have merited a second thought. The micromanagement of journey planning, risk assessment, of ensuring that there are available and adequate resources in place presents huge and often daunting tasks.

This is a renegotiation of the possible. This morning on the radio I snatched the fragment of someone saying: ‘Real progress is about making things that are completely unrealistic, realistic.’

Maybe at any age or stage of our lives we want the opportunity to be with people we know, and people who we are getting to know, against different backdrops, in front of different horizons and then for brief moments in time the ordinary becomes extraordinary.

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A pity it’s only once a week

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Guest Blogger and Meet Me member Maurine Catchpole describes how joining Meet Me at the Albany helped her catch up with a lifetime ambition

When I was 14 my mother was working in the café of the Horniman Museum serving teas. Rosa Dawson ran the children’s room at the museum and asked my mother if I would be interested in helping her at the weekends. It was very interesting. I really enjoyed it.

Rosa introduced me to a marionette company. There had some marvellous marionettes and a stage where they used to do plays. I got involved and joined the marionette society. I used to go up to this hotel once a month and we used to show off what we had made. I made quite an impression. They wanted me to go and work the marionettes in their theatre when they went on a tour of Europe because I was so interested in it. But my Mum and Dad said “no” I couldn’t go because they were only gypsies. So that finished that.  I would have loved to have travelled with them. They were marvellous, marvellous marionettes. I’ve never seen anything like it before or since.

So I went to work in Guys Hospital as a dental technicians assistant. There were four of us girls and we used to do all of the stuff that the students didn’t want to do, making the bites for false teeth. It was an exacting sort of job.

My doctor told me about Meet Me because I was so depressed and run down and she recommended I come here. And the social worker tried to get me an appointment to come. That was about four years ago.

When I first came it was wonderful because I hadn’t been out to any clubs or anything ever. After my husband died that was it. The first day I came I can even remember I drew a parrot. And everybody was all keen on it and then I drew another bird and then I drew a horse’s head I think it was. Every time I came I did something different which I really enjoyed. We didn’t do sculpting work then it was just painting.

The artist Malcolm when he helped me do them. And because I’d made marionettes myself, all those years ago it bought it all back. It was very good.

I was up the park and I saw this swan and I thought it would be nice to make one of those. It was sticking the feathers on that was the worst. It was hours and hours to stick them on because they all have to be stuck on individually and you have to get them in exactly the right position otherwise they look odd.  You have to cut them and make sure they are on the right side and not the wrong side otherwise you don’t get the shine on them. It takes a little while to work it all out. His neck is twisted because he’s pulling himself out of the water. He’s just about to take off.

Its lovely when I finish a sculpture and see the finished product. It gives you great satisfaction. But then it’s sad because I don’t like to really like to finish them. Mixed feelings.

Coming to Meet Me has made a big difference to my life. I can’t believe what a difference it’s made. Sitting at home people say: “I bored, I’ve got nothing to do but if they cane to a place like this they wouldn’t have time to think. It’s a pity its only once a week. It would be nice if it was two days a week and a bit longer.



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Making it up together

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‘Bed’ in Deptford Market. Photograph Roswitha Chesher

 For the last few days, I have been trying (and failing) to write about the process of co-creation. In a recent blog François Matarasso sets out to explore the different ways in which artists work alongside, and with, participants. He talks about three degrees of relationship citing Entelechy’s recent work ‘Bed’ as an example where the producer-consumer relationship between artist and participant is erased:

‘Everyone involved is both. There is no meaningful sense in which these relationships are hierarchical but like a network in which each node is directly connected to all the others.  Some are more central or more powerful than others. But at various times and for different reasons, any person in the group may have authority and a decisive influence over the creative process. Everyone can be a teacher and a learner, according to what is needed.’

I don’t think that there was ever a moment when Entelechy consciously set out to work co-creatively. It’s just the way that we have intuitively found ourselves working. And therefore, as with so many things driven by intuition, it’s difficult to describe the process, it’s just the way things happen. David Foster Wallace used to tell a story about two young fish swimming along who happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way. The older fish nods at them and says, “Morning, boys, how’s the water?”  The young fish swim on for a bit, and then one of them looks at the other and asks, “What the hell is water?”

For Entelechy, the process of co-creation has three ingredients:  relationship, time and personal need. The company’s work is built upon sustained relationships between people: participants, artists, funders and policy-makers, families, friends, neighbours, professional carers. Entelechy is a loose confederation of about three hundred people who come together at different times, in different combinations to create work. Poetically it’s like murmuration of starlings at dusk in a winter sky. At times, everyone moving together a huge spiralling flock that then breaks out into smaller acrobatic eddies before swirling back into the whole.

