Four years ago when I visited Saitama Arts Theatre on the outskirts of Tokyo as part of a delegation of UK artists we had the opportunity of meeting with older performers from the GOLD theatre company including Kiyoshi Takahashi. He told the story of how, after joining the company had found himself in hospital for three months paralyzed from the waist down. He described to us the moment when in his bed he heard music drifting down the corridors of the hospital ward. He spoke of the space ‘between dreaming and sleeping’, when on hearing Cavalleria Rusticana he had regained the movement in one of his toes. In that one chanced moment his rehabilitation had begun: ‘If it hadn’t of happened I would have been in heaven’, he said. The movement in his toe was just the start. His doctor had said that because he had the will to walk he would walk. And he did because at the age of 78 he had somewhere to walk to: the Saitama Gold company. He returned to the theatre, clearly very frail: ‘under any circumstances I want to come back and stand on stage with Ninagawa.’
The story beautifully 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 it the world. It helps us understand who we are and how we could belong.
Places, writes Rebecca Solnit in The Faraway Nearby: ‘give us continuity, something to return to, and offer a familiarity that allows some portion of our lives to remain connected and coherent’
Maybe growing older with a theatre at the end of your street enables you to be connected and coherent.
Ten years ago I had the opportunity of travelling to Brazil with another delegation of UK artists and arts strategists. “We need to understand ourselves by you looking at us” the Brazilian artists said. That is the beauty of cross-cultural exchange –the beauty of events like this – each of us understanding ourselves in the gaze of the other.
We were learning about, experiencing the Ponto de Cultural programme, Points of Culture programme part of massively transformative Cultura Viva programme, the Living Culture programme. It conjured into being points, places, where people had been de-silenced. The Brazilians talked about the arts, about culture being involved in a process of uncovering, ‘unhiding’, bringing the invisible into plain sight. They spoke about ‘ anthropological acupoints’ Points of culture scatter through communities, unlocking, releasing energy.
Our company Entelechy Arts was introduced to one of the Points of Culture a tiny company in the southern city of Londrina: Casa das Fases. Casa das Fases was a company of 12 older women in their seventies and eighties who were developing radical, experimental work across Brazil and beyond.
The company worked in a small one-story house where the living room was magically transformed itself into a rehearsal room and performance space. Before rehearsals they would cook and eat together. The domestic experience and the creative experience intermingled with each other. Theatre in their lives was both an ordinary and an extraordinary experience. Celio Turino one of the main architect of the Points of Culture programme said ‘we seek to enter the flow of life and activate a process that facilitates change’
The experience of the Brazilian exchange re-energised Entelechy Arts as a company. It gave us the courage to reimagine ourselves; the courage to place the human at the centre of all that we do. Madani Younis was part of the same programme. He said: ‘The Brazilian experience has forced me to cut through the language of bureaucracy here in the UK and understand my art again in relation to people’
Casa das Fases and Entelechy Arts made work together, we created a transatlantic performance of fragments of Shakespeare’s Tempest. We re-enacted scenes from the play out of ‘little boxes’. We started to create our own ‘points of culture’ with artists embedded over long periods of time in residential care homes for the elderly, in a hospital, in people’s front rooms.
In London, ith this new found courage we invited the senior teams from our local authority –the head of adult social care, the head of culture to have food to share food with us… coffee, croissants and strawberries, we invited the artistic director of the regional arts centre the Albany. We created the circumstances for people from different sectors, from different disciplines to imagine together, to dream together.
Collectively we asked questions, we answered questions with questions:
What makes life worth living when we are old and frail and unable to care for ourselves?
What if you were able to go to an arts centre instead of a day centre?
And so Entelechy and the Albany Arts Centre came together and our beautiful love child was born…Meet Me at the Albany.
For 50 weeks a year 40 formerly isolated older people meet in the full public view in the huge café space at the centre of the arts space. We created the circumstances to the invisible old in our communities to be seen, to be valued, recognized and respected.
We began with a room full of people who had been introduced to us by Adult Social Care Teams, Home Library Teams, GPs, Neighbours, Relatives, Hospital Discharge Teams.
We began with a room full of people carrying different descriptions – the recently bereaved, people living with dementia, people caring for people living with dementia, people living with depression; people in similar situations. ‘When you get talking to people you find that everyone has the same story to tell. There may be a few things that are different but it’s mainly a story about being lonely and getting lost and not being able to find your way back out’
We began with clay, wire, paint, trumpets, wool, poets, tea, aerialists, song and critically not knowing. We began with the courage to make it up as we went along; the courage of staying with things when you are not quite sure what is going to happen. Towards the end of his life John Lennon spoke of the beauty of those ‘nothing in particular type’ moments. Some of the most precious human activities are also so of the most aimless. We all made it up together.
And something happened. By some beautiful alchemy the project was born. By the end of week four it felt like it had been going on forever. The gentle hum of strangers turning into acquaintances; civic space being re-colonised by its oldest citizens.
The creation of Meet Me was an act of making visible, bringing into plain sight the older isolated and forgotten members of our communities. It created ripples. It opened up conversations. People popped into the arts centre and stumbled on wild activity. People wanted to volunteer. ‘I can’t wait until I’m 70 to join this!’ A local photographers club wanted to run a portrait project, 3 MA documentary film-makers from Goldsmiths University made a beautiful film.
From my notes a few months in:-
‘He arrives unannounced and unexpected, carrying a slim leather case, sits down at the piano stool and starts to play Erik Satie. Tuesday lunch time at Meet Me at the Albany and the soft lyrical phrases of the music drift out and over the jacket potatoes with tuna toppings. Somewhere in the room is a visiting Norwegian physiotherapist; last week there was a philosopher and members of a local government care planning team. Meet Me at the Albany is becoming a place that people are drawn to, a place to meet people, to talk and reflect and wonder.’
Five years later across the district of Lewisham there are 200 people involved in the programme and there are plans to expand. There is a film club Meet Me at the Movies, Monthly trips out in busses to museums and galleries across the city, the lounges of sheltered housing schemes have been transformed into rehearsal rooms and on Tuesdays the lonely and the isolated older elders seem to have disappeared. The café is now filled is now filled with poets and singers and sculptors and performers. And on Saturday and Sunday this weekend many of them are going to be performing here. The journey from sitting day after day after day forgotten and alone to performing in one of Europe’s largest arts spaces.
“Don’t ‘be’ yourself, ‘become’ yourself said the voice of the Brazilian artist on my radio a few weeks. And that is what is happening every week at Meet Me. This continual process of arriving and returning; the constant process of becoming: of growing into new possibilities of ourselves.
Participant Jacquie Channing-Hamon said: “Since coming to Meet Me at the Albany it’s given me a new zest for life and a new determination that I can do things for myself if I try. I’m a different person, more able, more confident. I can speak to people now. I often wonder what next is going to happen that I’ve never experienced before in my life or even thought I’d experience in my life.