Crossing Borders, Human Stories

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The Performance Ensemble, September 2019. Photo: Mike Pinches

Theatre of Dreams

For many years I have worked at Leeds Playhouse, on its flagship creative engagement programme called Heydays, designed specifically for older participants. It happens every Wednesday, when the elders of Leeds descend, mob handed, on the theatre, and proceed to take it over for the day, with art classes, creative writing, drama, singing and dance.

Often, my classes in creative writing used to take place in a downstairs space. We would finish on the dot of noon, and, always waiting outside the door, patient and polite, was a man called Alan Lyddiard.  It turned out that he was a theatre director and was running the drama session that followed on immediately from mine. Week after week this happened. We were friendly but reserved. There was work to do, and as I retreated, he would advance.

Then I went to see a theatre piece that he had directed, called ‘Dancehall of Dreams’, in which a non-professional cast sang and spoke and danced the personal stories of their lives. It was moving and compelling. My interest was piqued. Soon after, Alan picked up an anthology of writing that I had produced with my Heydays writers, called ‘Being Human’. Ordinary lives reflected in words – everyday people, writing exceptional things. “You are doing the same work as me,” he pronounced, and our friendship began.

Year on year, our paths continued to cross. He would disappear, to pursue his international theatre connections, and then re-appear for the summer term, to bring some of his maverick magic back to the Playhouse. A loose-layered company began to form, called the Performance Ensemble. The productions became more polished and frequent.

Alan had run a company of actors in Newcastle upon Tyne, from 1992 to 2005, called Northern Stage. He believed in the East European method of working: a close knit community of players forging ever closer links of trust and expertise. Now he was bringing this ethos to Leeds, and, as an older artist himself, his current passion was to champion the voice and presence of the older performer.

Art with the Experience of Age

To be in the Performance Ensemble, you had to be over 60. Not necessarily a professional actor – but someone with something to say, and the commitment with which to say it well. Art with the experience of age – this was his heartfelt manifesto. I remembered a theatre I had worked in, years ago, in the heart of the Hungarian countryside, where a group of people lived, worked, played together, to make theatre of great honesty and power.

I had been looking for that kind of experience ever since – but had found only the fractured freelance world of the western market economy, ubiquitous, not just in the world of commerce, but in the theatre world too. Everything for profit –  and everything contingent on Arts Council funding, or private sponsorship: keeping the performers themselves permanently disconnected from each other, and insecure in themselves. How can good art be made, when cash itself is king? I admired Alan for swimming against the tide. And I felt myself, increasingly, swimming that way too.

Paying Attention, Staying Curious

One morning, in summer 2019, the phone rang. It was Alan. I had done some work for him the previous year, for a production called ‘Bus Ride’, which celebrated the journeys of older performers – in life, and on busses too – and this was the opening salvo for a five year project, leading up to a city-wide arts extravaganza in 2023. He had been given some funding to proceed. He wanted new people to join the Ensemble, and he wanted me to be one of them. Was I interested? I was.

There is a remarkable nineteenth century artist called Hokusai. He is famous world wide for his print, The Great Wave off Kanagawa, a magnificent rendering of the sea in movement. But he was much more prodigious and diverse in his talent than this one – startlingly beautiful – image might suggest. He worked at his art from youth to old age (he died several months after he turned ninety), and his art continued to deepen and evolve, year on year, decade after decade.

At the beginning, his interest was in people, and he drew them with a fierce and tender honesty: focussing his attention on working people’s lives, for he came from humble origins, and he never forgot his roots. The tumbling array of portraits flowed from his pen as freely as ink – and are thought to be the origin of the modern day Japanese Manga comic books.

But, as time went by, Hokusai turned more and more towards the natural world. The immutable power of sky and sea, and the prevailing grandeur of Mount Fuji, consumed him in his later years.

His art became ever more sophisticated, ever more lively, the older he became. It was as if the spirit of life itself – the animus that drives the universe – were channelling itself through his tireless hand and brush. I love Hokusai’s paintings very much. But more than that, I am inspired by his philosophy.

