This is the first time the Royal Exchange Elders Company sessions have been opened up to an Observer Mondays Director and over the next month or so, I will be attending sessions, observing and learning from Andy Barry, the Company Director and from The Elders themselves. The group has been running for around four years and is open to the over 60s
I have been a freelance director and facilitator for about a year now and during that time have worked a lot with young people in schools and youth theatres. This is a really exciting opportunity to develop my practice and learn more about working with a different demographic. It will also be a chance to learn more about the Royal Exchange, how it operates as a building and how it sees its role within the wider community.
Following the session, I am struck by how my own expectations have been challenged about how I thought older participants might take part – both in terms of what they might be up for and what they might want to achieve. The first thing that strikes me as Andy starts the session is that some of the participants are a lot cheekier than I expected! On some level maybe I was expecting a rather sedate, respectful group and instead right from the start there was a great energy in the room, a real enthusiasm and a willingness to question and contribute that might take months to achieve when working with a school group and it would be interesting to find out more about how this group has evolved in the four years many of them have been working together.
Andy ran a warm-up that pushed the group physically - he played “Stop Go” and then “Sword and Shield” (or Finger Fencing, as some people may know it). Talking with Andy afterwards, he said he was only able to do this because he knew the group relatively well by now - it’s the third session of the term, and lots of the members have been in the group for several years.
Pushing the group physically was really important, because I soon realised that they certainly like to talk more than many teenage groups I’ve worked with! This is fantastic, because there are so many ideas and perspectives that people are ready to offer. I guess the challenge might be to manage this carefully so that the session remains practical and active and I can feel that Andy manages this quite skilfully.
Working with the Elders doesn't seem too different from working with other groups - many of the exercises Andy did could definitely have been done with groups of all ages. There are certain things to be aware of - at one point Andy handed out copies of a poem by Brecht and two thirds of the group stood up and left the circle. I hadn't expected the group to have such strong feelings about Brecht. But in fact they had all gone to get their glasses out of their bags. Another thing that differs from other groups is the sheer level of appreciation. During the break, company members could not stop telling me how much they enjoyed the sessions and how important they were to them. It seems crazy that the group was only set up four-years ago and it has already become an integral part of people's lives.
Over the next few weeks, I am looking forward to getting to know the company better. I know many have had a lifelong interest in theatre but I am keen to get more of a sense of what each individual takes from the sessions and what keeps them coming back week after week.
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.