If a space ship came by from the friendly natives of the fourth planet of Altair, and the polite captain of the space ship said, ‘We have room for one passenger… so that we can converse at leisure… and learn from an exemplary person the nature of the race’… I would go down to the local Woolworth’s… and pick an old woman… only a person who has experienced, accepted and acted the entire human condition—the essential quality of which is Change—can fairly represent humanity. (Le Guin 2018: 52)
It’s lunchtime on a Wednesday afternoon in Deptford, south-east London. A teenager stands in the foyer of The Albany with her two friends. Outside is a busy street market. The young people are in school uniform. Together they hold an energy—a shared sense of urgency. A number is scribbled in blue ink along the side of the girl’s hand. They want to talk. They need to take agency: they think that they have witnessed a crime.
All morning the public spaces in the streets around the theatre have been full of the choreography of people being taken by surprise. There have been electric huddles of conversation on street corners, anxious glances: there in plain sight, in among the market stalls an older woman in her night clothes lies abandoned in a bed.
The subject matter is nothing out of the ordinary, nothing unusual, something held in the peripheral understanding of hundreds of thousands up and down the country. Everyone reads about it, report after report is written about it, it is one of the great social pre-occupations of our time: loneliness and the isolated old. But on this Wednesday afternoon in south-east London it seems to have hijacked the ordinary wanderings of people’s lives.
BED is a street performance work created and produced by older members of the South London arts company Entelechy Arts. The impetus for, and co-creation of, the work came from a group women in their 70s and 80s who, when walking out in public life, felt that they were no longer recognized and valued as the people that they had always felt themselves to be.
In her seminal study Old Age, Simone de Beauvoir quotes Juliette Drouet writing to Victor Hugo assuring him that her love would stand the proof of time: ‘The setting has changed and I have put on the disguise of old age’ (1977: 329). For the South London women, the settings that had acted as a constant backdrop to their everyday lives have remained the same: the public spaces, the bus routes, the places where they shop, but now, hidden behind their own encroaching ‘disguise of old age’, they felt themselves no longer fully seen. They felt that they were being slowly airbrushed out of civic life.
Brazilian anthropologist Luiz Eduardo Soares speaks of this process of becoming invisible in the gaze of the other when writing about the experience of young men in the Brazilian favela:
Invisibility may be the product of public indifference to his presence—which is never purely physical, but also social—or of the social stigma projected on him, which erode whatever personal traits single him out as a human being… We human beings can only exist through the mediation of the generous gaze of the other, giving us back our own image invested with humanity—that is qualified and dignified… there is another kind of hunger, prior to physical hunger, the hunger for existence, the driving need to be acknowledged, valued and accepted. (Soares 2010: 38)
For the South London women, an encroaching public indifference to their own presence, coupled with their own driving need to be acknowledged, valued and accepted forged the explosion of energy and intention that led to the creation of BED:
We don’t want to be invisible on the street. We want people to know that no matter how old you are you can still do something. You’re not just an old person walking with stick or pushing a basket. You can be recognized in different ways”. (Gwen Sewell, BED co-creator)
The older women spoke of the stages of separation and segregation experienced by many of their peers and those in the generation proceeding them, the older, old—people living home alone, dependent on increasingly overstretched domiciliary care services or admission to the institutionalized rigour of older people’s care homes; people joining the cohorts of those existing out of sight, out of mind, living a social death with the loss of social roles and cultural identity (Hazan 1994: 69).
The company wanted to create an ‘un-hiding’ of the stories and fragments of the life experiences of the older, old. They wanted to take people by surprise, to connect with audiences who wouldn’t necessarily be seen in the conventional places where they had performed before, local theatres, community centres, arts spaces. They took to the street.
They decided to make a work that created the appearance of abandonment, that spoke of vulnerability and encapsulated so many of the hidden stories and experiences that formed the fabric of their day-to-day lives and those of their peers. Within the act of performance they wanted to create a space in the public realm for intimate connections between passing strangers—a space for listening, recognition and reciprocation.