Roger Keyes, an art historian and curator of Japanese art, has devoted much time and effort into archiving Hokusai’s great body of work. He has written poetically about it, too, in a striking piece called ‘Hokusai Says’. This poem is like a call to attention to all those who are growing older, and who – like me – sometimes falter and lose heart. Here are the opening lines:

“Hokusai says look carefully.

He says pay attention, notice.

He says keep looking, stay curious.

He says there is no end to seeing.

He says look forward to getting old.

He says keep changing,

you just get more who you really are.

He says don’t be afraid.

Don’t be afraid.

Love, feel, let life take you by the hand

Let life live through you.”

(Hokusai says/Roger Keyes)

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David Hamilton rehearses with the Performance Ensemble, February 2020.

One Week in September

So, one strange, intense week in September 2019, a wraggle taggle group of men and women came together in a large warehouse-style room, where loose wires hung from the ceiling, and old tiles hung loose and abandoned, and started to form a theatre group. No mean task.

Whilst some of us worked professionally, as writers, dancers, musicians or choreographers, most of the people present were none of those things. They may never have done a dance class, never sung a note, except in the bath, never written creatively since they left school to start their long and varied lives of work. Each of us came carrying legacies of  injury or illness: this was a group of older players, and there were certainly wounds and scars, both physical, and of the mind and heart, engraved upon us all.

Two people walked with sticks – a third came through the door bearing a huge boot on one leg, to protect a recently broken ankle. We were not the usual crowd, to be found on Day One of rehearsals. But still, we set to work. In a full-on schedule of dance, movement, speech and song, we started to gather material for a final day’s sharing with people from the theatre industry. The raw material was us. No playscript, or list of prescribed criteria. But real lives, re-examined in the context of a theatre space. Art with the experience of age.

Breathless Whirl of Movement and Music

With customary lack of restraint or self preservation, I threw myself into the process, right from the start. It was all or nothing, as far as I was concerned. I chose all. We took a dance class every morning – and it was the first time I had danced like this for a long, long time. The exhilaration it sparked was immediate. It threw me back to dance college days, thirty years before: the breathless whirl of movement and music, exhorting the spirit – and the body – to climb higher and higher.

The Performance Ensemble successfully completed its inaugural week. Nobody fell over. Nobody died. Everybody became increasingly animated, confident and committed, as the project progressed. There is now a regular company, increased funding, and rehearsals are in full flow for a new and bigger production. Hope over adversity. Tenacity. And the courage to have a dream.

Slow Walking into the Future

Every morning, during company class, director Alan Lyddiard leads something called Slow Walking. Meditative and solemn, silent and composed, the walking prepares each participant for work . It builds confidence and calm and determination. “This is me. I am here. I am fine.”

We sit on a long row of chairs, eyes closed, hands folded over our thighs, head held high, body in balance. The music begins. Slowly, our eyes open. We stand, one by one, walk forwards, pause, look back to where we started. We turn, step back towards the chair – to safety and to stillness. But no. We can’t go back. No one can go back, because time takes us ever onwards.

So we turn again to the future, and continue to travel forward. One arm lifts. We watch it, with a kind of dispassionate curiosity, then we let it fall. Why? Who knows? Not everything happens for a reason. The music stops. Silence. Whispered words echo around the room. “I wish” and “I remember”. And so it begins.

Searching for Profound Harmony

In the 1930s, a remarkable and reclusive woman called Nan Shepherd started walking through the Cairngorms, close to where she lived. Unlike the ego driven male mountaineers, she had no wish to dominate or conquer the landscape: she merely wished to live in it, and to learn the secrets of nature and the wild living world. She wrote notes about her experiences, which, years after her death, were published, in a beautiful book called ‘The Living Mountain’.

The transcendent feelings she describes, of being at one with her surroundings – and with herself – come close to evoking the sense of communion that Slow Walking, at its best, can provide. She writes: “It is therefore when the body is keyed to its highest potential and controlled to a profound harmony, deepening into something that resembles trance, that I discover most nearly what it is to be. I have walked out of the body and into the mountain.   (The Living Mountain, page 106/Nan Shepherd/Canongate).

Crossing the Borders of our Imagination

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The Performance Ensemble rises again on February 21st, 2020, with a performance in Leeds, England, called ‘Crossing’. Here is some of the production’s content – and here, too, our manifesto. If you are able to join us – as audience member, or potential future participant, you would be very welcome indeed.

