Elders Company Royal Exchange Theatre, Manchester

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1 Elders Company Royal Exchange Theatre, Manchester How we have grown from an initial pilot to working intergenerationally with our Young Company The Royal Exchange Elders Company began with a pilot in Its ambition was to involve people aged 60+ to develop performance skills and make boundary-pushing theatre while also challenging stereotypes of ageing. The pilot programme was a series of weekly sessions working with a professional theatre director to develop drama skills and build an ensemble. Who was involved? Members of the Elders taking part in weekly classes Participants were recruited from all over Greater Manchester and beyond. At the start of this process we held taster workshops. Participants for the tasters were recruited from our general mailing lists and importantly via our Community Links programme (community groups who we have partnered with) and our links with housing associations. Our recruitment focussed on the ten AGMA (Association of Greater Manchester Authorities) districts but older people living outside of Greater Manchester were also keen to get involved. The taster workshops were practical workshops that gave a flavour of the sort of work we might do in sessions as well provide a chance for people to ask questions and find out more. Demand was high, 87 people attended the tasters, with 53 people applying for 20 places. The drop off in applications from the initial tasters may have been in part due to the fact we actively discouraged applications from people who couldn t commit to all sessions of the initial pilot as we anticipated demand would be high.

2 The pilot members were a group of ten men and ten women aged between 62 and 88 from Manchester, Rochdale, Stockport, Tameside and Trafford. Some of them had been involved in theatre activity before, while for many of them this was a new experience. From January 2015, we continued the programme by offering courses of ten weekly classes. Many of the founding members wanted to continue with the Company so we began a rotation system which allowed new members to join while still involving members from the pilot. This encouraged the sense of trust and ensemble we had built to cascade out to new members joining, i.e. we didn t want to start from scratch each time having to build a completely new group. More tasters were held prior to expansion and while not an audition we felt that retention levels would be higher if participants had experienced some of the work and met with us prior to applying. The new members we invited to join meant that we now had members from 9 of the 10 AGMA districts. The initial pilot was supported by the Mills and Reeve Charitable Trust and the Madeline Mabey Trust. The core work of the Participation and Learning department at the Royal Exchange Theatre is funded by Arts Council England and AGMA and Beaverbrooks Charitable Trust. We charged a fee of 5/session (which has now risen to 6). 29% of Elders Company members since the pilot have been supported by our Arts Pot scheme. This scheme provides financial assistance for course and/or travel costs for those who require additional support to make sure that everyone can access our programmes and that cost is not a barrier to taking part with us. The Arts Pot scheme is funded by individual donors and is part of our Christmas appeal. What we did The Elders Company consisted of three ten-week programmes of weekly sessions mixed with additional opportunities to take part in making work. The core programme of weekly classes explored three main themes: Storytelling, The Body in Space and The Voice and Text. Workshops encouraged participants to work physically together to make discoveries about their own bodies and voices while also learning more about the rigorous processes an actor uses as part of their training. Working with a core group allowed physical and emotional trust to be nurtured over time. Many activities designed for the post-retirement age group are passive, so it was an opportunity to be a participator rather than an observer. Elders Company member Meeting and working with new people is not a problem. But meeting people honestly, trusting them and myself; experiencing the support and humanity of other people was special about this group. Elders Company member

3 A successful aspect of these workshops was to involve theatre professionals who were already working in the building. These included, Benji Reid (our Associate Artist) who led a movement session, CJ Johnson (performer and puppeteer on our production of LITTLE SHOP OF HORRORS) who led a puppetry workshop, Hazel Holder (performer and Voice Coach on our production of THE ROLLING STONE) who led a voice workshop and Natalie Diddams (a freelance theatre director the programme leader of our work for Schools) who led a session on approaches to text. This meant the Elders work was connected to our artistic output and provided opportunities for them to learn from a range of leading industry professionals. This helped them to feel valued as a community company within our organisation and also to develop a range of different skills (many of which were new to them, even for those members who had previously taken part in other theatre related activity in the past). I have had experience of drama work in my past life so the newness for me was the inspiration CJ and especially Benji brought for me. Very inspiring. Elders Company member The Elders Company members were also invited to use our Green Room (staffroom) before and after sessions. Our aim was for them to feel integrated into the organisation and for them to be visible to staff, visiting actors and freelancers who all regularly use the Green Room. An added outcome was that it also encouraged socialising amongst the group as well as a time to reflect on the sessions in an informal way. In the early part of the term I was struggling with the after effects of a virus and on several occasions sat outside wondering whether I should join in. Amazingly, I arrived feeling woeful and left feeling wonderful. There were also times of feeling an amazing sense of team... I was emotionally taken by the gathering clouds exercise and the feeling of intimacy it created. Elders Company member, male aged 62 One of the aims of the Elders Company has been to broaden participants knowledge and involvement in different types of theatre-making that doesn t necessarily focus on traditional text based performances. This came to fruition with a project called WE RE IN THE LOUNGE. The project aimed to create an intimate audience experience that allowed the Elders to act as storytellers: Being themselves sharing their own stories in their own words. The outcome was an installation in our Lounge, an intimate room situated in the Great Hall of the Royal Exchange, which was curated by the Elders. It used objects from their own living rooms that acted as a starting point for them to tell stories about themselves, their life experiences and their thoughts on the world. The exhibition opened with a day of live performances for invited guests that involved two Elders at a time hosting tea and biscuits and sharing stories in the Lounge for six audience members at a time. For each performance, the Elders shared significant objects, stories about their past and present relationships and their feelings about being alive today.