The work of Entelechy Arts ‘defies categorisation’ (Matarasso 2018: 5). It is created with and by people living within the diverse communities of south-east London; it is forged by the collision of different worlds and life experiences. In the urban environment ‘we must deal… with people whom we do not know personally, whom we do not recognise, and, most important, who are obviously different from us in many ways’ (Fischer 1999: 220). The company works with people of different ages, backgrounds and abilities. The creative space becomes a point of connection and encounter for people who carry many different labels and distinctions. Work is based upon the belief that performance practice and all the social paraphernalia that surrounds it, has a role to play in re-imagining civic connections between historically marginalized individuals and groups, enabling people to feel present, alive and engaged with their world and the worlds of others.
This practice challenges many of the ways in which communities seek to support and care for their most dependent members. Within a large relational network of participants, Entelechy Arts works with people who have profound and complex disabilities, including age-acquired disabilities and isolated people living in care homes. Work holds little respect for the structural boundaries that serve to silo and segregate the older, old. Entelechy’s ‘Walking through Walls’ programme supports ways in which older people who are described as ‘frail’ and ‘vulnerable’ can become active and contributing members of their wider communities as singers, dancers, poets. Performance projects support people to ‘break out’ of the confines of ‘care settings’, work with others in their neighbourhoods and become the co-curators of performance work in parks and open spaces, shopping centres, libraries and arts spaces.
This work, and the consequent risks involved when those cosseted from the unpredictable circumstances of everyday life are invited to re-enter it, is underpinned by an adherence to principles identified as being needed to produce an ‘integrity of care’: attentiveness, responsibility, competence and responsiveness (Barnes 2012: 19). This necessary relationship between performance practice and care when engaging with older, old populations, suggests the possibility for new societal arrangements for the integration of care into everyday life, placing the arts and creativity at the heart of reimagined practices. Within Entelechy’s work such an alchemy is attempted by building sustained relationships and establishing trust with participants and their formal and informal carers over long periods of time.
The barriers to effective reintegration of the socially isolated older, old into community life are immense. This was clearly illustrated by the first tentative forays onto the street by members of the BED performing company. Alone and seemingly abandoned in their nightclothes, they found a huge reluctance on the part of the public to engage or even look at work that depicted frailty and need.
A lot of people didn’t want to look. They didn’t want to see it because that could be them in a few years from now. So they just walked by and paid no attention, they pretended that they didn’t see. They wanted to separate themselves from that person: ‘I’m not going to be like that. Some people just turned their heads. I think a lot of people got embarrassed. They are just too embarrassed. They wanted to ignore it. Ignore it and it will go away. (Sybil Read, BED co-creator)
This impulse of people to separate themselves from the ageing body, its identification with ugliness, evil and horror, and the consequent social death that this provokes are, the anthropologist Haim Hazan suggests, a result of the perception of ageing ‘as a dangerous area located, as it were, between life and death’ (1994: 6In the very act of doing and making, the older performers in the BED company were attempting to challenge these habitual responses of ‘walking by’. They wanted to find ways of tripping people up, breaking habit. They sought attention, recognition, the possibility of compassion.
The American philosopher Martha Nussbaum has written about how the public arrangements for the care of the elderly and other dependent groups shape the type of compassion that we will have for the predicaments held by people who give care or receive it:
The way in which a society cares for its dependent members, whether infants or the elderly or the physically or mentally handicapped, communicates to all citizens a view about human weakness and its relations to human dignity. A society will be most likely to decrease the influence of primitive shame on its public life if it conveys the idea that there is nothing shameful about having a human body subject to the vicissitudes of time, age, weakness and illness. Young people should be urged to see such bodies (whether in their peers or their elders) with respect and friendship, rather than with contempt and aggression that so frequently accompany shame about one’s own possibilities. (Nussbaum 2001: 424)
Within Entelechy’s work, artists and participants are constantly exploring ways to affect a sleight of hand that can transmogrify ‘contempt and aggression’ into ‘respect and friendship’.