‘Crossing’: a work in progress

A man crosses the mountains from Afghanistan to Pakistan. He leaves behind everything he loves in order to be free. “Take a last look at your country…” A woman travels from Hong Kong to England: her whole life becomes the food she cooks and sells in her take away cafe in Leeds. A boy steals a toy car from the local shop. Consumed by guilt, he goes back the next day, and returns it to the shelf. An English girl falls in love with a Hungarian boy. There is a wall between them – the Berlin Wall. When the wall falls, their love is finished. Difficult births. Divorce. Heartbreak. Death. New beginnings. Always another chance. Many languages, countries, cultures: and in the middle of it all – ordinary people, with extraordinary tales to tell. These are the moments of our lives: moments of meaning and change. Come with us, in Crossing, across the border, to explore in music, dance, words and silence, what it means to be human in our  troubled contemporary world.

The Performance Ensemble: Towards a Manifesto

We are a company of older performers. Some of us are writers, dancers, musicians, actors; others are teachers, scientists, social workers, probation officers. We bring to this work a wide range of skills and expertise, and lives that are full of meaning and intent. We aim to share these rich lives with our audiences, through dance, song, and the spoken word. Everyone has a story to tell – and here are some of ours. The Ensemble collaborates closely together, through weekly classes and intensive rehearsals, to create multi-layered performances, based on the authentic, lived experiences of each individual member. All are equal, and equally valued. It is our aim and ambition to work together long into the future, building trust and confidence: making a community of players, in which everyone has a respected and honoured place. Our current project, ‘Bus Pass’, is a series of different performances, culminating in an epic outdoor happening, featuring one thousand older performers, as part of the Leeds 2023 celebrations. Whilst there is a core group of committed ensemble members, we constantly spread our net more widely, too, both in and around the communities of Leeds, to include as many older people as possible in the projects we are building. We also invite international artists to join us in our work. All of us – older or not – remain full of vibrant energy, reflection and insight. Full of generous ambition, full of hope.

You can book tickets here:

Visit our website here:

Some of the material in this blog has been taken from a manuscript in progress for my new book about the body: ‘Wild Goose Flying’. Watch this space for more extracts.

The information about ‘Crossing’ at the end is included in the programme notes for the performance.

 

 

 

Flowers of Spring

THE CLUMPS of snowdrops in the garden and in the park. Stems of daffodils, standing to attention on the high banks, yellow crocus in fat bud, lining the avenues. Even the squat and star-shaped leaves of bluebells, already lying in wait for their moment, later in May,  in the little local wood. Everything tells the same story – down to the sour clods of mud, stuck hard on the bottom of boots, and the feathered fringes of my Thursday dog’s fur. Spring is on its way. And even the thinnest ray of sunshine, filtering through our grey northern clouds, brings a little skip to the heart, a lightness to the step.

We follow the seasons particularly closely, in a creative arts project I help to run at the West Yorkshire Playhouse in Leeds, for people with dementia and those who care for them. Bringing in the fruits of autumn – pumpkins, squash – and the signals of winter – bare branches, images of snow – helps stabilise us all, within the rhythms of the natural world. It is a concrete reminder, to minds that may be confused, and hearts that are sometimes sore with loneliness and worry, that we can always rely on one fact: the world that disappears, like Persephone, deep into the underground at the end of every year, will always return, come the spring.

Snowdrops are the first harbingers. Then, hot on their heels, come the gaudy yellows of narcissus, the soft mauves, whites and blues of the woodland flowers, and then the heavenly mass of forest bluebells. Everybody loves spring flowers.

And though there is talk in our sessions, sometimes, of a dark  and wintry mood – of sadness at things lost: a once-nimble mind, a youthful body, friends and family that may  be dead or far away – there is always a ready access to joy. People with dementia are often more direct, less inhibited, in their emotional expression: as if the pipeline to their mind, which has grown furred and blocked, has been re-directed, opened wider, straight into their hearts.

Singing, writing song lyrics and poetry, and dancing to the powerful rhythms of spring, brings genuine delight to this group – and to those of us who lead it. Always, people’s  humour is diverting. Always, their creativity surprises and delights. Always, their own words and ideas are faithfully recorded and celebrated. In the last two weeks, new beginnings have been the dominant theme. Spring is calling everyone to attention.

