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.” 

Entelechy Bed-3.jpg

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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Satie and Jacket Potatoes

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He arrives unannounced and unexpected, carrying a slim leather case, sits down at the piano stool and starts to play Erik Satie. Tuesday lunch time at Meet Me at the Albany and the soft lyrical phrases of the music drift out and over the jacket potatoes with tuna toppings; fracturing time into a delicate symmetry of the beautiful and the ordinary. Somewhere in the room is a visiting Norwegian physiotherapist; last week there was a philosopher and members of a local government care planning team. Meet Me at the Albany is becoming a place that people are drawn to, a place to meet people, to talk and reflect and wonder.

The 2015 Warwick Report on the future of cultural value proposes that cultural centres that are in receipt of public funding should be expected to provide shared gathering spaces for their local communities. Of course this should be so. Surely that is one of the tasks that culture does best: converting spaces into places: conjuring from ‘airy nothing’, as Shakespeare said, a ‘local habitation and a place’. Nothing new under the sun –the 400 year old anniversary boy- articulated the place-making thing in the 1590s and he placed art (the imagination) at the centre of making it happen.

Places, writes Rebecca Solnit in The Faraway Nearby: ‘give us continuity, something to return to, and offer a familiarity that allows some portion of our lives to remain connected and coherent’

Here, at Meet Me, this connected and coherent place enables us to build tiny particles of community; particles of belonging.

“What is the nature of the intervention?” asks the new and valuable Public Health England Arts Evaluation Tool kit. Today in this room the ‘intervention’ is with Satie and the potatoes as we continue the constant business of gently moving into unknown territory, of getting,or admitting to being, lost and then in the company of others, collectively finding ourselves; putting ourselves back on the map again.

“Nearly always everyone one here has the same story to tell” explains Meet Me member Pauline Hale, “of being lonely and getting lost and couldn’t get out of it; couldn’t find their way back out…but I’m back. I’ve found ‘me’ again.”

“Don’t ‘be’ yourself, ‘become’ yourself said the voice of the Brazilian artist on my radio last week. And that is what is happening every week at Meet Me. This continual process of arriving and returning; the constant process of becoming: of growing into new possibilities of ourselves.

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Letters Home

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Aggie Harward and Nell Cottrell performing in Rotherhithe Theatre Workshop Production of “Now the Day is Over”1985

Yesterday I was invited to contribute to a Small and Thoughtful event hosted by London Bubble exploring theatre making and older people. It was a great opportunity to blow the dust off past experience and celebrate the performers who I apprenticed myself to over thirty-five years ago.

Afterwards we went for a drink in the Spread Eagle, only its not called that any more, it’s the Mayflower and the governor’s wife who used to sing like a soprano is long gone. We didn’t have to step over kids listening in on the door well for a strain of Patsy Moran singing the laughing Policemen. Just some bloke in a suit getting a nicotine fix before going back to his early Friday evening drink.

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South London Press 1986

In Elephant Lane, in the old sack factory, now the offices and studios of London Bubble Theatre Company we had been talking about theatre making; theatre making and older people. ‘What do we need to know? What are the skills? What are the challenges?’

I tried to conjure you back into the room.
The way you literally took life to
the edge because that was where you had lived: across, through and within all that the twentieth century had thrown at you. The way that you bounced back with a sleight of hand that we would now call resilience and write about in public health documents.

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Aggie Harward and Lil Butler in Young In Heart’s touring production of ‘The Decision’ 1986

Perhaps it is only now as the disguise of age starts to creep across my own face that I begin to understand the force and energy of your radicalism. The way that you danced and sang and story-told out your existence. The way you named your place in the world.

Now decades later the new old are your children’s generation. We have taken the raw theatre that you lived (and survived on)  and staked out the fence posts. We set up the enclosures and created a world mediated by funding applications and ‘applied practice’. Now we fill the awkward silence of our not knowing with theatre games and exercises; with techniques and interventions. We allow ourselves to become uncoupled from the natural flow our own history.

 

 

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The Ripple Effect

Photos: Richard Walker

Photos: Richard Walker

 

In 2014 Entelechy Arts, in south London, partnered with Freedom Studios, in Bradford, to work with professional and non professional older performers to devise, perform and tour ‘Home Sweet Home’, a play about what it means to grow old in contemporary Britain. One year later the effect of the programme is still being felt…

Developing relationships across distance was at the heart of the Home Sweet Home touring programme. The partnership between Freedom Studios and Entelechy Arts, situated two hundred miles apart from each other brought together professional and non-professional teams of artists and emerging artists. The success of these long distance connections has been key to the project’s legacy, long after the material artefacts of the programme have been recycled.

Collaboration with older people was central to the project. Part of the political energy for the work was fuelled by a group of elders from Entelechy Arts in London who had been working as mentors with their peers living in residential care homes. They were concerned about the loss of agency experienced by residents who were being supported by a care system under financial pressures and constraints that afforded no time or space to recognise the individual stories and aspirations of a largely invisible and forgotten population.9

These concerns energised people’s curiosity about the lives of their contemporaries in other parts of the country. The question: ‘What does it mean to grow old in contemporary Britain? ” sparked a dialogical process between the theatre production team (producers, writer, designer, director) and older creative stakeholders. It gave connection and agency across distance. There were north/ south visits between elders both real (via the train) and virtual (via Skype).

