Playing the game

Retirement is an old fashioned word for an increasingly old fashioned idea. It evokes Victorian widows moving to the country or players who leave the field hurt. The expectation is that when you retire – or are retired – you are out of the game, finished, washed up or, as one person said to me this week, ‘on the scrapheap’. Nothing is expected of you any more, except, perhaps, to cheer the players from the touchline. And you should not expect anything either.

‘If somebody had said to me 20 years ago that I would have been in Spring Chickens, I wouldn’t have believed them.’

Nothing could be less like the lives of the retired people I’ve been meeting in recent weeks. Aged between their early 60s and late 80s, they’re social activists working in theatre, music, art and writing. Most have never been so busy, though they’ve worked so hard all their lives.

Continue reading “Playing the game”

Filming ‘The Production’

The second rough cut of Ben Wigley‘s film for Where we dream  is done. It follows some of the company members through rehearsals to the performance at the Alex in Birmingham last November. It really catches the enthusiasm and warmth of the Operatic Society at work – or is it play?

We’re still working on the final shape of the film to make its story both clear and rich, so I’ve shown it to a few people who don’t know the project or the company. Reactions have been good and helped us see places where we need to rethink. Meanwhile, work on the book continues with the text and film subtly influencing one another.

Oh, and the launch date has been chosen – coming soon.

Standing exactly at that place

(Photo © Simon Richardson)

‘I’m standing exactly at that place in terms of working with older people in this country. It’s exactly the same issues, and I’m thinking, “My goodness, how is it possible we’re talking about almost the same language, the same arguments, that we’ve done nearly thirty years back?” ‘

We’re sitting in the lounge of a chain pub, talking about how ageing changes everything about a dancer’s art, to a soundtrack of piped pop music. I’m wondering if the dancers on the video will be half as active and creative as Bisakha 50 years from now.

Bisakha Sarker is a dancer and teacher who moved to the UK from Kolkata in the early 1970s. She belongs to the pioneering generation who established Indian dance as a part of British culture, often in the face of indifference and ignorance. One of the first dance animateurs, she went on to create a rich and reflective workshop practice, especially with disabled people. She’s also an old friend and colleague. Continue reading “Standing exactly at that place”

Producing ‘The Producers’

The Producers is a musical about people making a musical. When I heard this was West Bromwich Operatic Society’s next production, it felt like serendipity. What better time to look at one of the Black Country’s oldest and proudest amateur arts organisations in action?

We’re going to tell the story of a musical theatre group putting on a musical about putting on a musical. It’s like Russian dolls.

As a writer, I’m interested in people’s artistic lives – their loves and delights, the stories that make them dream, the music that soundtracks their days, the films that flicker in their heads, the plays, the dance steps, the books – in fact, everything that gives flavour to our lives.

The first conversation I had with a WBOS member was a revelation. I heard two hours of stories spanning 70 years: friendships, marriages and costume changes, chorus lines and curtain calls, auditions, committee meetings and long service medals. I leafed through decades of programmes that are a unique social history of the Black Country. The adverts for engineering firms and shops that have long closed. The cast lists with names over three or four generations. The Vice-Presidents. The frocks.

WBOS members say wryly that they’ve closed seven theatres. The truth is they’ve outlived them: the Plaza and the Kings, the Alex and the Grand, the Hippodrome. The company was there when closure was announced. It was waiting at the stage door, when the theatre reopened under new management. Over the years, they’ve become nomadic, but always taking the pride of West Bromwich with them. Continue reading “Producing ‘The Producers’”

Colin McLean

Finding better ways to connect visual language with words is one of the central ideas behind Regular Marvels. Each project therefore has its own visual approach, intended to create a dialogue with the text. For Winter Fires, I’m working with Mik Godley. a wonderful painter and an old friend, to create some portraits of the people involved.

This portrait, of the contemporary dancer Colin McLean, is the first of the series that will eventually appear in the book. This version is still unfinished. It has been done on an iPad, from a photograph taken at our meeting in September.

Winter fires

‘In a spiritually sensitive culture, then, it might well be that age is something to be admired or envied. A person is released from the pressure to justify themselves, free to discover who they are – and perhaps to pass on to the rest of us something of what they discover.’    

Rowan Williams, 6 Sept. 2005

Winter Fires is about the place of art in old age, exploring how creativity empowers both professionals and amateurs at a time when other forms of power and status are so often being lost. It explores how the identity of being an artist, active at a point when ‘work’ is usually finished, may affect a person’s sense of themselves and how they are seen by others.

In fact, our gifts and our ability to give, change throughout life. Both can grow even as our physical and other forces diminish. And art, which enables people to express the unique reality of being them, allows us to share our gifts until the end.

Winter Fires explores the practice of older artists – particularly those who’ve found their creative gifts late in life – and its distinctive voice in the arts and the community. It is the story of people who, late in life, offer light and warmth through their vision. It says that the old are like everyone else, just older.

‘One’s ego becomes less and less interesting as you get older, to oneself and to everyone else. I have been around it too long. The less ego you have, the more influence you have as a conductor. And the result is that you can concentrate on the only things that really matter: the music and the people who are playing it. You are of no account whatever. But if you can help people to feel free to play as well as they can, that’s as good as it gets.’

Colin Davis in The Guardian, Thursday 12 May 2011

Winter Fires is supported by the Baring Foundation.

Where we dream

Where we dream is a story about West Bromwich Operatic Society, founded in 1938 and which has outlasted seven theatres so far, regularly performing to audiences of several thousand in the post-industrial Midlands; supported by Multistory.

Working with film-maker Ben Wigley and photographer Kate Jackson, I’m following the rehearsal and creation of The Producers, which WBOS are staging in Birmingham in November 2011.

It’s called ‘Where we dream’ because musical theatre creates such strange worlds, where we can all be different for a while, whether we’re sitting comfortable in the red velvet seats or giving it our all on stage.

Where we dream will be published by Multistory in the new year. Not a simple company history, the book will mix members’ voices, images and narrative with echoes of past productions and vanished worlds. It will be a celebration of achievement, longevity and a huge amount of fun.