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

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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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Small Moments

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“What Next?” and the “National Campaign for the Arts” recently came together to create the Hearts for the Arts Awards, a new initiative to reward and thank Councils, Councillors and Council officers who are overcoming financial challenges to ensure the arts stay at the centre of community life. London Borough of Lewisham won Best Local Authority Arts Project encouraging community cohesion for Meet Me At The Albany Entelechy’s shared project with the Albany .

Months later she finds herself back in the arts centre after weeks of being away: an extended period in hospital, and then time at home. Away but still connected. Her new friends had telephoned and shared texts. And now her daughter has wheeled her back into the familiar space. Tables and paint and seashells and wire, tea and so much conversation.

I heard about the story later. How in the room with the choir she broke down with the emotion of it all, hearing her poem set to music and the choir singing it, their first adventure into contemporary music.

And I am constantly taken by surprise by this organic interlinking of relationships between artists and emerging artists –the peripheral vision of poet and composer working in unison: art being conjured out of this everyday being together, out of the urgency held by people to tell stories, to sing out who they are.

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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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