The Life & Loves of a Nobody, The Albany

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Originally written for Exeunt.

Anyone can be famous these days. Even a nobody. At least, that’s (part of) the premise of Third Angel’s new show, which wraps an unremarkable story in a skin of media lampooning. The problem is that The Life & Loves of a Nobody, like its double-layered structure, seems to be about two quite separate and not entirely reconciled things.

Here’s one way of looking at it. The Life & Loves of a Nobody is just what its title suggests, relating the humdrum story of unseen protagonist Rachel. Rachel is normal, or ordinary, whatever those words mean. She’s 36, we’re told, with a family and a job and a romantic history that are all more or less familiar. Aged 18 she tried to run away with the circus and ended up flipping burgers, which says all you need to know about the pattern of her life. She’s a thwarted dreamer, her eyes on the stars while her feet remain firmly on the dull, grease-splattered ground.

But that perspective ignores the telling and the reasons for it being told at all. Because we never hear from Rachel herself; instead, her narrative comes to us via Rachael Walton and Nick Chambers’ slick and slightly unsettling presenters. It’s established early on that we are the audience in some kind of controversial media spectacle – so controversial, in fact, that there are protesters apparently hurling shit outside. And at the centre of this contentious televised stunt, Rachel is what she’s always wanted to be: the star.

Her life up to this point, then, is framed as an X-Factor style backstory. Except it’s shown through sweet and slightly wonky storytelling rather than cannily edited video montage. It’s here that the whole concept starts to wobble a little, as the style and its ends sit awkwardly alongside one another. Just what are the motives of our two hosts? The presentation of Rachel’s life is by turns tender, mocking and disinterested, not to mention burdened by all sorts of pretty but cumbersome visual devices – a swarm of paper butterflies or a miniature, blinking tower block window. What’s the game here?

The show might hold its cards close to its chest, saving the big, explanatory reveal for the final moments, but the hand it produces fails to fully justify what has come before. Without giving everything away, the question asked is essentially: to what lengths will we go to achieve fame? And, fast on the heels of that, is it better to lead a life that is unremarkable and unremarked upon, or to sacrifice it all in pursuit of “immortality”?

A recent article in Aeon suggested that “what we perceive when we are reproduced in the cultural sphere” – be that as a statue, a name in the history books, or a face on TV – “is a kind of magical act of creation”. Just like so much that masquerades as magic, though, that promise of immortal fame is pretty flimsy when you actually take a look at it. The point is implicitly made at one point in Patti Smith’s book Just Kids, as she recalls the untimely demises of “27 club” members Jimi Hendrix and Janis Joplin in autumn 1970 in a matter-of-fact, grief-tinged tone. Their deaths are not romantic; they’re just wasteful.

The Life & Loves of a Nobody, however, gives only glancing attention to such ideas. Its interest feels torn, between the insidious influence of the media and the desire for fame on the one hand, and the question of whose stories get told on the other. Both are resonant, particularly the latter under a political elite determined to grind down and silence “ordinary people”, but they don’t fully align. The sensationalising media culture being clumsily skewered is all about elevating the ordinary, selling a populist ideal of stardom that is unattainable except for the very few. Whereas the spotlight pointed on Rachel’s life feels more aimed at an affirmation of all human experience, validating the extraordinary and mundane stories of everyone. Even the nobodies.

See the person, not the age

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Originally written for The Stage.

“How can we grow old being valued and respected?” asks David Slater, artistic director of participatory arts company Entelechy Arts. In a country with an ageing population, this is an issue that is set to become ever more urgent.

Home Sweet Home, the new community project that Entelechy has produced in collaboration with Freedom Studios, hopes to begin answering just that question. It takes an honest look at the realities of getting old, discarding media stereotypes and talking to older people themselves about the experience of ageing.