Work proceeds through a process of deep listening. At the beginning of new projects Entelechy invites artists to spend time alongside people by ‘doing nothing in particular’.
Towards the end of his life John Lennon spoke of the beauty of nothing-in-particular type moments. ‘he talked about his cats and padding around doing the dishes in his robe and making bread and playing with the baby—those kind of nothing conversations that are so precious’ (Locke 2000), echoing the ‘remarkable fact that many of the most precious human activities are also some of the most aimless’ (Eagleton 2016: 22).
Within points of encounter and connection between people who have very different ways of experiencing the world artists and participants are supported to make it up as they go along. They are supported to have the courage of staying with things when they aren’t quite sure what is going to happen. Keats spoke of Negative Capability, ‘when man is capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact & reason’.
Waiting and the uncertainty of waiting is a prerequisite of Entelechy Arts co-authored work. Sara Jane Bailes writes about how the playwright Samuel Beckett:
understands boredom and the listlessness of waiting as an a priori condition and situation of the (expectant, empty) stage itself, a space to be filled, so perhaps we can think of it in this way: that in Beckett’s work, the stage is not a space in which waiting is narrated but rather that waiting is precisely what enables the stage to first of all ‘appear’ and then to become animate. (Bailes 2011: 26)
Nothing-in-particular conversations between artists and older emerging artists build relationships, build trust and support an ability to collectively take risks. They allow for a comfortable relationship with the unknown: for the possibility of making things up as you go along.
At our age we take risks. It is stimulating intellectually. All of us are on tablets or pills or injections. A month ago we went all the way to Bradford from London and we came back safely: ‘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. You don’t know what you are going into but you’ve got to take that risk. (Gwen Sewell, BED co-curator)
The contemporary Spanish novelist Javier Marías talks about the verb to invent, or inventar in Spanish, coming from the Latin invenire, which means to discover, to find out.
I work without a map, I work only with a compass; that is, if I already knew the whole story I was going to tell, if I had it all in my head before I sat down to write, I probably wouldn’t bother to write it. (Marías 2016)
The collective act of not knowing, of collectively inventing, is at the heart of Entelechy Arts collaborative practice: discovering together, listening, interrogating, deciding and understanding work ‘in the doing’.
There is no single author. BED is a genuinely collective piece shaped through the interaction of many people, none of whom knew what it was going to be before it existed. This certainly is co-creation, if the term is more than a fashionable label. (Matarasso 2017)
BED in performance
Entelechy’s creative work values the incomplete form; process and product are given equal value. Consequently, work exists in a constant state of becoming. The gestation of BED stretched over ten years. The Elders Company first started exploring the intimacy of one-on-one exchanges for London’s Capital Age Festival in 2007 when older participants dressed in white scattered themselves sitting on chairs among the crowds along the Southbank riverfront. Collective pre-occupations were transformed into improvised and whispered monologues. People stopped, moved in close, listened, creating one-on-one intimate performance encounters. Rosie Wheatland (one of the elders) company was invited to perform in London Stories at Battersea Arts Centre in 2013: ’the promise of true stories, delivered by real people was extremely appealing to a broad spectrum of audiences’ (Schulze 2018: 122).
Years later the work is still in development, the chairs have been replaced by beds, four beds sitting on scaffolding frames, on large wheels that allow them to be rapidly moved through streets and across parks and open spaces. Mattresses and sheets are adorned with brightly coloured knitted bedspreads with rows of little pockets stitched into their overhanging sides. These are in sharp contrast to the utilitarian/ institutional feel of the steel frames. The performer in her nightclothes inhabits each space: sometimes staring out across space, sometimes sleeping, perhaps knitting. Small cases and bags sit on the beds full of visible and hidden objects—objects that embody experiences, miscellaneous paraphernalia that hold and encapsulate fragments of the bed occupant’s lives.
