On Saturday July 4, in the Barber Studio at the West Yorkshire Playhouse in Leeds, a group of actors will stage a performance called Anniversary, billed as a ‘celebration of individual lives, loves, hopes and dreams’.
It’s the culmination of two weeks’ collaboration and intense work between eight professional theatre practitioners and a group of five community performers from the Leeds area.
But what is so unusual about this newly-created Performance Ensemble is that the youngest member is 62 and the oldest 87-years-old.
Anniversary is part of the Playhouse’s Open Season and is directed by Alan Lyddiard, 66, who has worked in the theatre all his life.
He says: “I wanted to create a new company of performers who were over the age of 60. I believe that people who are reaching retirement age, and at the end of their working life, tend to feel that they’d come to the end of something.
“I believe however that we should be starting something completely new at that age.
“I left the job I’d been doing for 15 years and decided that I still wanted to work, I still wanted to create and I thought there must be other people like me who wanted to do the same thing.
“And so I approached the West Yorkshire Playhouse as I knew they were deeply involved in the Heydays project for older people.”
Heydays was launched 25 years ago at the West Yorkshire Playhouse when 12 people responded to a flyer left on the tables in the cafe. Now, each Wednesday 300 people over the age of 55 come together to participate in some form of artistic activity: dancing, painting, discussion and a whole range of other things, including basic DIY skills.
Nicky Taylor is the community development manger for the West Yorkshire Playhouse, she says: “This was very much a vision for the Playhouse as being an integral part of the community and a venue for the community to use.
“We have three 12-week terms and the programme changes each term.
“It’s heavily subsidised and costs just £55 a year, or around £1.50 a week for up to three different classes.
“We have between 15-20 professional artists every Wednesday and offer, for example, classes in creative writing, dancing, drama and sculpture.
“The aim is to provide social opportunities and stimulating creative activities that values older people’s contribution and their skills and talents.
“Older people are so often written off and we know from the people that we work with that there is enormous resource of experience and talent and creativity.”
At the end of each 12-week term the participants celebrate what they’ve done; they hold an exhibition and performance schedule so that members get to see what the other members have been up to .
“It’s not just about being creative, says Nicky, “It’s about sharing that creativity and encouraging others.”
Together Nicky and Alan created the idea of this piece of work in celebration of the 25 years’ anniversary of Heydays.
Alan says: “The first project was to create a piece of dance theatre that was about the relationship between members of Heydays working for the first time with a group of professional performers as equals.”
The Heydays members are retired antiques dealer Hum Crawshaw, 85; retired hairdresser and nurse Connie Hodgson, 69; Barbara Newsome, 87, retired office worker for the Ministry of National Insurance; Pat White, 62, a retired teacher occasionally still teaching supply; and retired teacher Maureen Willis, 68.
They are working with an internationally renowned choreographer, 72-year-old, Royston Maldoom and the resulting piece of work will be a starting point for a theatre piece that will be performed at the Playhouse in September 2016 and, it is hoped, go on to tour the UK.
It features a new musical composition by Christopher Benstead, who has more than 30 years’ experience working with dancers and who has created a huge number of musical scores.
The five professional performers are:
Namron, who has worked at Phoenix Dance, Northern School of Contemporary Dance and London Contemporary Dance where he was the first black dancer to join a British dance company and toured the world with them. When his career as a dancer was coming to an end he came to Leeds and worked with the creation of Phoenix Dance theatre alongside Villmore James, another member of the ensemble.
Tamara McLorg, is from Scottish Dance Theatre;
Sally Owen who was a lead dancer with Rambert Dance Company;
Alex Elliott, a founder member of Northern Stage Ensemble make up the rest of the cast.
Alan says: “Sally, who is in her sixties works with Hum, a 86-year-old performer who uses a walking stick and finds it quite difficult moving.
“Together they create some beautiful movement quality.
“And Barbara who is 87, being lifted by Namron, a 70- year old dancer is something very beautiful to see.”
The five community members were chosen after a day-long audition.
Pat White had always wanted to join Heydays and took the opportunity to sign up when she retired, she says: “It looked like it was so much fun. I wanted to meet people and to do creative things. I joined the drama group and it led to me having a walk on part in Uncle Vanya. Then this opportunity came up. I wasn’t sure about it, but it is such an amazing opportunity – these professional dancers are just so clever.
“It’s mentally as well as physically tiring as it’s being choreographed as we go along so it keeps changing. But it is really enjoyable.
Hum Crawshaw, who spent many years working behind the scenes of a theatre, was a stage manager was persuaded to join by his son when he came up to Leeds to live with him.
He says: “It’s been a fantastic experience. I’ve never worked with modern ballet at all before – the dancers are fantastic.”