We thought we were making a play, when we started this process a couple of years ago. Instead, we’ll present a film this afternoon, at The Lawnmowers Arts Centre in Gateshead. A Dead Good Life is a 30 minute drama about growing older with learning difficulties. It was devised and performed by five artists with learning difficulties, working with several non-disabled artists. After today’s launch, the film will be online, and I’ll write more about our intentions and how it will be used to raise awareness of some vital issues. For now, I want to say something about how it was made, about the process of creativity at the heart of all community art.
Andy Stafford, George Copeland, Debbie Bell, Andrew McLeod and Nick Heron have been members of The Lawnmowers Independent Theatre Company for 20 to 30 years. During that time, they’ve created many new productions, and given thousands of performances and workshops, throughout the UK and abroad. They are talented, creative theatre professionals, who dedicate their time to working with the Lawnmowers. Much of their work has been made with Geraldine Ling, who is a trustee since stepping down as artistic director a few years ago. I’ve been an admirer of the company for many years – they’re in Use or Ornament? – so I didn’t hesitate when Geraldine asked me to work with them on a project about growing older with learning difficulties.
The issue is both political and personal. Political, in the sense that it’s an important new reality that requires profound change in policy and services for people with learning difficulties and personal because ageing is starting to affect each of the people involved in the project directly. The Lawnmowers wanted me to help them think about ageing, but none of us knew what that really meant when we gathered in October 2016 for our first session. I tried not to worry about it. I came with an open mind and a few ideas that I mostly kept to myself. We talked, drank tea, shared fruit and crisps, and began to get to know each other. The process was slow and gentle. We met once a month, on Saturdays, because everyone was busy. We did research into ageing, and how it affects people with learning difficulties. We tried out some sketch ideas. Once or twice we asked someone to come and talk to us about an aspect of the issue.
And we often talked about Paul, a founder member of The Lawnmowers who had died not very long ago. A gifted actor, he was also a passionate Elvis fan and occasional impersonator who’d been to Graceland in his last years. Many of our early conversations centred on people’s memories of Paul, visiting him in hospital and his funeral. So that became the foundation of the story that evolved. The play (as it still was then) would honour Paul’s friendship and memory. Once that was decided, other pieces of the puzzle began to fall into place.
The five ways to wellbeing were one, because they are important and clear. Since we had five actors, it was natural to link each with one of those ideas. By now, the story was evolving in quite complex ways and it became clear that it needed to unfold in many scenes and places. That suggested it would be better as a film than a play. Funding would be needed, and other artists to help us make it. In the meantime, we worked on a storyboard in a series of still photos, with a simple explanatory script. But not everyone is comfortable with reading, so improvisation and rehearsal were our main tools.
As the process evolved, other people came in to help with the things we couldn’t do ourselves. Mostly, they were friends of The Lawnmowers, part of the family of people who like working together that every artistic company gathers over time. Joel Cooper spent a day with us, imagining a visual representation for the Elvis/Paul King character who shows the characters the five ways to wellbeing.
Ali Campbell worked with the cast to rewrite Elvis’ songs with music from Archie Brown and Bryan Dixon. When we decided that the play would work better as a film we turned to Bryan again and he filmed and edited it with Kristen Gibson. There are guest appearances by eight other performers, who mostly play people with similar roles to those they have in life. And around it all were all the other Lawnmowers members, staff and supporters, led by CEO, Dawn Redhead. The film, like all the best community art, belongs to everyone and no one. It is the singular creation of those who see a possibility into which they choose to invest their creativity.
In His Dark Materials, Philip Pullman has created a fable about the loss of innocence and its compensation by experience. As a child, Lyra reads the magical truth-telling alethiometer instinctively, but the insights she can feel (but not explain) leave her when she reaches adolescence. She must learn how to read it all over again, with an adult’s hard-earned skills and knowledge that are the only way back to the creative imagination she once used so freely.
There was a time when I made community art with the innocent fearlessness that enables Lyra to interpret the alethiometer. When I recall some of the work I did then, I’m embarrassed by its naivety and I shudder at the precipices past which I walked unawares. There were nerves, and from them came energy and the electric commitment that makes you give your best. But I understood very little of what I was doing. That innocence – for which I’ll always be grateful – has been replaced by experience. I know a lot more, which is also a way of saying that I know better how little I do know. I know where some of the precipices are and, more importantly, I know that I don’t know where others might be, only that they exist. And I still have nerves. My early sessions with Debbie, Andrew, George, Nick and Andy were often uncomfortable for me, because I felt a weight of expectation. I felt had to use a subtle knife to feel for the opening that would allow us to pass into another world, one of the imagination.
The difference is that I have learned to trust the process. I have done this often enough – and in so many different contexts and ways – that I know the process will not let me down. I don’t need to know where I’m going or even what I’m doing, I need only to accept that something will happen. If I force it, the blade will shatter. This has never been about cutting an opening: it’s about feeling for one that is already there, that is ready to let you through, if you can find it. So I live with the nerves. In fact, I’ve come to believe that one of the key roles of a good community artist is to hold a group’s anxieties about the work, so that they are free to give their imaginations and creativity free rein. The task is to reassure people who may not have made art before that something will happen, and that they’ll be pleased and rewarded by it. That reassurance opens a space for them to create. I can hold that anxiety because, after all these years, I trust the process. It has never let me down.
Discovering what will happen, trusting it to happen instead of forcing it, is a deep pleasure. And the film we didn’t know we were going to make is one more demonstration of the magic of community art.