Snowdrops have brought forth a tune of survival…”Snowdrops, snowdrops, snowdrops…Soft white petals, musty and sweet…smells like winter…pushing through the earth… Heralding the spring!” Parallels between the natural world – and the human need and determination to survive, to thrive, whatever the odds – are never far away. “The light makes the shoots come through/Coming out from the dark earth/Flowers dancing, swaying, springing back/They won’t break/I won’t let them…”  The whole of life is starting to pulsate. “One bird feeding… a whole flock comes gliding… dancing through the sky.” “Lovely to feel the sun on your face…What a relief!… Spring has sprung.”

My colleague, singer songwriter Fran Woodcock, co-presents the dementia-friendly Our Time workshops and provides all the glorious music that accompanies our exploration of  images, words and movement.  Visit her website here.

Nicky Taylor, Community Development Manager at West Yorkshire Playhouse, has pioneered all the dementia-friendly work in the theatre. Her latest triumph is a ground-breaking festival of theatre for people with dementia. Read about it here

 

Up on the moors with Emily Bronte

“Emily loved the solemn moors, she loved all wild, free creatures and things.” (Literary News, 1883)

THE BRONTE SISTERS are much on my mind this autumn. This year, 2016, marks the two hundredth anniversary of Charlotte Bronte’s birth: and the West Yorkshire Playhouse, where I teach a creative writing session every Wednesday, is celebrating with an eclectic season of readings and re-imaginings of her work. My writers, meanwhile, are setting free their imaginations, to invent poems and prose, inspired by the mighty and evergreen themes that Charlotte and Emily in particular examined, with such forensic intensity. Freedom and incarceration. Love and loyalty. Solitude and surveillance. The passions and confinements of women. Life: and the very-present shadow of death.

Last week I ventured over to Haworth, former home of the Brontes,to tread the ground which gave rise to such a powerful and enduring literary canon. Leeds, in West Yorkshire, where I live, is only a hop and a skip away from the high stone village, where the Brontes spent their childhoods – and which forms a bold, symbolic backdrop to all their writing. I took the train from Leeds to Keighley, on the Skipton line. Then a glorious steam train from Keighley to Haworth(ignoring the beer festival which took over most of the carriages en route). A steep old walk from the station, through the well-kept park, and up the narrow cobble road of the village, took me to the Parsonage itself: once the Bronte family house, now a museum and proud keeper of the Bronte flame.

Inevitably, the Brontes have become a heritage industry of great value. Tourists flock from all over the world, to catch a glimpse of the buildings and landscape immmortalised in ‘Jane Eyre’ and ‘Wuthering Heights’. But it is October. The weather is closing in, and the visitors are melting away. And on a clear autumnal day such as this was, the beauty and the elemental starkness of Haworth shone through with compelling force, unclouded by crowds and cameras and chatter.

So there was the Parsonage – grey and sturdy. Across the courtyard garden – the cemetery. Down a small slope – the church, where all the Brontes, save Anne, are buried. And, just a short walk up through the churchyard – a meadow, walled with blunt Yorkshire stone. Beyond that – the crags, the wild bare expanses of the Moors themselves. (See the photo above). This was what Emily would have seen, looking out of her Parsonage window. These indeed were the “heights”, the bleak and “wuthering”,”blustery and turbulent”, hills. And it stirred me, to see them.

Of the two writing sisters – Emily and Charlotte – Charlotte Bronte is, to me, the most sophisticated and subtle, by far; and of the two women, Emily – who died so young, so troubled – is by far the wildest. It is Charlotte I would read, for insight into the human condition. But it is Emily I would invoke, if I found myself fearful, spirit flagging, heart weak. She was a girl devastated by losses and grief (as her poem “Remembrance” so powerfully reveals); she was unable, it seems, to overcome her pain, and to function fully, in the way that Charlotte somehow managed to. And yet, when she travelled to Brussels with Charlotte, the head of the school where they enrolled and taught, Monsieur Heger, described her – with remorseless sexism, but telling psychological insight – thus: “She should have been a man – a great navigator. Her powerful reason would have deduced new spheres of discovery from the knowledge of the old; and her strong, imperious will would never have been daunted by opposition or difficulty…”

