The Albany and Entelechy Arts arts club for isolated older people, Meet Me at the Albany continues to flourish. As well as a place to meet, chat and take part in a range of creative activities, Meet Me is fast becoming a propagating bed for new creative work. Meet Me participants have designed and knitted a pocketed blanket that is the central feature of a new street performance work, premiering at this year’s Brighton Festival. BED is a nomadic street event performed by older members of Entelechy. The work has been commissioned by Without Walls, Brighton Festival and Winchester Hat Fair.
“Sometimes I just sit indoors hoping that the phone will ring. Even if it’s a wrong number: just to hear another voice”, reflects performer Rosie Wheatland. She is one of a core of artists from Entelechy taking theatre into the street: “It feels like when you get to our age you become invisible. We want to be seen. We want to be heard.”
“Understand who your audiences are. Discover who they could be” advises the website of the Audiences Agency. In order to understand their ‘markets’ these seventy and eighty-year olds performers have taken their theatre literally out into the market on their doorstep. Here in Deptford, you can almost feel the tectonic plates of the city shifting underfoot as you wander down the High Street. Regular shoppers brace themselves against the unseasonal late April chill with the newly arrived affluent apartment owners, flea market bargain hunters, the street drinkers and the evangelical preachers.
The stage is set. It’s like an inversion of immersive theatre. Instead of inviting the world to submerge itself in the art this is a theatre that throws itself into the world. In the midst of the Saturday afternoon street scene, far apart from each other, there are two abandoned beds each occupied by an older woman. In different ways, both performers share fragments of their character’s experience as they inhabit the delicate space between waking and sleeping. There are stories of loss, isolation, longing and hope.
Some people pause, choose to ignore and pass by. Some people pause and get drawn into the narrative. Somebody whispers that an ambulance is on its way. A prayer meeting has formed around one of the beds and suddenly everyone is singing hymns.
Small clusters of people are stopping to talk: “I was shocked. I’ve like never seen anything like that in my life. I think it’s amazing. Absolutely amazing. The elderly are treated in such a poor way.”
The lines between what is real and what is fiction are edgily blurred. The minty ‘tic tacs’ mimic hypotension medication in a plastic pill box; the glyceryl trinitrate spray for angina is real. It must take some courage to inhabit this other self, to be present and engaged, wrapped in your nightclothes, out on the street lying on the bed with only the protection of a duvet.
“Anything could happen to us but we take the risk. There’s a lot of trust. We belong to this body of trust, like sisters to each other. Sometimes you’ve got to take risks for the unknown. You don’t know what you are going into but you’ve got to take that risk,” says company member Gwen Sewell.
It was a trail run but I think that the older artists achieved their ambition. They successfully engineered this collision between every day Saturday afternoon moments and a glimpse into the experiences and stories of the isolated old: the hidden, the avoided, the unknown, the willfully ignored. They took people by surprise. They placed them off balance. Maybe they made them think.
BED next appears at the Brighton Festival on the weekend of May 14th and 15th.