“We wanted to find out about what the experience of being older in contemporary Britain is and how we might interpret that as artists,” explains Deborah Dickinson, creative producer at Freedom Studios in Bradford. The company had previous experience of participatory work from 2011 production The Mill – City of Dreams, but turned to Deptford-based Entelechy Arts for their expertise in working with older people.

While a show was always the intended end point of this partnership, process was just as important as product. Over two years, both organisations ran workshops and interviews with older people from their respective cities. It was also vital that writer Emma Adams and director Tom Wright were involved throughout the journey, allowing them to draw from the experiences being gathered.

“They were absolutely critical in informing the way that we made the piece of work,” Dickinson says of the project’s many participants. “You always end up compromising to a certain extent, but those people’s voices are very much there in the writing.” With work of this nature, there is a question around who really has ownership over the material. Slater admits that “it’s a delicate line to tread,” but one that he believes Home Sweet Home has succeeded in doing.

One priority was to challenge popular perceptions of old age. “A lot of it is to do with the way that other people see you,” says Dickinson, a realisation that led them to adopt the phrase “see the person, not the age”. Slater adds that it was vital to keep the experiences of older people central. “Every other week you pick up a newspaper and you read about the latest crisis to do with neglected older people,” he says. “It’s rarely that you hear their voices at the centre of the discourse.”

For Wright, it was important to bear in mind the potential preconceptions of audiences. “My role has been about imagining myself as that audience member and thinking how can we take them literally by the hand and take them on a journey where they come out the other end having laughed, cried and stamped their feet and dealt with some very difficult issues in a way that was fun and enjoyable.”

The research, which included speaking to academics at Newcastle University and Kings College, London, has also turned up surprises. While many of us think of ageing as an inevitable process, scientists now believe that there is no prescribed way of getting older and that social interaction plays a considerable role in our experience of ageing.

“If we see everybody as a potential agent of change and capable of contributing to society right to the end, then people can carry on being just that for much longer,” explains Wright, adding that the production’s chorus of older community performers are an onstage demonstration of this capability.

81-year-old chorus member Florence Remmer is a perfect example. Explaining that she had always wanted to perform but never had the opportunity, she describes how being involved in the project helped her to engage with the community again after losing her husband. “I never knew anything like that existed,” she says. “It’s opened my eyes.”

The show that has emerged from this two-year process of research and development is designed with older people in mind at every level. As well giving voice to older characters, its staging is intended to be as welcoming and accessible as possible to audiences of all ages. Wright describes it as “a cross between somebody’s living room and the theatre”.

Home Sweet Home will now be performed in both Bradford and Deptford, as well as at ARC in Stockton, which also has an impressive record for including older people in the life of its building. As pensioners make up more and more of the population, this will increasingly become a key consideration for arts centres across the UK.

“The Arts Council has said that they want great art for everyone and I don’t think there is enough work done for the everyone,” suggests Dickinson, referring to both older people and other groups who often feel excluded from theatres. Wright agrees that theatres and arts centres “should be a place for the whole community to come and meet”.

Slater, meanwhile, is unequivocal about the necessity of making work with and for the growing population of older people. “This is something that we have to address as a society. The theatre is one of the places where we’re able to do that.”

 

Arts and Older Audiences

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Originally written for The Stage.

When attempting to improve engagement with theatre, focus often falls on the young. It is of course vital for the survival and reinvigoration of the art form that new generations come into our theatres, both as artists and audiences, and are inspired to keep coming back. But what are theatres doing at the other end of the scale?

Over the last few years, the problems raised by an ageing population have been firmly on the political agenda, raising questions about how this growing group of older people can be catered for in society. In a report commissioned for Parliament in 2010, it was found that over 10 million people in the UK were over 65 years old, a figure that was expected to have nearly doubled by the middle of the century.

This age shift is reflected in cultural attendance. According to the latest statistical release from the Department for Culture, Media and Sport, there has been a significant increase in arts engagement among adults aged 65 and over since 2005/06, but adults aged 75 and over still have lower engagement rates than other age groups – arguably due to barriers that limit their access.