The two elements of ‘relationship’ and ‘distance’ have been central to the legacy of the programme. It is standard practice for arts professionals to plan, work and reflect with their colleagues from other parts of the country. People travel to form new working relationships, attend conferences and symposiums; to consciously and subconsciously contribute to the shaping of the wider cultural landscape. Rarely is this form of agency available to non-non professional participants.

Within the wider Home Sweet Home legacy many participant relationships have been maintained. For example two community chorus members from Bradford were invited to be keynote speakers at a national symposium in London that addressed new relationships between arts organisations and local government in supporting the needs of isolated older people. Connections forged between two of the touring venues (the Albany in south east London and ARC in Stockton on Tees) are provoking new work. Entelechy is leading a partnership comprising of both venues and contemporary circus company Upswing in a Gulbenkian  ‘Sharing the Stage’ programme. There are plans for new virtual and real spoken word events curated by older artists involving participants from all three contributing cities.

At the end of the Home Sweet Home performance there was a beautiful theatrical moment that interwove the voices of elders from local community choirs. Some of these relationships have been sustained with the Bolder Voices (N.W. London) and the Stockton Silver Singers contributing to Entelechy’s 21st Century Tea Dance series.

Home Sweet Home by Freedom Studios and Entelechy Arts being performed at the Ukrainian Club  in Bradford. Written by Emma Adams and inspired by the energies and imaginations of older people from Bradford, Stockton and Lewisham the play is performed by members of those communities as well as professional actors.

Home Sweet Home by Freedom Studios and Entelechy Arts being performed at the Ukrainian Club in Bradford, ARC Stockton & the Albany, Deptford. Written by Emma Adams and inspired by the energies and imaginations of older people from Bradford, Stockton and Lewisham the play is performed by members of those communities as well as professional actors.

The rethinking of performance times to suit older audiences has continued with many ‘main house’ performances at the Albany now having a show programmed to run more conveniently between 1pm and 3pm –ending just before the rush of school children on the public transport systems.

There are plans for the BOLD Festival, curated in a three cities to coincide with performances of Home Sweet Home, to be revived, building on the learning in establishing an arts and ageing festival across cities in England by imaginatively linking existing programming in a light touch way supplemented with a few scattered new commissions.

So in many and various ways the Home Sweet Home legacy continues. It seems to be the gift that keeps on giving.

Home Sweet Home by Freedom Studios and Entelechy Arts being performed at the Ukrainian Club  in Bradford. Written by Emma Adams and inspired by the energies and imaginations of older people from Bradford, Stockton and Lewisham the play is performed by members of those communities as well as professional actors.

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Japan (part 4) /Falling and Flying (part1).

IMG_2011After the trauma of the 2011 earthquake and tsunami in the east of Japan there was an increase in the number of philosophy cafés. Strangers were meeting to talk, share experiences and attempt to comprehend the meaning of the disaster, the physical and emotional impact that it brought to their lives. Philosophy was seen as a powerful tool because it involves discussion and asking questions. Dialogue was valued as an important lifeline after food and fuel. On our recent cultural learning exchange in Tokyo we heard of many examples where older people came together in dialogue with their peers and those from other generations in salons and café spaces to reflect upon specific concerns and pre-occupations; to uncover solutions to particular problems. The cultural space offers the opportunity for encounter and conversation.

Perhaps it is no coincidence that our shared Meet Me at the Albany project in southeast London happens in the café of our partner’s theatre space, the Albany. Meet Me is an arts project, a social project, a project about dialogue. Dialogue between artists and people. People in their sixties, seventies, eighties and nineties.

In an attempt to both understandIMG_1630 and communicate the Meet Me structure I found myself clumsily (and literally) weaving a metaphor: a basket of hazel twigs and coloured wool. Each interlaced, colour-coded skein represents a named individual: participant, artist, volunteer, producer or manager. The ‘basket’ becomes a holding ground, a resonant space for thinking and doing: a space within which to openly and transparently attempt to make sense of our often rapidly changing circumstances, and those of the world that we find ourselves in.

What happens when the ordinary and familiar assumptions that we have used to navigate our way through a lifetime no longer ring true? What happens when a life long partner is no longer around, when simple feats of washing and dressing become complex balancing acts, when strangers make fleeting visits to offer ‘care’ ? In these, often lonely and anxious moments, it is no wonder that we are consciously or subconsciously drawn to acting out a familiar script, the story reinforced by media stereotypes and wider societal fears.  “If the wind changes, you’ll stay like that”, my mother used to say.

Medical science may have given many of us an extra decade but there has been little thought given to the rites of passage needed to ease, or bounce, us across the threshold into a new possibility of ourselves. There are few societal ‘docking points’ within which we can gently place old toes in new waters. So in the cafe every week people come together to meet and gossip, to think and do.

Maybe it is the urge to find meaning and create form within this shared process that detonates such a torrent of creativity. Art tumbling out from this precious collision between knowing and not knowing. What makes life worth living when we’re old and frail and unable to care for ourselves? asks Atul Gawande in his book Being Mortal. How indeed.

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Mr Powell’s Giraffe

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