Emily died in 1848, one year after ‘Wuthering Heights’ was published. She never knew the extraordinary effect it had on generations of readers to come. It is a deeply imperfect piece of writing. But it is a clenched fist to the heart and the stomach. It has real power. Full of contradictions, Emily herself – profoundly shy and yet physically courageous, chained to her moors and yet flying high and free in her imagination – was tender to the last. She died just three months after brother Branwell. The housemaid said, “Miss Emily died of a broken heart, for the love of her brother.” She was so small and thin, her coffin was only sixteen inches wide.

The last words must be hers, channelled though Catherine Earnshaw, in ‘Wuthering Heights’ and I like to think of her, running hell for leather, like her alter ego Catherine, across the boundless heather she invokes so passionately.

“Oh, I’m burning! I wish I were out of doors – I wish I were a girl again, half savage and hardy, and free… I’m sure I should be myself were I once among the heather on those hills…Open the window again wide, fasten it open!”

Wave Haiku

deep winter darkness

winds howl – the bare earth deafened

still waves rise like hope

IT HAS BEEN impossible to find adequate words to deal with the atrocities in Paris – and now the UK government’s decision to drop bombs in Syria. But always it is nature that leads me back towards the essentials – and back to a sense of possibility, of stability and peace. Hence this haiku. The wind is whipping around our house right now, and our lights burn against the darkness. The seasons turn. We will see the sun  again.

I wrote something recently in the Guardian theatre pages about work done at the West Yorkshire Playhouse, Leeds, to support refugees in our city. Here is the link –  the hand of friendship 

Meanwhile, the waves rising gently in the photograph are from the Northumberland coastline. It is the mighty Bamburgh beach in winter time.

A Little Light

THE LEAVES are now almost gone from even the sturdiest bush in the back garden –   dropped, all of a sudden, in the day’s gusty winds, from branch to bare earth. The hour has gone back. We are in the darkest moment of the year. This is when I start burning candles. A pumpkin sits on the window sill – uncarved, giving off its natural orange glow. My energy draws deeper and deeper in, towards the core. I should be hibernating: as should we all. And in some ways, I am. My limbs are getting heavier, eyelids drooping earlier and earlier in the day. I make my soups and stews. I wrap my feet in soft blankets and my neck in fleecy scarves. Natural nesting instincts, to assist and soothe, as the year drops away towards the shortest day. Then step by step towards spring.

Despite these sleepy instincts, my working life at the theatre – West Yorkshire Playhouse – has recently been busier than ever. Many workshops to run on the creative engagement programme – much plotting and collaborating with clever artists, musicians and drama practitioners – to take theatre, dance, poetry and music, out to communities of local people. And to bring them home to us.

The human imagination is a wonderful and mysterious thing. Through these busy weeks I have seen over and over again, how inventive and creative even the most challenged of people are, if they are just given a little nudge in the right direction. I have watched an older woman fall in love with a harp – handling it for the first time during an arts session, and almost falling inside it, as she coaxed the sounds of flowing water from its gently yielding strings. I saw, at the UK Dementia Congress, how vital sensory stimulus is, to someone coping with dementia, when a delighted delegate stopped by our stall, picked up pebbles and shells and driftwood and talked of her need to feel her way, through a world grown strange and different, in so many ways. Just yesterday I noticed the puzzled looks on the faces of my Wednesday Creative Writing group, as I set them the impossible challenge of writing a two-minute play in three acts (“That’s 40 seconds an act!” someone protested); then watched them just as quickly pick up the mantle, and set to work – pens flying across the page in conscientious endeavour. The results will be magic. I know it.

I  inwardly bemoan my failures too. There was the man with learning difficulties whose distress at a particular misunderstanding I just couldn’t decipher or mitigate; the woman with dementia, whose feet failed to really connect with the ground  in one of my movement sessions – because I couldn’t find the right words to connect her with the earth; and there are the colleagues whose astonishing skills I cannot always harness to my own, as we go about our work together. It is always a shot in the dark, this creative work… And what is it that we do, after all, in theatre – both on stage and off? We encourage ourselves, and the people who come to us, to soar a little, out of everyday life, into a different world. A world of possibility, of struggle overcome – of fleeting, occasional, palpable wonder.