And most of the relationships are in for the long haul. The Ambient Jam creative laboratory with people who have profound and multiple learning disabilities was founded with many of the survivors of the long disgraced and mercifully defunct mental handicap asylums. It is still running after twenty-seven years with many of the same (and many new) members, the work remaining fresh, raw, exciting and innovative.

Working with people for huge slices of time inevitably involves growing older together and moving collectively through periods of change and uncertainty. There are different personal needs, new and urgent questions.  How do you make sense and meaning of your life if your present day to day experience of the world no longer reflects the assumptions about yourself that you may have held over a lifetime? What happens if the loss of a life-time partner or the onset of a debilitating illness disrupts your story?

Art offers a space for collective reflection. It creates space for us to reimagine ourselves in the company of others.It becomes an incubator for shared thought, new form, new possibility. We start making it up together, we start to work co-curatively.

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Lost Without Words


I have only once been truly lost. It was after midnight and for complicated reasons I was alone in the depths of a Caledonian pine forest. I remember the moment when I realised that I had absolutely no idea where I was and then running blindly into the darkness. Finally, I stopped, breathing slowly out into the night. After for what seemed an age, imperceptibly the thin trace of a path through the forest floor started to appear

What is it like to be lost and what if a solution to getting lost was to get even more lost? These were questions posed by the director Phelim McDermott at the start of Improbable’s ‘Lost Without Words’ in the Dorfman Theatre of the National Theatre. The work was conceived by the company out of the realisation that many older actors no longer felt the stage was their home. The stamina needed for many performances and the difficulty of remembering lines with struggling memories made it all just too complicated. What if, the company wondered, for this generation of performers in their seventies and eighties, the play didn’t necessarily have to be the thing? What if they were supported to develop improvisation techniques and conjure work from a mixture of imagination and the moment

There were four actors on stage, a musician, a lighting designer and two directors. The evening unfolded into a series of short stories. The first involved a table and two chairs. two performers, and nothing. Out of their shared not knowing tumbled a story about the reading of a will. There were unexpected turns and twists, prompts from the directors

It was a truly entertaining evening being in the company of these people –watching how they snatched beautifully crafted vignettes out of thin air, all delicately hung on the framework of improvisation exercises: ‘let each sentence begin with successive letters of the alphabet’ nudged one of the directors.

It is quite challenging to deliberately and intentionally set out to become lost. We have default catching mechanisms and so it seemed in the company of these consummate older artists. Their muscle memory of the held silence, the carefully intonated vowel, the sculptured gesture:  techniques intuitively co-opted to skate over moments of awkwardness. It was wonderful to witness this craftsmanship honed over careers spanning life times.

In one of the final moments of the evening one of the improvised characters lay prone on the floor and a director intervened to slowly dance her body back up, in a gravity defying spiral, into a wing-backed chair. For one spilt second they were off-balance, out of control. And in that hair’s breadth we glimpsed the transitory nature of the story: art and life dancing awkwardly and delicately on a fragile edge together.

Age reveals the urgency of our collective enterprise. For many people in the seventies, eighties and nineties, the task of learning how to get lost and to rediscover where you are or where you could be, is vital. Existing road maps are not that reliable. We need to be able to reimagine new possibilities of ourselves; we need the ability to improvise. In his book Managing Vulnerability the social scientist Tim Dartington asks the question; ‘What are the conditions in which it is possible and acceptable to be vulnerable in our society and survive?’ Perhaps the liminal space that the stage offers us is one place we can all begin to look for answers.

From this position theatre has a responsibility to both reshape its own narrative and act as a space for reflection and encounter in helping with a wider discourse. Elsewhere I have written about the late Yukio Ninagawa’s Saitama Gold Company formed of older performers beginning their stage careers in the last quarter of their lives. Ninagawa was passionate about harnessing the energy and life experience of older people in ways that could be used, as he said: ‘to create experimental works that push the boundaries of what a performance could be. The performers themselves are also afflicted by the numerous problems that face our ageing society, from physical decline to mental issues, so putting on a show involves hard work, but at the same time, the performers have their own remarkable acting style that differs from that of professional actors and produces many poignant moments.’

Perhaps in this territory we can slowly and quietly begin to dismantle the barriers between professional and non-professional, the separation between those who feel they no long fit, and those who have never been welcome. In the words of a recent Gulbenkian Foundation initiative, we need to learn how we can ‘share the stage’ and then we can all set out to get lost together.



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