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)
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
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.