One dear colleague, John, sent through a poem  which puts the whole endeavour beautifully into words.

Come to the edge.
We might fall.
Come to the edge.
It’s too high!
COME TO THE EDGE!
And they came,
and he pushed,
And they flew.
Christopher Logue

If we achieve anything in the world of the arts, then this would be the aim, after all. A little light in the darkness. A little light.

John Mee is one of the creative directors of Alive and Kicking, a dynamic, fun and sparky theatre company working in schools in and around Leeds, and bringing delight to many a child’s mind and heart. Their new show The Museum of Untold Stories, is booking now. Find them here

Our Time is a programme that I work on with John and with our wonderful colleague and manager at West Yorkshire Playhouse, Nicky Taylor, to inspire creativity in people with dementia. Read more about us here

Poppies

Poppies are probably my favourite flower. I love the technicolour brightness of them. I love their furry, sexy, serrated leaves. I love the way the fat buds lurk in a mass of foliage, waiting, waiting, waiting…. for their moment to BURST out, in full technicolour, one lucky and glamorous day in May. Perhaps most of all, I love that they are both powerful and fragile, all at the same time. It seems, every year, that the minute my poppies come into bloom, they are savaged by sudden winds and rains, and resort to bending their gorgeous heads – bloodied, unbowed – as long as they possibly can, before shedding, dropping, disappearing for another year, sometimes after just a few days of flowering. They are a wonder.

I still wait for this year’s beauties to appear. Spring has been slow in its dawning. I stalk them in the garden, day by day, inspecting for buds, stroking their camouflage greenery, willing them to come out and join in the party, to break suddenly and stridently into song. The picture here is from last year’s crop. They are Tim’s poppies: grown and then transplanted from my old house, to the allotment, to my new house, all from a small plant given to me years ago by my husband, as a present for Mothers’ Day. So they hold a special place in my heart. They live on, though he couldn’t. They seem to shine in his honour, his memory, holding his curious mix of shyness and belligerence. And aren’t they bonny, with their red-orange skirts, their bold black hearts? Real warrior flowers.

This Bank Holiday weekend I have hardly been in my garden at all – though I feel fingers and toes itching to do so, the minute I finish writing this – because I have been up to my neck in a theatre festival, TRANSFORM 2015, at the West Yorkshire Playhouse. It was a wonderful event – full of international artists and cross-cultural conversations – which will form the seedbed (gardening term unintended, but entirely appropriate) for future collaborations between Leeds and the cities and countries of the world. The thing about theatre folk, however, is their tendency to talk. To be LOUD – if not onstage, then certainly off it. So now I want to be silent for a while. Now I am turning, once again, to the quieter form of theatre right outside my kitchen window: the green stage and sweet scenery of my own city back garden.

Everything is looking very lush and verdant now: the acid greens of the euphorbia, the sharp sword leaves of Crocosmia Firebird – which will, come July, rival the poppies with its sharp, scarlet, trumpeting blooms. The birds are going crazy for the birdseed: hungrier than ever, now that they are making their nests and raising their young. Swarms of warring sparrows swoop and squabble over my birdbath every morning; blue tits and coal tits swing insouciantly from the fat-filled coconut shells; and my favourites – the blackbirds – hop and bounce across the grass, in search of the juiciest grub, the fattest, sleepiest worm.

Every week I go walking in Roundhay Park, north east Leeds, with my dog friend Badger, whom I borrow for the day each Thursday. Last week we suddenly found ourselves caught inside a great shaggy circle of shining black crows, all intent on their foraging, down at ground level, on a large open slope above the glittering lake – and quite oblivious to the hapless dog and human trapped momentarily in the middle of them all. What would they be, this gathering of satanic masters: a convention, a concatenation, a coven? Whatever the word, they had a certain pleasing menace about them: and a natural dramatic presence. Theatre in the round. Black crows in Roundhay Park. Theatre, said Augusto Boal, quoted by a Lebanese activist at the TRANSFORM festival this last weekend, must be a “rehearsal for the revolution”. I just wonder what those birds – never mind the humans – are plotting to overthrow first?