During the work’s gestation older women from the Entelechy company developed a transcontinental relationship with older performers from a small company who were based in the city of Londrina (Little London) in Paraná state in the south of Brazil. Casa das Fases was a company of twelve older women in their 70s and 80s who were developing radical, experimental work across Brazil and beyond. For a period of four years through visits, the posting of gifts and personal mementos, and digital exchanges (live streaming of work and Skype exchanges) the two groups shared each other’s methodologies and ways of working.
The Brazilian women had devised a performance project, Little Boxes, as a way of sharing fragments of their life stories with children in schools and their wider community in public squares. The Little Boxes project used the embodied object as a transactional tool in the sharing of these personal histories:
They announce themselves with music, and they open their boxes of memories like little theatres in which they perform their stories for an audience of one. For a few brief moments, the cardboard box hung around their necks becomes a stage and a museum. These scenography and costumes are lovingly made in miniature, with little toy, photos, dolls, crepe paper and fabric… full of music, stories and verses, they win over the streets. (Heritage and Hunter 2013: 137)
BED replaced the flourish and beautiful theatricality of the Brazilian street Little Boxes performances with the ambiguity of the displaced familiar piece of domestic furniture in the public space.
In performance, the lines between what is real and what is fiction are edgily blurred. The minty ‘tic tac’ children’s sweets mimic hypotension medication. Performers ask help from passing strangers, struggling to open the plastic pill boxes in which they sit: ‘I can’t remember if I took one this morning.’ The glyceryl trinitrate spray for angina, hidden in a bag under the pillow, is real.
People walk by quickly, careless or sensing something weird: they don’t want to know. Others stop, concerned. Are you alright? Is someone looking after you? What are you doing here? The old woman responds by talking about her life. Her children, who live far away in Leeds. The baby taken from her because she was unmarried. Her sorrows; her world. Memories. She asks for something tucked into the bedclothes. She talks about a photograph she holds.
Clusters of people start to gather around the beds. Conversations start to develop.
‘I live on my own,’ says someone. ‘I’m on my own every night with these two dogs, and every day. It’s bloody lonely, you know. Nobody understands if they haven’t got family and I haven’t got family. It’s a brilliant idea doing this. My dogs keep me going. If it weren’t for them, well, I’d have jumped out of the window ages ago.’ (Matarasso 2018: 3)
Performance artist Adrian Howells spoke of the search in his work for ‘opportunities for people to have community with one another, for people to have opportunities to nurture themselves and each other’ (Howells 2013: 261). Around the beds small, transient particles of community begin to form. There is a sense of authenticity that provokes exchange.
This is personal. A real conversation is taking shape. As it does, the sense comes too that this is not life. But what, then—theatre? And yet it is deeply real, in that intense way art has of heightening what we already feel, though don’t say, even to ourselves. Or perhaps ‘unconcealing’ reality. True and untrue at the same time. (Matarasso 2018: 3)
Audiences are nourished by the authenticity of the encounter. In his ‘zeitgeist diagnosis’ Daniel Schulze has written that we are living in a culture that seeks authenticity.
Fundamentally audiences appear to be in search of first-hand experience, which they find lacking in everyday life… are keen on bringing back the idea of truth, the real and authenticity, and not just as a way of performance but as a genuine human experience. (Schulze 2017: 253)
I think it’s really fantastic. It’s made my day. I found myself telling her about my twelve-year-old daughter’s birthday party and how I’m really pleased that she’s having it at home today after years of, you know, being too cool to have it at home. It’s nice for women to speak to older women. (Pedestrian/Audience member Hove 2016)
I was quite struck. I didn’t know if there was a real human being inside the bed or not. I was a bit scared or a bit hesitant to come closer and see it. I wasn’t sure… is it a protest? Is it art? It was just there in the middle of the road. There wasn’t a sign so I assumed art. It’s definitely effective. I found it moving that she was so exposing of her personal life. That’s very vulnerable lying out there in a bed. Even though its theatre it’s a statement of vulnerability. Very exposing. It’s very exposing and the lovely thing was the courage. (Pedestrian/Audience member Brighton 2016)
Authenticity in performance is underpinned by the authenticity of process, a negotiation between the needs and demands of making theatre and the needs and demands of the performers’ everyday lives. Here it is 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: 49)
Five days before the May 2018 schedules for a series of performances on the terraces outside London’s Southbank Centre there was an uncertainty about who the BED performers would be: people have hospital appointments, grandchildren suddenly get ill and need to be looked after, plumbers have to be waited in for, there are longer than anticipated recovery periods from surgery—all ordinary, everyday stuff for people living in the latter decades of their lives. But the work is communally held by a body of people. There will always be someone to step in at the last moment.
