Alan Lyddiard is a director whose work blurs conventional distinctions between theatre and community art. We first met more than 20 years ago, when he ran Northern Stage in Newcastle, and I’ve watched his ideas evolve in the intervening years. Then he started working in Leeds, drawing around himself The Performance Ensemble, a gifted and growing group of older artists. Some have long and distinguished professional careers as dancers, actors and musicians; others have long and distinguished careers as civil servants, teachers and engineers. Their common ground is a commitment to making art seriously, and being past the usual retirement age.
Leeds is not so far from Nottingham, and proximity allowed me to see more of Alan’s work and us to have longer, more frequent conversations. When he asked me to be dramaturg for his new project, I said laughed – it’s not a question I’d ever been asked – and then said yes, if I could be the caretaker instead. It feels like a formalisation of what I’ve always done with Alan – sweeping the floor, getting a space ready, looking after health and safety. Not literally, you understand, though I’ve done my share of that too, but metaphorically, with his ideas and practice. We’ve talked through projects, I prod his dreams and assumptions, add some of my own, look for traps and omissions, offer him words (like these)
The project Alan is working on, and that I’m caretaking for him, is called ‘The Promise of a Garden’, and it will be presented at Leeds Playhouse this summer – don’t ask when, because we all know we don’t know. But it’s in the schedule, and that’s the first step, even if it gets taken more slowly than we hope. And it is a first step – a step back into a theatre, into making art together, into performance, into spectacle, into the shared experience of ensemble and audience.
Over the course of the month, Alan and his company of elders will create a garden on the stage of the Quarry Theatre – a garden that Leeds people are invited to help assemble. The garden will include living plants, earth and stones, but also objects of human creativity. There are only three rules about the gifts we’re looking for: they should belong in a garden, should be treasures, and the giver must be happy to put it into someone else’s care.
People who want to bring something to the garden will book a time and be received by Gardener who will walk them round the evolving landscape. They’ll choose where to place their treasure and be offered a small performance in return – a story or a song, a dance. And they’ll be invited to come back for the show in the final week, a new theatre performance created by the Ensemble to mark this moment of life and renewal.
And after the last curtain falls, the garden will be entrusted gift by gift to the people of Leeds, to anyone who will look after its treasures – until such time as it needs to be gathered in again.
Why the promise of a garden? So many reasons, some of which are sketched out in this piece I wrote for Alan a few months ago. Others we’ll learn as we work on it, Alan in Leeds, with his ensemble and creative collaborators, and me, for the present, still in France. My role in this project is small, and in some ways unlike anything I’ve ever done. I should probably be anxious about it, but I’m not, partly because of my confidence in Alan and the Leeds Playhouse team, but mostly because this just feels like a good thing to be doing as this awful time might be coming to… I daren’t say ‘an end’ – let’s settle on ‘something better’. So, with uncertainty and hope, I’m just happy to be working on the promise of a garden.
While lockdown endures, we’ve begun inviting people to contribute to the Garden in digital form on an instagram page, with an image and an explanation of what it means to them. My contribution is the image at the top of this page, but go to The Garden 2021 to explore some more – and why not? – add you own.