In recognition of this demographic movement, the Arts Council has now begun implementing strategic measures to boost engagement among older people, in line with its promise of “great art for everyone”. Last year, it launched a £1 million grant jointly funded with the Baring Foundation, intended to widen access to the arts for older people in residential care.

One of the successful recipients of funds from this initiative was The Courtyard Centre for the Arts in Hereford, which in recent years has been firmly committed to working with older people and those with dementia. Penny Allen, the Arts and Older People project manager at The Courtyard, explains that their programme involves a mixture of long and short term projects, ranging from a poetry project for people with dementia to a regular over 60s choir. The arts centre is also committed to becoming a “dementia friendly” venue and is the first organisation of its type to join the Dementia Action Alliance.

“Art has the power to reach people who may no longer be able to communicate as they once did,” says Allen. “By making arts accessible to all older people, be it in our venue, or in community venues or even residential settings, we are helping improve the quality of people’s lives and that is a powerful, wonderful thing.”

Inspired by the work being done at the Courtyard, Farnham Maltings in Surrey is taking similar steps to make its building welcoming for people with dementia, as well as offering events such as relaxed cinema screenings and tea dances aimed at older audiences. Director Gavin Stride insists that “if we are serious about audience development then we need to respond to the changing shape of our communities”. He hopes that in time “it will be an everyday occurrence to have elders and those with dementia accessing and contributing to our building and programme”.

Annabel Turpin, chief executive of ARC in Stockton, similarly sees the venue’s work with older people as part of its aim to connect with the whole community. “That’s the key thing,” Turpin stresses, “we want to connect people.” ARC’s Silver programme now regularly welcomes around 160 older people, who get involved with everything from ukulele lessons to iPad workshops. Crucially, the programme has been shaped in response to what its participants want.

The Albany in South London has equally built its Meet Me at the Albany programme around the older people it hopes to reach, as well as in collaboration with its resident artists, such as participatory arts company Entelechy. Activities in the programme range from poetry to circus skills, interspersed with board games and refreshments. Artistic director Gavin Barlow hopes that the work they are doing can pose “a real challenge to the way we think of things like social care for the elderly”, as well as creating a long-term programme that involves true artistic risk.

Both ARC and The Albany are involved in a new collaboration with Entelechy and Freedom Studios in Bradford, culminating in a joint touring show. Home Sweet Home, written by Emma Adams, draws on the experiences of over 200 older people from Bradford, London and Stockton, and explores the transition that many experience from home to care home. It demonstrates just one way in which this participatory work intersects creatively with the work of professional artists.

As well as connecting artists and participants, many of those working with older people emphasise the importance of intergenerational engagement. West Yorkshire Playhouse’s Heydays programme, which has been running for 24 years, is currently the largest regularly run project of its kind. Community development officer Nicky Taylor says that the work they do with older people “feeds back into the fabric of Playhouse, ensuring it’s a diverse, multi-generational creative space where people feel valued”.

Intergenerational work has also been an integral component of the work done by London Bubble Theatre Company, based in South London. Elders are often central to the process of gathering and shaping material for London Bubble’s intergenerational shows, working closely with participants of all ages. More recently, the Creative Homes project has taken London Bubble’s workshops to those who might not otherwise be able to attend, running groups in local sheltered housing schemes.

Creative Homes, like many of these projects, is still at a relatively early stage in its development. What it does, however, is pave the way for others. Taylor at the West Yorkshire Playhouse has the message that “you can make real and significant change in your venues with only a few small steps”. Barlow, meanwhile, claims that Meet Me at the Albany has demonstrated “massive potential” for work of this kind.

For all of these projects, the aim is ultimately about opening out the arts to the whole community – young and old. As London Bubble’s creative director Jonathan Petherbridge puts it, “Our aim is to open up the joys of theatre making to all-comers. We want to weave it into the every day – a creative action, like whistling and doodling.”

Photo: West Yorkshire Playhouse.