Joe Gilmour-Rees - Observer Mondays Director - gives us an insight into the fourth session of rehearsals for The Elders, led by Andy Barry


Elders Company Joe Gilmour-Rees, Royal Exchange Theatre


Before my penultimate session with the Elders, I was invited to meet with Matthew Xia, the Associate Artistic Director. For some people thinking of applying to the Observer Mondays scheme, they may not realise that the opportunity also includes two meetings with Associate Artistic Director, or another member of the Creative Leadership team. These are a chance to reflect on what I have learned so far, and discuss how I can get the most out of my remaining weeks observing. I hadn’t properly taken on board what these meetings were when I applied, but it shows a really generous side to The Exchange’s artist development programme that the Associate Artistic Director would take time out just to chat to emerging artists, and the fact that this is structured into the scheme is a real plus. I probably would not have had the confidence to email Matthew out of the blue asking to talk over a coffee (and apparently that is a very valid way of finding work in the arts!).

I was slightly nervous before the meeting. The last time I had seen Matthew had been at my interview, and it can’t have gone too badly as I did get accepted onto the programme. Nevertheless, doubt sets in as I press the buzzer for stage door, and I do wonder if perhaps I was the only person to apply for the role. I push the thought from my head.

The meeting goes well. And although Matthew has not as of yet invited me to work on his next production, the conversation is relaxed and it gives me a chance to reflect with somebody other than Andy Barry. One thing that clicked for me during this meeting (and it was Matthew who said it, so I can’t really take credit) was the key reason why the Elders Company feels so integrated into the life of the building, is because Andy as the facilitator and artist in charge of the Elders engagement programme is in-house. He is a core member of staff, and is contracted for three days a week. The Exchange could easily, and probably more cheaply, have chosen to use freelancers who simply come into the building once a week for their two hour session and then leave, but they wouldn’t have been able to lead the Elders engagement work as effectively. As a permanent member of staff, Andy is able to develop the Company’s work, build connections with other departments and pursue new avenues for the work of the Company.


The last two sessions before Christmas will be focused on the Elders using the skills they have gained so far this term and applying them to a longer storytelling piece. This is the first term the Elders have spent so much time devising in small groups. I suggested to Andy that I could run an exercise from some work I had done with the Shakespeare Schools Foundation. It was based around David Glass’ Cycle of Creativity, that structures the rehearsal process into preparing, playing, organising, performing and reflecting. It encourages an approach to making work that doesn’t search for an answer straight away, but instead allows you initially to be free and playful without worrying about the end product.

Andy was very enthusiastic and generous about the prospect of me leading a small part of his session. I had only seen the exercise run once and had never led it before, so I was wary of not knowing all the potential pitfalls. But then with each term and each session that Andy runs, he is delivering new content, often that he has researched himself through books and other resources. He then structures this into a practical session to communicate that learning to the Company. I would like to become much better at delivering my own ‘fresh’ content to groups; often I plan sessions by adapting exercises I have seen in other workshops, but it would give me much more scope to be able to design my own session content simply from things I have researched.


The exercise ran smoothly and it seemed to engage the group (I hope!). After my exercise, the session was spent devising in small groups, and while members of the company had seemed to understand this new playful approach in theory, I wanted to see the impact it had on how they approached group work. At the end of the session, Andy asked groups to reflect on their devising process, and some recognised moments where they had been playful, trying different things out, and other moments where they had ‘organised’, fitting the new material into their piece. However, many groups also said they felt they had been preparing, playing and organising all at the same time.

Elders Company Joe GR 1

It made me reflect on how I had run the exercise; I feel I had definitely ran it in a way that made this ‘Cycle of Creativity’ clear theoretically, but maybe I could have linked it more overtly to their group work. Perhaps I could have suggested concrete ways to apply the approach to their devising process (for example, giving themselves 10 minutes to play on the theme of Red Riding Hood, without ever talking about the final performance).

In the past I had seen this cycle of creativity applied to directing a production - where, for example, the director can say to the actors “For the next twenty minutes I want you to try this and then we will see if we keep any of it for the final production”. The Cycle of Creativity can apply very directly but I asked myself if the process of devising in a group is by its nature more free - the playing and organising might overlap. A moment of play might allow something to click which completely changes the direction of the piece. So maybe the Cycle of Creativity could be adapted for devising? Or not? I would be interested to know people’s views. Tweet me @joegilmourrees if you have any thoughts (you’ve got 280 characters to fill now, so go wild!)


My final session observing the Company of Elders will be one on where the group will share their storytelling performances. So stay tuned for the last post on my guest blog, the post-scriptum, the epilogue, the grand finale! 

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.

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