The genesis of this expanding body of theatre practice was in the work of Rotherhithe Theatre Workshop, situated three miles east of Entelechy’s current home in Deptford, between 1978 and 1995. Here there began a forty-year meandering longitudinal enquiry exploring the sustained relationship between theatre and the practices of everyday life, conducted within two interconnected South London communities, Lewisham and north Southwark.
Long-term relationships with people, time and place has enabled practice to develop in ‘response to the subtle and unpredictable means by which audiences became performers, and communities wove a theatre practice without regard for disciplines’ boundaries or theoretical loyalties’ (Read 1993: 104).
Here theatre and everyday life were in continual negotiation and there was no foregone conclusion as to their possible equilibrium or as to which would prevail. Theatre would serve causes such as political or social needs, it would be used to provide comradeship and community for those who were isolated, it was an excuse to eat together and to conduct relations outside and away from the family circle and home, it was an opportunity to confront neighbours with long held complaints and express prejudices against those who were not welcome, and it was an opportunity for those who felt prejudice and disrespect to redress wrongs visited on them. This was a utilitarian theatre because everyday life was not expected to cease on entry to, and participation in it. (Read 1993: 104)
Between 1980 and 1990 Rotherhithe Theatre workshop nurtured and gave shelter to what was to become one of the UK’s pioneering older people’s performance companies, Young in Heart. They were a group of women in their 80s and 90s whose work constantly surfed the border lands between theatre and their own day-to-day needs and preoccupations. They lived for all their long lives in the old dockland neighbourhoods on the banks of the River Thames and had survived all that the twentieth century had thrown at them: two world wars, depressions, recessions and, finally, gentrification. They took a raw cultural energy, their means of expression—gossip, songs, dance and storytelling—and made theatre. They told stories from the past and stories from the present. Each year they would still organize 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 and seduce bar staff to sing and kitchen staff to perform impromptu fragments of Shakespeare. They were the curators of wild and wonderful mash-ups. Recently, I found a diary note of one of their last expeditions that captures their continual play between perception and reality:
‘Inside the blue minibus the older women are taken to the centre of the city. They have been invited by the television company to share the preview of the documentary film that has been made about their work. It is one moment in a crowded week. The production is going on tour to sheltered housing schemes and another school has booked them for a workshop. Nell Coombes, at ninety-two, the oldest member of the group, looks out of the bus window: ‘Look at them, looking at us, thinking: “Poor old dears off to their day centre”,’ she says.
Their strength as a performing company grew from the huge reservoir of their social and cultural experience, the ways that, to paraphrase Ursula Le Guin, they understood change and literally acted out the circumstances of their lives. The impact of this work was powerful and challenging: ‘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: 32).
For many older people in south-east London the act of growing older with a theatre at the end of their street has enabled them to have the courage to take their theatre onto the street, to begin a conversation, to allow a glimpse into the lives of others. Perhaps their story illustrates the potential power that art and creativity has at so many different times and circumstances in our lives. Art gives us a sense of place in the world. It helps us understand who we are and how we could belong.
‘I thought I’d finished with life but this is waking me up again. It makes you feel you’re not dead. You’re not worthless. You can do something and still be a part the world’ (Nelly Andoh, BED co-creator).
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Figure 1. BED Research & Development, Deptford, 2014. Photo Roswitha Chesher.
Figure 2. BED Research & Development, Deptford Market, 2014. Photo Roswitha Chesher.
Figure 3. BED Saitama Gold Company, Omyia, Japan, 2018. Photo Maiko Miyagawa