4 It made me have a different view of what theatre can be in the moment, real, intimate, live. My past, present and future existed all at the same time. It s important on so many levels, emotional, physical, intellectual. It s expressing myself, sharing with others, moving outside my comfort zone it makes me realise I am still alive. Elders Company member, male aged 71 As we move forward with the Elders Company, we are looking for opportunities to increase intergenerational practice. During our first year, the Elders worked with members of our resident Young Company (a cohort of 120 young people aged involved in a range of theatre-making opportunities as performers, technicians and creatives) on a range of workshops. The highlight of this work was a project that saw members of the two groups work together to create a new play called FLICKER AND THE FLYING BOOKS for children aged 3-8 years old as part of Manchester Children s Book Festival. The group worked as an ensemble to devise and create a lively and energised performance which was presented five times across three venues (the Royal Exchange Theatre, the Central Library and the New Vic Theatre in Stoke). This was the Elders first opportunity to perform publically and the show was seen by 240 children and adults. To view a short film about this intergenerational project (made by our Young Communicators) click here The Elders with members of the Young Company in FLICKER AND THE FLYING BOOKS an intergenerational performance for children and their families. [At the start of the project I thought] that Elder performers may develop work slower. This was positively challenged. Young Company member I learnt that I have common interests with people from other generations. Young Company member The most successful aspect for me personally was the ability to join in without embarrassment - and with hope of improvement. For the project I think it showed that young/old and professionals could come together with a great result. Elders Company member, female aged 75 We have two new strands to the programme for 2015/2016. The first is Elders Monthly, a series of monthly sessions at the theatre for people over 60. These sessions will act as a taster and gateway to becoming involved as a regular Elders Company member. The second

5 is Elders Champions. This will see us involving existing members in recruitment and outreach work as they help us to plan and lead taster sessions at venues outside of our building for example in care homes and community groups. Both strands will allow us to target recruitment to some groups who are currently under-represented in the company for example people from certain postcodes, ethnic minorities or who are over 80. We are continuing to fundraise in order to support the development of the programme and broaden the reach of the work. We hope to secure funding to help us implement a threeyear programme that culminates in a celebration event showcasing new professional work that involves the Elders as well as opportunities to share the learning of the programme with a wider audience in a specially convened symposium. Key learning A flexible approach to membership has allowed us to continue to grow the group (with limited funding) while still maintaining interest from those individuals keen to continue. By slowly building the Company we have been able to nurture and support individuals on a creative journey with us without the pressure of taking part in a big one-off performance or production. The sense of belonging expressed by members of the group is a unique part of the programme s success for us an organisation. By inviting theatre professionals who are already making work for our main stages to come and lead sessions with the Elders Company, our members feel that they are truly valued as part of the organisation and that they are getting an experience that they wouldn t get from taking part in other drama activities elsewhere. Regularly asking the group how they would like the Company to develop has allowed us to tailor the programme to their needs. For example, many of them expressed a desire not to make work explicitly about ageing. This led us to focus on making work whose form or content might surprise an audience, and thus challenge stereotypes of ageing in this way, rather than necessarily making work that thematically explores ageing. An example of this would be our intergenerational project to create a piece of work for children. Often, older performers are less visible in work for young audiences. In our devised performance the Elders and Young Company worked equally and audiences commented on the ensemble approach of the performance and the energy of all the performers. Our weekly classes meant that when the Elders came together with the Young Company they had a shared theatrical language and understanding which helped to equalise the relationships in the room and create a genuine sense of shared ownership during the making of the work. By offering our Green Room space post workshops for tea and coffee, the Elders Company members felt part of the wider organisation and were encouraged to develop stronger networks with each other. The next big challenge for us is to develop a robust and creative approach to monitoring and evaluating the programme that draws together all the different strands of the programme and tracks individual journeys beyond the anecdotal evidence we are currently gathering. I

6 would be interested to hear from individuals or organisations who have created successful and innovative models for evaluation that might help us as we move forward, particularly if these involve the participants in data gathering as I am acutely aware that the Elders are not only capable but very willing to support the programme in a variety of ways beyond just taking part in creative activity. -- Andy Barry October 2015 Andy Barry leads the programme of work for Adults at the Royal Exchange Theatre including directing the Elders Company. He is also a freelance director and has recently made work for Dunham Massey (National Trust) and Goblin Theatre. Contact Andy about the Elders Company:

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