The morning is taken up with an Elders Insights sessions. Elders Insights is a newer development to the Elders programming at The Exchange, giving the opportunity for over 60s to gain a wider understanding of all the roles involved in producing theatre. Today we have a session with designer Bethany Wells, who has designed several Royal Exchange Theatre shows, most recently We Were Told There Was Dancing, and the Graeae co-production Cosmic Scallies.
Bethany begins by laying out post-it notes on the floor, creating a timeline of all the different stages of designing a theatre show. We quickly see that the work starts long before rehearsals. Bethany talks about the different approaches she uses depending on the type of production, for example, an existing play, or a devised show. For the devised show she designed for the Manchester International Festival, Party Skills For The End Of The World, which was performed in a disused building, the design process was very fast-paced. They were only allowed access to the space a short time before the performance run started, so she spent a lot of time ordering things off Amazon Prime, to arrive the next day!
The next part of the session was more practical and involved us working in pairs. One partner thought of a place they knew well, and would draw it onto A3 paper. BUT they could only draw in response to questions from their partner. For example, the partner would ask ‘Is it indoors or outdoors?’ And without speaking, you had to draw to answer the question. You could draw a roof, for example, or some clouds, etc. The aim was to explore the place in a less obvious way, and make sure you were thinking of the space in as many ways as possible, not just focusing on the things that stood out. It was quite revealing as an exercise. I imagined a coffee shop in my hometown of Warrington - quite a trendy coffeeshop as coffee shops go. In my mind I’d been focusing on the smell and the feel of the interior, but my partner asked me questions like ‘What buildings are nearby?’, ‘Is there any industry in the area?’ Warrington has always been an industrial town, in the past for wire; now there is a huge Unilever plant not far from the centre of town. It made me see the space I had chosen in a new light, and there are probably all sorts of stories there about the identity of Warrington and its people.
In groups of four, we then had to choose three things to create our place on stage. There could be more than one of each thing, but only three different things - for example, 500 marbles, a houseplant, and a pair of swimming trunks. Not sure what space I am creating here - an olympic engineer’s living room?!! But the principle was to distil your place down to the essential items needed to communicate it. Would houseplant and armchair communicate the same thing in this scenario? Perhaps, perhaps not. The process led to some lively discussions - in particular about which way a diving board should be facing, on stage or off-stage? Having studied languages at university, the process reminded me of translating, carefully and economically choosing words that communicated not more or less than the original idea, in a way that wasn’t too cumbersome or clumsy.
The final week of the Elders Wednesday sessions was spent rehearsing and then showing back the groups’ storytelling pieces. Some of the Elders seemed nervous about sharing their pieces - they had after all had only two weeks to prepare. But the performances were of a high standard, demonstrating how storytelling as a form can be manipulated to show the attitudes and relationships between characters. The pieces were also extremely funny! There were several jokes about JUBILEE and copying the nudity in that show, but I can safely say all clothes stayed on throughout the show backs.
Last week, Andy recommended to me not to join one of the groups for the final piece, but instead to “float” and observe all the groups at work. In other sessions, I had joined in all the tasks as a participant, but I was really glad to be able to watch this time. It gave me more of a sense of how each group was getting on, and how groups were responding differently to the instructions that Andy had set. It's a perennial question when observing sessions like this, whether to get stuck in, or to “float”. To future observers I would say a mixture is best, because it allows you to see the session in a variety of ways. As a facilitator, you will generally be on the outside of activities, so it’s useful to start assessing how an activity is going from the outside as well as the inside.
All my observations done, I can say that it has been a huge pleasure attending the Elders sessions over the last couple of months. I have got to know the company members and have thoroughly enjoyed watching them at work. I have learnt new exercises and new approaches to facilitation, and gained knowledge about storytelling as a theatrical technique. I have also got to know the Royal Exchange Theatre in a different way, and come to appreciate the energy and respect with which they approach their offer for older people. I suspect it will take a while for everything I have learnt to sink in, but I feel sure my experience the last few months will influence my development as an artist for years to come.
Elders Company is for everyone aged 60+ who wants to feel connected to new people and ideas, develop performance skills and make boundary-pushing theatre that challenges negative stereotypes of ageing.