Last year I worked with West Yorkshire Playhouse on an application to the Baring Foundation for their Late Style Project to work with the choreographer, Royston Maldoom on a Work in Progress called 'Anniversary'. The idea was to create a piece of dance work with five professional performers and five performers from the community.
We got the money, spent two weeks together and Royston choreographed a beautiful piece with contributions from the company of performers, who included Namron, Sally Owen, Tamara McLorg, Villmore James, Alex Elliott and composer Christopher Bensted.
In July 2015 we invited people to come and see it. They were impressed. Members of the audience wrote:
'A fantastic, emotional and inspirational performance'
'A truly moving and thought-provoking performance! Beautifully presented with some personal touches. There’s so much stigma around community art, but this piece proves how valuable it can be.'
At the post show discussions much was talked about the relationship between professional and community based arts projects. I realised this was not the discussion I wanted to have. We were labelling people. I didn't want the audience to say 'didn't they do well' or 'amazing what older performers can do.' I wanted audience to just view the work as performed by a group of people. All equal. All with something to say about themselves and the world we live in. If they had been with Ballet Rambert or London Contemporary Dance Company or Phoenix Dance didn't mean their story was more interesting than the retired antique dealer, or the nurse or the teacher or the person who worked in the Ministry of National Insurance at the end of World War 2. Everybody had a story to to tell. Everybody moved in an unique way and everybody could express deep love, sorrow, aspiration and joy. They were all performers worth watching and listening to.
After the Work in Progress was over I started planning the next stage. I applied to Arts Council England to buy some time to create a larger show. I wanted to continue working with the same people. I resolved never to talk about professional and community performers again. They were the perfect performers to work with on the creation of the next stage of the project, this piece of performance which we still call 'Anniversary'.
In the Work in Progress the performers mentioned above were joined by five members of Heydays; Connie Hodgson, Hum Crawshaw, Barbara Newsome, Pat White and Maureen Willis. Heydays is West Yorkshire Playhouse's long-standing creative programme for over 55s, taking place on Wednesdays since 1990. It is the largest and longest running arts programme for older people in UK theatre.
Now we are all in preparation for the next stage with all eleven performers. The work is just beginning. We have a team of experienced performers, composers, choreographers, people who have a range of life experiences and we are learning from each other all the time.
Dominic Campbell, dramaturg for The Anniversary Project, wrote recently:
Considering life through the lens of contemporary old age is a truly radical act. It reframes values and debates. It repositions individuals in relation to society.
Questions previously long fingered for another day become instantly foregrounded or irrelevant. Time shifts. Legacy rather than career comes into play. Emotional articulacy. Care. Friendships. It is not a time for living in the past or the future but living fully in the moment.
And we mark out those moments with anniversaries. Anchors in time.
But human "old" does not run on an industrialised timepiece. We don't all clock on at the allotted start time. It's organic and arrives by accrual. Its affected by poverty and happiness, by loneliness and location, by diet and career. We find ourselves there, or nearly there, certainly more nearly there than we were before, definitely older, but never quite arrived at being, old.
Perhaps "old" is measured by a yardstick of loss. A loss of mobility, a loss of ambition, a loss of connectedness. The loss of friends and family members. A loss of muscle tone, a reduced of sharpness of vision, a blurring in hearing, a fuzziness in thinking, some change in clarity.
Yet that's only half a story. We have collected. We have gathered. We have seen, we have listened, recorded and we have understood. We are the experts of our own experience and became so simply by continuing. We embody the extended past in the present. We are the living libraries of our own knowledge. We can do breadth and depth of understanding. We can accept two emotions in the same incident as a true reflection of life’s capriciousness. Bittersweet and Happy-sad. The Glorious Temporary. The mundane everyday exists in porous exchange with an infinite magic as we reach the edge of our own individual transition back and forward to unknowingness. Ashes to ashes. Dust to Stardust.
How to share these experiences? How to enrich our understanding of this period of being alive? How do people gathered in a room begin to acknowledge and exchange all this complexity? To bear witness to their own growing understanding at the moment of its continuous lived occurrence?
Is this not reason enough for theatre?
Part of the ethos of The Performance Ensemble is to create work from 'the heart of communities' and The Anniversary Project is no different.
We have been working in Leeds and The Calder Valley for over 2 years developing relationships with a range of older people. We have created worked based on true stories told to us by the people who lived there. In Mytholmroyd we created 'Dancehall of Dreams' which was performed at The Hebden Bridge Arts Festival in 2014 and transferred to West Yorkshire Playhouse as part of their Open Season the same year.
For 'Anniversary' we are working back in The Calder Valley and in communities across Leeds to gather stories from people,. True stories from their lives. Our theme with people is described as:
It's not a time for living in the past or in the future but living fully in the present. We mark out our significant moments with anniversaries. Anchors in time.
Working in Leeds in Rothwell and Chapeltown, with Heydays at West Yorkshire Playhouse and with The Citizens Orchestra in Armley we are listening to older people, learning about their lives. In Calder Valley we continue our work in Mytholmroyd and are exploring new relationships with people in Halifax. All the stories we gather become material for making performance work.
On the afternoon of July 19th as part of West Yorkshire Playhouse's Open Season we will bring all the people we have met, together in one place. We will create a sharing performance of music, dance and storytelling. We will invite the company of performers to this event so they can listen and learn from other people’s experiences. We will invite members of the public. Hopefully this informal performance will trigger conversations about what it feels like to be getting older.
Later we will have conversations with the 'Anniversary' performers, which we will film, learning about their lives and their aspirations, their anniversaries and 'their anchors in time'.
All this is work, these gathered stories are material for a piece of contemporary theatre that will eventually be performed at The Courtyard Theatre at West Yorkshire Playhouse.
In August we rehearse like any other piece of 'professional' performance. We will create a piece of work that we hope audiences will enjoy. We hope we can eventually tour the piece across the UK and internationally. It is serious work made to last and to develop. We will run education and participation projects alongside the performance and there will be time and opportunities for discussion about the arts and older people. We are part of a movement and we want more older people to have more opportunities to exploit their talents and make serous and profound contributions to society.
We hope we can develop a new language for theatre. The Performance Ensemble started out two years ago with the principle idea that the company 'worked in the space between professional, amateur and community arts practice'. This year we want to find a better description of what we do and the labels that describe us.
We are older artists and performers creating contemporary theatre for audiences of all ages and we are judged by what we create.