'You have to admit, that life, an ordinary life, your average life - is a bit of a mess'
Last Wednesday my new company, The Performance Ensemble, performed a piece, 'Dancehall of Dreams' on the Quarry Stage at West Yorkshire Playhouse. It was the culmination of a three month project working with people over the age of 60, exploring how to make contemporary theatre for audiences of all ages, working in the space between professional, amateur and community theatre practise.
We started this project in Mytholmroyd in the Calder Valley and finished it in West Yorkshire Playhouse, collaborating with hundreds of individuals and many organisations across West Yorkshire in the process
We created the Calder Valley Performance Ensemble, a new performance company, of performers over the age of 60 that will continue to create performance work locally.
We worked with Heydays, a long standing institution of the West Yorkshire Playhouse’s community programme, working with people over the age of 55.
We formed a collaboration with Citizens' Orchestra, established in 2009, which offers older musicians - of all abilities - an opportunity to enjoy playing music together.
We delivered 3 performances in Mytholmroyd as part of The Hebden Bridge Arts Festival to an audience of 200 people and one at West Yorkshire Playhouse as part of their Open Season programme to an audience of 175.
Activities began in Mytholmroyd at the beginning of April 2014. Working with established community groups. Joe Standerline, who lives in Mytholmroyd and myself met with a range of people over the age of 60 across the town. We made contact with Calderdale Council Neighbourhood Scheme, Elphin and Elphaborough Sheltered Housing, Tea Dances, Hebden Bridge Arts Festival, Mytholmroyd Community Centre, Amateur Theatre Societies as well as a number of community groups.
At first there was a degree of suspicion about what we were doing. Older people sometimes can find new ideas unsettling and it was difficult to engage at first. It was important for us to build relationships with people with no agenda. We needed to listen and to be open to people in environments where they felt secure. Sometimes it seemed as if we were intruding into their lives so we needed to wait and allow people to come to us. We just were always there offering cups of tea and an opportunity for a chat.
The collecting of stories from older people became easier. We went to social events and met people on their own terms and soon we were getting, literally, dozens of stories. They were happy to meet us and even looked forward to our visits. We set up a little team of local story gathers to explore the community for more stories and eventually we were inundated. All these stories will eventually be published on a new web site in Mytholmroyd,
I also worked every Wednesday from 23rd April until 9th July with the Drama Group of Heydays at West Yorkshire Playhouse. This group was well established and had members who had been attending sessions for nearly 20 years alongside people who had joined recently. This created a complicated dynamic at times with some people resistant to change and others who were hungry to learn new things. I worked on a methodology that encouraged people to present themselves in front of an audience rather than playing a character. My intention was to make theatre based on their own stories, memories, thoughts, aspirations and fears. This of course made many people feel vulnerable. Some of the 'old guard' left the process but well over 30 people remained throughout the process and on July 9th we shared the work with other Heydays groups. I was amazed at the response to our 20 minute piece. The audience was genuinely moved by what they saw.
This sharing was one highlight of the project in that it reaffirmed my belief that 'community/amateur' performers were capable of creating deep and meaningful performance work that was equal to any other performer.
My ultimate aim is to create work that cannot be simply described as community arts, but rather to create performance that transcends labels - I don't want to make professional theatre, or community theatre or applied theatre or any other type of theatre - I just want to make high quality contemporary theatre that engages audiences/spectators. I felt that the sharing performance went a long way to achieving this goal.
From 14th July we spent 10 days putting our final performance together. Working every day, both in Mytholmroyd and Leeds we put together a new version of 'Dancehall of Dreams'
A young theatre director, Joyce Nga Yu Lee who works for the theatre company Mind The Gap, came to the performance. Afterwards she wrote to me with her response to the piece - Her words are generous, beautiful and helpful to me in articulating my work - Thank you Joyce.
'Congratulations and thank you for a fabulous performance last night. It was a shame not being able to catch you last night, but I reckon you must had been busy too. I loved the sounds (voices through microphone, band, music, footsteps, chatters and laughs during dances, clinks of tea cups) and I loved the sights (set and design, people's faces and physicality, gowns they chosen). On Facebook this morning when I said the ensemble was really strong, you replied and mentioned the way they care and look after each other. I am sure the process must have demonstrated a lot of love and care among members, but what attracted me the most was not about how they care for each other, it was their "togetherness" and honesty.
This is, to me, what make the performance beautiful. "Authentic" is an overused word which no longer bears the same meaning and power when it is uttered. Maybe I can use honest instead. I have experienced your 'this is me, I am here, and I am fine' exercise and understand how powerful its transformation ability is to me as a performer. The performers had not hidden under a mask or a character. It is not about acting. It is about being themselves. It is not about being their everyday selves. It is about being a heightened self, a persona on stage which come from life but higher than life. This brought an interesting relationship between the two sides of the proscenium. There was no superstars or divas in the performance. It was not about performers on stage showing off what they can do and audience sitting in the dark admiring super humans on stage. The 70 minutes was as much a time for the performers as it was for the audience. Performers utilised theatre to breath life into their own persona, by doing so lived a life that is higher than everyday life. Audience benefited from the stories that were imparted by the performers. The ensemble's honesty make them strong and vulnerable at the same time. By this I do not mean: "look, how brave they are to be honest!", I think I mean they were "daring" us audience members. They looked at us as who they are, do we dare looking back at them in their eyes as who we are, not as critics, not as admirers, not as charitable patrons, but just as who we are? This is what make this ensemble aesthetically pleasing. What was on stage was a variety of human existence with brilliance, and we are, again another overused term, all equals. There was a mutual respect between human beings. I did attempt to find a story or narrative to this piece in the beginning. Soon enough I found myself being totally happy with the discourse. Fragments of conversations/ stories/ soliloquy were strung together in a fine balance between room for interpretation and suggestions for direction. I guess the discourse formed something like a starry night, where we can put lines to join up individual stars to make star signs. I have heard fond memories, laments, anecdotes, nostalgia. But at the end, we are not trying to go back to good old times, or making wishes for a better future, it is just what it is, the here and now. Now I suddenly realized it is all about "this is me, I am here, and I am fine"! Thank you again for a wonderful piece, please pass on my thanks to your team. Thank you for welcoming my sharing, this gives me really good opportunity to reflect and learn.'
Joyce Nga Yu Lee