Penelope, Guitars and a Salt Marsh

Entelechy 21st Century Tea Dance Deptford Mission London March 2011

To the Museum of Modern Art and “Imagination and the Changing Mind”, a symposium that considers how innate differences or changes that develop in later life can beget creative engagement and meaningful contribution to society. Afterwards I snatch a brief conversation with one of the keynote speakers, Anne Basting. Anne is the Director of the Center on Age and Community at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. She had been speaking of a programme that she had been developing: The Penelope Project. The project has used the story of Penelope from Homer’s Odyssey to engage an entire long term care community in a creative process.  Discussion groups, movement exercises, visual art, stories, and music all formed part of a multi-year project that culminated in a performance: FINDING PENELOPE, a professionally produced play, inside the care facility. I guess it’s a process that transformed a care space into a creative space. Anne had spoken about the walls of the institution; the need for porous walls.

If Entelechy aspired to be a landscape I think maybe it would be a salt marsh; an intertidal zone. The sociologist Richard Sennett makes the distinction between borders and boundaries. He talks of natural ecologies where borders are the zones in a habitat where organisms become more inter-active; places where different species or physical conditions meet. In contrast Boundaries represent an impenetrable edge: no cross-overs, no interactions.

This distinction between has been nagging away in the course of my travels. I have visited many different ‘senior communities’. As I walked through the front doors of residential apartment blocks how many boundaries have I been crossing? How many Borders? Even where the practice is most excellent it feels that I have been witnessing only preliminary expeditions. We are all at the beginning of a very long journey.

This week in London Entelechy is setting up a base camp in one of our own forays into the territory. In a residential care home, Manley Court, we are working with residents and staff to co-curate one of our 21st Century Tea Dance series. The event will take place in the corridors, lifts, bedrooms and nurses stations of the large nursing home. There will also be a big marquee directly outside the home with performances and live music, and open to the general public. We have commissioned Jazz producing agency The Spitz co-produce the event. One resident who will be the compare for the day, and used to be a professional performer in Butlins holiday camps, has decided he would like to reverse things a bit and dress up as a nurse. Double bass players, trumpeters and vocalists will be singing in lifts and peoples bedrooms, masseurs will be providing neck and shoulder massage and hand massage in the middle of the Marquee t-dance. A resident and his wife will open the event with a slow samba dance as it’s their 54th wedding anniversary.

It’s the porous walls and long-term realationships. Back in the States in Burbank way back in sunny California sitting in on the EngAge session (The nothing in particular and everything moment I have written about earlier) the theatre space in the Senior Artists Colony had become this liminal space a space for these two very different groups of people to come together and tune guitars! “I am so excited. All my life I’ve wanted to learn the guitar” said one of the older group members.

And the learning from this (is learning the right word?)

Younger person: “I’ve learned that they (older people) are not boring and they don’t smell”.

Older person: “I was really scared of it. Meeting the kids. I thought they had to be avoided. Now I just go over there (to the neighbouring school) and have fun”.

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