My Aunt was always doing wild things

Now The Day is Over Rotherhithe Theatre Workshop 1985 Aggie Nell and Joan
Joan Godfrey, Nell Cotterell (‘My Aunt’) and Aggie Harwood in 1985 Rotherhithe Theatre Workshop production of ‘Now the day is over’

 

The following is the manuscript of an article that I recently wrote, published by Taylor & Francis in Theatre, Dance and Performance Training, Volume 9 Issue 3, on [October 2018], available online: https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/19443927.2018.1500939   

It is about some of the ideas that have underpinned the past and current work of Entelechy Arts as the company continue to explore the boundaries between art, community and everyday life. 

“Whenever people have the sense of being alive and wholly present to one another, we have the spirit of community. The anthropologist Turner called this process of being wholly present and alive “communitas”. Without “communitas” the cycle of daily routines and repeated acts lacks authentic energy and people cease to take care of the world because it is no longer their world” ( Hulton ed 1984, p310).

2017, Bermondsey, south London, the lounge of a nursing home for older people. There are twenty of us in the room: artists and emerging artists of all ages, residents and non-residents, professional carers and relatives. In this liminal space, identities have become blurred. The room has been transformed into a creative laboratory, part of the research and development stage for a forty-eight-hour immersive theatre work that will interrogate the question: “What makes life worth living when we are old and frail and unable to care for ourselves?” (Gwande 2014).

And yet, despite the difficult life circumstances of many of the participants, despite the enormity of the question and the complex social challenges that underpin it, there is a sense of energy and excitement in the room. There is a sense of connectedness, of “communitas”. Within Turner’s space of ‘authentic energy’ relationships are deepening. The shared process of making theatre has created a space for people to grow into new possibilities of themselves. Their stories and perspectives are contributing to a wider creative process.

People living in nursing homes are some of our most isolated citizens. Institutional life has served to segregate them from the web of social connections in which they were formally situated. ‘Their temporal frameworks, their ‘future that cannot be mapped out’, (has) ceased to synchronise with those of family and friends’ (Lawton 2000).

Ageing is a growing concern in the UK. The number of older adults (age 65+) is set to rise to almost 25% of the population over the next 20 years (Age UK, 2013). Although people are living longer, they are not necessarily living well. Beyond the walls of the care homes there are increasing numbers of people living home alone with domiciliary care support. Many also experience chronic isolation with often negative impacts on health and well-being (e.g., feelings of loneliness, poor quality of life, development of illness; Cacioppo & Patrick, 2008; Perissinotto et al., 2012).

The theatre session in the lounge is not a ‘one-off’ intervention in a ‘care setting’. The older participants are recognised and valued members of a wider, complex, arts, relational network of people that stretches out through the walls of their institution into the neighbourhoods of south east London. Hundreds of people come together in interchangeable groupings, at different times and in different spaces to sing, dance, write, perform, and tell stories; to make theatre in a ‘quietly transformative practice’ (Heritage ed 2013) co-curated by Entelechy Arts.

This work realises an ambition of the Warwick Report (University of Warwick 2015). Cultural spaces: arts centres, libraries, studios are transformed into gathering spaces, into places that give ‘us continuity, something to return to, and offer a familiarity that allows some portion of our lives to remain connected and coherent’ (Solnit 2014) Here, in the creative doing, people build tiny particles of community; particles of belonging.

Within these interactional relationships people become valued and recognised as ‘individuals with biographies constructing projects that are historical in character’. (Witkin 1995). There is a fragile stitching back into time as isolated older people become recognised and valued as active and contributing citizens. This is a creation of community as a ‘largely mental construct…highly symbolised, with the consequence that its members can invest it with their selves’ (Cohen 1985) ‘I’m a different person. More able. More confident. I often wonder what’s going to happen next that I’ve never experienced before’ (Channing-Hamon 2017).

The genesis of this work, now beginning to inform UK arts and cultural policy (DCMS 2016; Gulbenkian 2017) can be traced back to the ecology and pedagogy of Dartington College in the 1970s. “What if you grew up with a theatre at the end of your street?” asked Peter Hulton, one of the architects of Dartington’s Theatre Language course (1978-1985). Forty years later in many south London neighbourhoods, where third year students lived and worked on placement, the question still resonates in the continuing permutations of a lay theatre practice first described by Alan Read (Read 1993). The theatre uncovered and propagated by Dartington staff and students at the end of a south London street in 1978 became Rotherhithe Theatre Workshop. Forty-years later this  ongoing practice has moved five miles down the road to Deptford, morphing into the work of Entelechy Arts.

