Post written by: Erin Walcon
Tonight, I went to visit Charlie’s House – along with an audience of about 40, in a church hall in Torquay. This performance is taking place in such inauspicious settings in Torbay this week: church halls and residential care homes. The piece, at first glance, is unassuming and simple too. There are three musicians, a train conductor, a working tiny train track, and a beautiful dollhouse, bedecked with real working electric lights and unusual miniature ornaments (a tiny replica copy of The Daily Mail, unexpectedly, for one thing.)
Behind the apparent simplicity lies a complex and thoughtful pattern of artistic process-work which has taken place over the last few months in Torbay, across three residential care homes.
The artists leading on this project have written about the process. They (Hugh Nankivell, Steve Sowden, Jade Campbell, Meghan Searle, Nathalie Palin) are musicians, theatre-makers and visual artists who all are participatory specialists too. They have worked together with childminding lead Lorraine George to bring early years children and their childminders into residential care homes in Torbay.
It sounds so prosaic and mundane to say it. Little children came to visit older people, in their residential care homes. And some artists were there too. That’s all. At its heart, it is such a simple idea – little children who are learning how to talk and to walk – and older people, who are sometimes forgetting how to talk, and losing their ability to walk. Coming together. The image that captured and held me tonight was a single shot of wrinkled papery hands holding tiny stubby toddler fingers on a scrap of film.
In this very simplicity is a flicker of radical hope.
In its very simplicity, is everything – grappling with ageing, death, finding words, losing words, learning self, losing self, remembering how to play, and the instinctive knowing of skinship.
Watching the final 30 minute sharing tonight, I felt my breath catch in my throat.
I was not prepared for how unexpectedly moved I would be by the simple image of holding hands.
In a world that is saturated, it seems, with endless media streams, and isolation, and compassion fatigue, and screens screens screens, and 24-hour-news cycles that feed us the Worst Possible Tragedies and also corruption and injustice at tsunami levels, I sometimes (often) (almost constantly) feel an utter absence of hope. A tired and numb sense of apathy.
You would think that it would take a manifesto or a great speech to thaw that numbness. But the radical potential – the gobsmacking awesomeness of this thing is that what thawed it tonight, in a single breath, was truly, astonishingly simple. Human contact, connection. Respect. Empathy. An honouring of voices and stories. A mutual togetherness.
There have been a range of such inter-generational projects in the media recently. And for this particular project, the rich complexity of the work and its potential impact has been captured by researcher Claudia Blandon in the project evaluation – a worthwhile and useful read for anyone interested in this kind of inter-generational work. More of this research and documentation is coming, and that’s wonderful.
But what I was caught and held by tonight, and can’t stop thinking about afterward, is the role of the artist in that space.
But not just any artist.
Exceptional artists, with a gift for the gentle nuance of participatory work.
And not just any participatory work.
Participatory work which glides, sings, soars, dances and plays with ease – with people who are pre-verbal and post-verbal. Participatory work with people who struggle to remember and who may not yet understand. Participatory work which is fluidly built with bespoke care to that setting, to those people. Artists who understand how to craft a session which cares for everyone in the room.
Artists who know in their bones and spirits that these (all) people have extraordinary capacities and astonishing potentials, stories, and gifts. Artists who are willing to be present and awake in the room with their 2-year old and 92-old participants – who know when to be quiet, when to be responsive, when to gently steer, and when to let what is happening, just simply, complexly, wonderfully, astonishingly… happen.
This is astonishingly rare, in my professional experience.
I lecture my Applied Theatre students regularly about how to ensure that the practice is ethical… how to try to carefully navigate the complex web of facilitator agendas, grounded sites, participatory work, and community settings. What I have watched over the past few months in the Making Bridges with Music project is an absolute masterclass in this… but a masterclass conducted with such quiet humility that its exceptional nature is modest, unassuming, and gentle. Participatory work which has honoured the voices and stories of the participants, and worked to keep the final outcomes simple and genuine, sharing the work back to those who took part, and small public audiences too.
This is, of course, right.
Such work should be gentle and unassuming. Such work must be respectful to the complex contradictions of sited practice, and as such, is often invisible. Yes yes yes.
Tonight I was lucky enough to bear witness to a gentle sharing of the outcome.
And as a witness, as an audience member, I was captivated, riveted by the wonder in the faces of the older people and the acceptance and curiosity and love in the eyes of the little children.
I wasn’t alone.
The piece ended, and the room was quiet – for a long slow breath – where each of us in the audience wanted to stay in that space. Wanted to live in the warmth of that kind of world. Didn’t want it to end.
The hunger in all of us, I think, is for the radical promise that this kind of project holds.
The idea that at the far polar extremities of our life, at our very first stumbling steps and in our final flickering moments of awareness, that we might possibly, against the current odds, be held with respect, with empathy, and with joy.
I was reminded tonight of the undeniable fact that all of us have once been 2 years old, and some of us, if we’re lucky, will live to be 92. And I was filled with hope, that given those two miraculous and ordinary and exceptional opportunities, we will be able to clutch other people’s hands and know that we are important. That people will come to visit us. That we will learn to visit each other.
I think we must keep this kind of participatory project gentle, humble, and unassuming. This is integral to its very nature. This is what gives the practice integrity.
But at the same time, I am certain that unless we describe such work, unless we name it, unless we advocate for it, unless we sing its praises loudly and with passion, it runs a risk of being unseen, or worse yet, diminished as ‘unnecessary’ or ‘trivial’.
And I can’t imagine anything more necessary and urgent than the work I saw tonight.
In a world where oppression and hate seem to be growing, I am adamant that we as artists (as people?) need to actively nurture and create and craft spaces where little children and older people matter. Where we all matter, and all our stories and possibilities are valued.
This is urgent, needed. It is radical. It is exceptionally difficult to do well.
We are working to try and fund a follow-on project to Making Bridges with Music. Advocating for such work is difficult, but not impossible. It is sometimes challenging to storytell what it is. We are on our third grant submission attempt. We are hopeful we will be third-time-lucky. Meanwhile, after the project’s end, childminders are still taking children to visit older people at the care homes, of their own accord. This is the kind of heroism that I want shouted about. Gentle, unassuming, humble, embedded. Continuing. Taking place in rooms which most people don’t see or visit – the many myriad ‘Charlie’s houses’ where our oldest neighbours are living at the ending flicker of their lives.