Author: Koula Charitonos 27th November 2016
The Arts Gymnasium is an innovative research project which uses theatre and drama activities to contribute to the quality of life and positive well-being of people living in Coventry. It addresses the difficult question of how can drama and the arts make a positive impact on people’s lives. It is work in partnership between the Belgrade Theatre in Coventry, the Age UK and the Coventry University, and it is funded by the Esmée Fairbairn Foundation.
Weekly sessions, exclusively for people aged 50 and over, are run at the Belgrade Theatre, with a particular strand of the programme being tailored to meet the needs of people living with memory impairments and/or early stage dementia. The sessions are facilitated by Alice Williams and Natalie Cook for the Belgrade Theatre and Age UK Coventry.
This series of blog posts will provide a reflection of my experience as a participant researcher. They are an edited version of notes taken during the Living Well group sessions, along with selections of photographs I took with a camera or my mobile phone, and thoughts on discussions I had with the participants and the facilitators. My intention is to provide a documentation of the activities – in words and images – along with my first take on “what is happening”/ “what is going on” during these sessions.
This the second blog post I am writing about the Living Well group, which meets at the Belgrade Theatre on Fridays. Six participants took part in this week’s session, that was organised around the theme Exploring identity.
I walked into the Belgrade this Friday with a plan to structure my observations around the theme “health”. For example, one of the first things I noted down was something a participant told me on our way to the learning suite: “It’s good to do some exercise on a day like this”. However the way the session unfolded led me to become gradually attentive to the concept of “time” and particularly to the dichotomy (or continuity) between past and present. Over the course of the session I started looking at the ways one chooses to consider him/herself in the past compared to him/herself in the present. Taking into account that some of the participants have been diagnosed with dementia, I started thinking that the notion of time must be an important one hence I also started noting down things said related to this one.
Similar to the previous week, the session started with all the participants sitting in a circle and playing a name pathways game with the use of two balls. Following this exercise, each one had to tell one colour that they think it represents their personality, and also if they could be an animal which animal this would be. A participant said she would like to be a cat because “cats look after themselves well”. When one of the facilitators said that she would like to be an elephant, the same participant responded by saying “and elephants never forget”. It seems to me that concerns such as being able to look after yourself and remembering – particularly salient for people with dementia – could not have been expressed more succinctly.
The next exercise involved warming-up – shoulder rolls, arms, legs – and at the same time Natalie asked them to think of their breathing: “Breath in through nose, exhale through the mouth”, a prompt that was expressed recurrently throughout the session. “We focus on our breathing” Natalie said, and she further prompted them to walk in the space whilst thinking about how they feel. Alice was the first to speak afterwards and said that she has loads of adrenaline, as if she has a rushing engine, hence everyone could notice how fast she was walking. This might be because before the session she had to take part in one show in the BBC Coventry & Warwickshire radio. However “I actually feel more tired than how I actually behaved”, Alice said.
The next question was: “Do you think you are fully aware of how you feel today?”. I was glad to hear a participant saying: “Yes, I feel great!” while another one said: “I came here with mixed feelings”. What followed was each one working individually and having to create a still image that represented how they were feeling in that moment. Natalie also reminded them to consider their breathing and their posture. They all had the chance to show their still image to the group, and following this they created another still image to show how they believe other people might perceive how they felt in that moment.
It was very interesting to spot the differences in the two still images, and also hear the discussion that followed. An important point was raised regarding how we choose to position ourselves in relation to different groups we interact with, as demonstrated by the following statement: “It’s hard to do this because different people perceive us in different ways”. Another participant expressed her dislike in creating the first still image, and in doing this she seemed to express a general consensus: “I find it hard to do how I see myself. I know how people perceive me”. For one participant it was “hard to stay still” and another one said: “I don’t like to think much because if I think too much I can’t get on”.
The following exercise was the one I liked the most in this session. It involved using the space as a temperature gauge and asking the participants to move across the two sides of the room based on their agreement or disagreement to questions that the facilitator was asking. A range of questions were posed, from “Have you ever eaten pasta?” and “Are you happy living in Coventry?” to “Are you planning for the future?”. I found this exercise particularly interesting though challenging at the same time, as a few of the questions required the participants to open-up to the rest of the group. It certainly allowed us to know each other bit more: for example I know now that a few participants are well organised, others are always on time, while a couple of them find Prince Harry particularly cool! It was through this exercise that I realised how the past marks a difference compared to the presence. I noted down a few expressions that emerged in the discussion that followed each question, e.g. “I used to be positive, not anymore”; “I’d like to be more spontaneous, but I can’t anymore”; “I didn’t use to do that, but not anymore”; “I like this [being tidy]… I need this now. I never needed it in the past”; and “I can’t hold my liquor like I used to do”. I am interested in seeing whether this idea is in fact recurrent in their discussions, so I’ll definitely explore this further in performing the analysis of the video data, which I am collecting each week. I noticed a few phrases related to “ageing” as well: “I’m old, I can’t see very well”; “I’m 76 so you don’t plan the future, you only plan next week”.
The final exercise involved creating an ‘iceberg’: the participants were split in two groups and they had to think of themselves with regards to what people see and what lies underneath. I was following the discussion of one group of four participants, and I felt very sad to hear words such as “inadequate”, “fear” and “untidy mind” as lying underneath the surface. One also explained; “we might be vulnerable. Sometimes you hide your vulnerabilities, you keep them in the bottom of the iceberg”.
The session certainly gave me lots of laugh, along with a lot to think about and reflect upon. Each time I leave the Belgrade I count my blessings: I’m taking part in a study that makes a change to people’s lives – I see this every Friday. I’m taking part in a study which gives me much to learn and develop myself – this blog is one step towards this. And at a personal level this study makes me more appreciative – the elderly people are an invaluable part of our society. Are we enabling them to play a full and useful role in the social and cultural life of their communities?