The encounter between theatre and community and an uncovering of the relationship between theatre, people and place, was at the heart of Dartington’s four-year Theatre Language course, ‘designed primarily for students of theatre who seek to put themselves and their resources at the services of those communities which established theatre does not serve.’ (Dartington College 1976) Colette King, head of the Theatre Department during its inception, held a strong belief in the potential of theatre practice ‘both for the individual in relation to ‘his or her immediate world’ and the society in which the practice is situated (de Wit 2000).’ A huge impetus for the course was ‘the urgent need to address the question – What contribution can theatre practice make to the welfare of the community in which it occurs?’ (King., Hulton and Read 1984).

The embedding of this enquiry in and around the southeast London neighbourhood of Rotherhithe over a significant period (the student placement ran from 1978 until 1991) created ‘an opportunity to establish individually and collectively what the practice of theatre could be’ (Read 1993) Within a year-long placement students were given the skills, and critically the time, to live and work in the company of the young and old from a former docklands community undergoing massive social change. Long established kinship networks were slowly being fragmented but there still existed a huge residual sense of belonging that came ‘from knowing and being known’ (Young & Willmott 1957) by so many people in the neighbourhood.

Space, time, curiosity and a huge amount of ‘making it up in the moment’ were invested in developing sustained relationships with people for whom the process of making theatre seemed to be a necessary and natural part of their day to day lives. ‘The social spaces in which theatre occurred, the place it took up, that in each and every case needed analysis and continual renewal through theatre.’ (Read 1993).

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Rotherhithe Theatre Workshop performers Peter Jarman and Aggie Harwood in Entelechy Arts 1995 production ‘Century’

Young people in the neighbourhood acted out their stories in the shelter of the rubbish chutes underneath the tower blocks of the local estate. They had ‘dreaming spaces’ on the L shaped pier jutting out from the derelict riverside space. Older people still hauled themselves onto coaches clinging on to the old works tradition of the ‘beano’ and the wild south London seasonal decamps to the hop fields of Kent. They screamed out their survival of everything that the twentieth century had thrown at them through the raw processes of theatre: telling stories, singing and dancing. Each year they would still organise summer coach trips down to seaside towns on the south coast, still young and wild despite what their bodies were telling them, scouring the pubs for a piano. They’d transform themselves with costumes stuffed into carrier bags, seduce bar staff to sing and kitchen staff to perform impromptu fragments of Shakespeare. They were the curators of wild and wonderful mash-ups. ‘It was only a little bar but we commandeered it. And they all said “Oh it’s the Bermondsey Women.” We sit down quiet for one drink and then, all of a sudden, the piano and…’ (Slater 1985).

Wittingly or unwittingly Dartington’s Theatre Department engendered a slow-motion collision between these wild, natural and intuitive practices and the form and methodologies of Stanislavsky and Laban or work emerging from Steve Paxton and the American new dance scene. And in the preoccupation created by a confusion of necessity, barter and exchange, the question about welfare floated quietly out of the window. Students were given the confidence to ‘unlearn’ and put aside established conventions, in the encounter with the immediate and the new. Work evolved ‘in the doing’ and the passion for the doing neatly sidestepped the blind alleys of instrumentalism.  Forty years later, writing about the ongoing legacy of this practice in south London Danny Ruta, Lewisham’s Director of Public Health writes:

‘It’s become clear to me what’s unique, what’s different… With the use of arts in health it’s either come from a biomedical model and considered as therapy, so you have an art therapist alongside a physiotherapist, or an occupational therapist or it’s an educational model and about teaching and you go and deliver a session. This is coming from a completely different model, which is about passion for art. It’s holistic; completely holistic.’ (Ruta 2017).

Four decades later there are still direct links back to Dartington’s presence. One of the older residents in the Bermondsey care home, now working with Entelechy’s artists on research and development for the forty-eight-hour immersive theatre work, was the niece of one of the Bermondsey women who worked alongside Dartington students in the 1980s. ‘My aunt was always doing wild things’, she said. And so the ripples continue, with the same irrepressible curiosity, energy and cultural intelligence inform the making of a very local theatre.

