Some years ago on one of the strange post-Christmas, pre-New Year limbo days, I went with my dad to visit my great aunt Sheila. I’d been to Sheila’s house many times but she wasn’t living there anymore. She’d been moved to a care home. At the time, I think Sheila was 92 but remembering is difficult because she tended to knock years off herself. This was part of her dementia, no doubt, but I wondered if dementia could be selective at times, wrapped tightly into the unconscious mind, because I noticed that she never added years on, only removed them. The room was very warm, a little oppressive and the television was at top volume. Some of Sheila’s fellow residents were half-watching it, it seemed, though entirely unaffected by events on the screen. On the screen, there were cowboys. Sheila couldn’t remember our names. She had known us her whole life. She wanted to go home. Her home had been sold.
This was my impression of care homes. The level of entertainment, as far as I could see, was that TV showing a 1960s Western on top volume. There was nothing to do. Above all, what struck me was how desperately bored everyone seemed and how isolated from one another.
Arts charity Magic Me is working to tackle both of those issues. Not confined to working in care-homes, they describe themselves as the UK’s leading provider of intergenerational arts projects, often creating and commissioning work that creates points of connection between school children and the elderly, for example. Regular events include Cocktails in Carehomes, something Sheila would certainly have enjoyed. Possibly their most ambitious project to date though is a series of artist residencies that connects four artists and companies from a broad range of the performing arts and pairs them up with four homes run by Anchor. The artists/companies are Lois Weaver, Duckie, Upswing and Punchdrunk: an impressive line-up for even the most jaded of arts festival goers.
From 19th January to the 5th March, Punchdrunk were resident artists at Greenhive in Peckham. They took the same approach as they do with all of their enrichment work: to make a Punchdrunk show with the level of immersion that you might expect for this particular audience and context. In this case, the project happening over several weeks meant that there were possibilities to create a truly interactive theatrical journey. So they started by creating a world: Greenhive Green. Greenhive Green was a village and like most villages, it had a village square. One of the rooms in the home became the village square. Peter Higgin, the director of this project and of the Enrichment arm of the company’s work listed just some of the components of the world they built in the home:
“It was a proper village green. There was turf on the floor, a pub, a postbox, bunting. There was a sign saying Greenhive Green, so they knew we were there. Then we had a village noticeboard and that would have the times for the committee meetings.”
The residents themselves were the committee and there were able to influence the outcome of the narrative quite substantially. In theory, at least. The company started to discover particular challenges associated with their audience, as Peter explains:
“We had this world that was narratively quite complex, and where the actions taken one week could really affect what happened the next. There were certain subplots – we had one about this love story- which we essentially had to just forget about, even though we knew there there and they fed into the world. We found though that the residents couldn’t always remember who we were. In the end, we had to make each performance self-contained.”
According to Susan Langford, director and founder of Magic Me, over 70% of carehome residents have some form of dementia. From an arts background herself she understood, from the charity’s creation in 1989, the possibility of the arts to communicate in ways that weren’t just about language:
“Our culture places a primacy on language so if you are losing that, then you can feel isolated and we need to find other ways of communicating and that’s something the arts does very well.”
She explains the importance of giving the older audiences they work with objects – something tangible – that they can focus on, rather than using abstraction in the way we might normally expect from a performance.
This is something that is echoes by Peter’s experiences of Greenhive:
“There was a lot of opportunities for the residents to shape the narrative in the world we had created but we kept on having to return to really simple things. For example, it might have been “this week we’re going to paint eggs” and then it’s about whether you paint it yourself or whether they are able to do it and, if you do it yourself, how you find out from them what they want painted on it.”
The agency becomes about a very small gesture instead of this grand, ambitious interactive narrative but it’s still at the core of the work. This may seem strange at first: having a company of Punchdrunk’s stature come in and help people paint eggs and yet, looking back on every Punchdrunk show I have ever done and many of the memories that others have shared with me, it has always been the tiny moments: the one-on-one interactions with a performer or with a room, finding a letter in a drawer or a box of pills in a handbag that have stayed with me – and others – the most.
There’s a slight sense of frustration or thwarted ambition to Peter as he tells me about the project:
“As the weeks went by, the residents started to get used to us. They stopped asking questions like “Who are you” and “Why are we here?”. Looking back, it took maybe four or five weeks for them to get used to us and that’s the point when they could have really started to engage with the world, but the project was pretty much over by then.”
And then, as if on a sidenote, he mentions that Alex Rowse, the Enrichment Producer, had been back to Greenhive recently. The bunting, the turf, the post-box had all gone, of course. All the props that represented Greenhive Green were gone. This wasn’t the end of the story though. A member of staff told Alex that the residents were still meeting at the same time in the same room as the committee and making decisions – or not – about the future of their village.
For more on Punchdrunk’s enrichment work, visit their website here.