Author: Koula Charitonos 20th 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, the Age UK Coventry 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 my camera or mobile phone (up to five), 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 of “what is happening”/“what is going on” during these sessions.
The Living Well group is meeting at the Belgrade Theatre on Fridays, and the sessions are taking place either in The Patrick Suite or the Weston Learning Space. Both are fantastic spaces for the participants to take part in individual and group activities and explore the use of imagination and movement. There are approximately 8-10 participants in each session, all living in or around the city of Coventry.
The session on 18 November 2016 was organised around the theme ‘Exploring space and relationships’. It started with an ice-breaking exercise – a similar pattern each week – with the participants sitting in a circle and playing a name pathways game with the use of two balls. This exercise helps us all to remember each other’s names especially since, as I realised soon after the programme was launched, not all of the participants can attend the session each week. This exercise was followed by a warm-up exercise in the space – shoulder rolls, arms, legs – to make the participants feel at ease in this space.
In the next exercise Natalie used two emotion cushions as props: the first one, yellow in colour, was depicting a sun and the second one, grey in colour, depicting a cloud. She asked the participants to pass the cushions onto one another in turns by moving in the space in ways that can demonstrate that feeling through their body and not just through their facial expressions. This led to a group discussion about how this made them feel and it was interesting to hear a participant saying “it feels like a heavy cloud”.
The next exercise was for the participants to walk around the space by keeping eye-to-eye contact with a partner and explore how they feel when they are close/far away from their partner. In observing this activity (and the following three) I tried to focus only on one pair – a man and a woman – aiming to see “what’s the story between them – if any? How does their relationship change when the space between them, and people around them, change?” And since my observations were mainly done through a camera, I couldn’t help but thinking: “Does this change at all the way I ‘see’ what is happening in this space?”
In the discussion that followed this exercise a couple of the participants expressed that they didn’t feel any different. But this view was challenged in the next exercise, which involved listening to three soundscapes: seaside, busy city and stormy weather. I personally loved the first one, probably because I come from an island and this sound was so familiar to my ears. Looking at the participants’ expressions and the relaxed way they were moving in the space, I thought that they all liked this sound. Natalie and Alice prompted them to stay with their partner and imagine where they are, how this place make them feel, and how do they behave like in this environment. A participant joked: “but if we did that we’d get wet!”. In the group discussion in the end of the session the same participant said: “I knew exactly where I was on that seaside”.
The two facilitators also asked us to think how do we relate to other people in the same space and how do we make connections to sound through our movement? I kept focusing on the same pair thinking “Are there any (new) stories emerging here?”. In one way or another, I thought, we all like creating stories for the people we see around us… When the rest of the group stayed still to observe this specific pair, a participant interpreted their movement as if this couple had a row.
Contrary to the seaside soundscape, I noticed a change in their behaviour when responding to the soundscape of the busy noisy city environment. The participants adopted a fast pace, rather nervous I’d say, and they were bumping into each other and apologising in a rush. One said that it was as if they were in London, but they certainly did not show any particular feelings of excitement about this. A participant went to the corner where Natalie and Alice keep the props and found the sun cushion cloud, maybe wanting to show us that this did not make him happy. Then they appeared to like the stormy weather soundscape. I was looking at everyone in the space and I realised the creative ways each one used to react to this sound: a man put his jacket on, another one found a hat, whilst a woman got her scarf. I also noticed a participant hiding in the corner of a door pretending to protect herself from the storm. Their gestures and body language were a clear response to that particular soundscape, and this exercise certainly gave them something to giggle about!
The final activity involved everyone moving in the space by keeping one person as close as possible and at the same time staying away from another person. Everyone started walking, while Natalie posed two questions: “Why are we moving away for one person? Why do we choose to stay close to a person?”. She carried on by saying that “we all have days like this, things just go wrong. Sometimes we just want to stay away from some people… and we choose to stay close to others”.
In the end of the session the participants were asked to give feedback on four icons that we regularly use once a session is completed. Four questions: 1. Did you find anything in the workshop that was meaningful to you? 2. What made you come to the workshop today? 3. How did the drama workshop make you feel?. 4. Describe your experience today in one word? All the responses are anonymous, and the icons are displayed on a board for everyone to have a look, if they wish.
I was helping one of the participants with writing. He told me that this session made him think of things that he wouldn’t normally notice of. I also kept thinking of sounds around us and the impact they have upon us; on our relationships, our behaviour and our connection to spaces and people. And then his response to the fourth question was: “lifted-up” and “elated”. Truth is that I had never before heard of the latter term, so I had to check-it up in the dictionary. I couldn’t have used a better word to describe how I felt during this session: I was indeed elated.