In his introduction to the Council of Europe workshop on Theatre and Communities Robert Witkin spoke of the point of connection between the individual’s expression of feeling and emotion and the larger structures of collective life; the individual’s ‘personal being and the larger structure of affect which we call community’. ‘Human Communities, unlike those of insects, or animals are not given directly in the genes; we have to make them and remake them.’ (Witkin 1985).

Within Dartington’s teaching the emphasis on process, the necessity for a constant making and remaking was most evident in the work of dance artist Steve Paxton and his introduction of Contact Improvisation with its focus on the constant state of becoming –‘the improvisational process of evolving that never really reaches an endpoint’ (Cooper Albright 1997) This practice suddenly suggested that there was ‘no one way to make dance… no kind of movement that can’t be included in these dances…no kind of sound that is not proper for accompaniment. Only the integrity of the performer is at stake, the integrity to do the business in hand’ (Barnes 1993).

In Rotherhithe in the 1980s the business in hand had become an uncovering and a nurturing of the everyday practices of theatre. If you grew up with a theatre at the end of your street, then the theatre would have to negotiate its practice to meet the rhythms and interests of the street. ‘It was not appropriate to appeal to the structures of professional theatre as a separated institution from everyday life, the expectation that rehearsal times would take precedence over meal times unless of course the object was to rid the work of those whose involvement demanded a continual negotiation with the expectations of the everyday world. (Read 1993) After forty years this process of negotiation between the everyday and the practice of theatre is ongoing:

‘I look forward to my Tuesdays like you never know how. I say to the doctors, the hospitals, whoever’s doing the appointments: “I’m sorry I can’t have that date, it’s a Tuesday…I can’t have an appointment on that date.” That’s how much it means.’ (Channing-Hamon 2017).

Perhaps the legacy of the Theatre Language course, the reason why, forty years later its teaching is still so resonant, is this sense of integrity and authenticity that it invested in its graduates.

A new generation of theatre-makers were supported to develop their practice in places and spaces that gave them both the resilience and courage to side-step the transitory fashions of applied practice: ‘Outmoded forms of reference such as ‘political theatre’ and ‘community arts’ limit thought to partitioned realms which have very little to do with the complexity of real contexts’(Read 1993) Students were supported to work within the ambiguity of both knowing and not knowing what they were doing; to have the confidence to see the making of creative choices as ‘stages of an exploration in which the end cannot necessarily be envisaged at the beginning’ (Kent., Ward and Yon 1985).  In short it allowed the liberation for a new generation of practitioners to work with vulnerability and uncertainty within a huge range of diverse social landscapes.

Back in the Bermondsey Care Home and the wider communities beyond, it is as true for Florrie as it was for her Aunt Nell forty years earlier: ‘the rhythm and modes of expression that many older people have at their disposal destabilise the conventions of a theatre which thinks it knows itself (Read 1993).

‘We don’t have a certificate to say we went to a drama school but in this community, here we are recognised… At our age we take risks. It is stimulating intellectually. All of us are on tablets or pills or injections… Anything could happen to us but we take the risk. There’s a lot of trust. We belong to this body of trust, like sisters to each other. Sometimes you’ve got to take risks for the unknown…We want to be remembered.’ (Wheatland, Sewell, Hunte & Keckwick 2013).

 

References

Age UK.,  2013 Challenges of an Ageing Population

Barnes, S., 1993. Democracy’s Body . London: Duke, 86

Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation., 2017. Rethinking Relationships. London: Gulbenkian UK Branch, 80-81

Cacioppo, J. T., & Patrick, W. 2008 Loneliness: Human nature and the need for social connection. New York, NY: W. W. Norton.

Channing-Hamon, J ., 2017 More than we ever dreamed [online] London: Entelechy Arts, Available from http://entelechyarts.org/wp-content/uploads/2017/08/Meet-Me-at-the-Albany-IMPACT.pdf [accessed 10 Dec 2017]

Cooper Albright, A., 1997  Choreographing Difference. Middletown: Wesleyan, 89

Cohen, A., 1989. The Symbolic Construction of Community. London: Routledge

Dartington Theatre Department flyer., 1976

De Wit, M., 2000 New dance development at Dartington College of Arts UK 1971-1987 Available from http://eprints.mdx.ac.uk/9504/ [accessed 10 Dec 2017]

Gawande, A., 2014. Being Mortal. London: Profile, 92

Heritage and Hunter ed., 2013 The Point of Culture. London: Gulbenkian UK, 128

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