Author: Koula Charitonos 5th December 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.
The last Living Well session before Christmas was “all-things-superheroes”! Who would have imagined… but it seems that all the participants – including myself – got used to the unexpected during our Friday meetings. Seven participants took part in this week’s session. Drawing on last week’s observations, I decided to carry on looking at the ways one chooses to think of him/herself in the past compared to him/herself in the present. However, going through my fieldnotes and reflecting upon the session, I could not find many situations where the participants’ narrative could be linked to this theme. This might be because last week’s activities were designed for introspection, contrary to this week’s which were meant to be fun and joyful. That said, this is a point I need to examine in the video data that I collected in this session.
As in every week the session kicked off with a name pathways game. The next warming-up exercise was called “this isn’t a scarf”. Using a scarf as a prop each participant had to re-imagine the function of this object and present it to the rest of the group, who had to guess what the new object might be. The new objects presented were a “towel”, a “bra” and “windsurfing board”, among others. This exercise certainly brought lots of laughs in the group! In the group discussion that followed a participant said that it is an interesting exercise as it allows them to “look at things in different ways and from different angles”. Furthermore, Natalie told them that her aim was to for them to think out-of-the-box, and added that her hope is that they feel good in this space to play and express themselves. Having done some interviews with members of this group in the end of this session, I can verify this point: the interviewees said that this feels like a safe space to them!
The next exercise got the participants into pairs with a task to discuss: “If you could change one thing in the world, what would it be and why?”. This task seemed to challenge them and I noticed a few of them asking for clarifications about what this ‘one thing’ might refer to. As expected the responses were diverse, ranging from humanistic views, e.g. abolishment of famine, to more personal actions, e.g. feel gracious, listen to-and learn from-each other. This further led to a relatively long but interesting discussion regarding necessary changes in their local environment. I have to admit that I could not always follow the names or locations mentioned, or make the associations, as my knowledge of Coventry is rather limited. The participants seemed to have strong views about what needs to be done to improve the city of Coventry, e.g. exposure to the river, bus routes, connection to the Charterhouse Coventry. One participant said that the city had “more vibe” in the past; “more people were out and about [in the city]”; and also that “its impact on its people was higher”. This discussion admittedly had a feeling of reminiscence of Coventry in the past; of Coventry of their youth, and the views expressed during this discussion pointed to a city that changed a lot over the last years. That said, it was clear to me that they all care about the city they live in, which further made me think of the importance of including older people in public consultations about developments in their locality.
The next task introduced the idea of superpower; Natalie asked them to build on the ideas expressed in the previous task and discuss: “If you could have any superpower, what would your superpower be and how would it help you to change the world?”. They also had to name their superhero. Names, among others, included: 1. Chameleon: the origin of this superhero was a participant’s recollection from a visit the Las Vegas and a realisation that if you win a lot of money you are not allowed back in the casino, so the chameleon-superhero will allow you to re-invent yourself; 2. Restorative-ranger: this superhero will put everything together for a peaceful world; 3. Dispeller: the origin of this superhero was an acknowledgment that there’s a lot of ‘anti-ness’ in our world, so this superhero will dispel feelings of anti-ness, of hatred, of anger and will do acts of kindness; 4. Provision-man: this superhero will distribute knowledge and food to the less privileged and 5. Equaliser: this superhero will help people accept that there are differences, recognise them and work with them. Following this, Natalie asked them to stand in a circle and each of them say out and loud: “My Superpower is…” . They also created an action for their superhero and presented it to the group, and then everyone had to repeat this action.
What came next was all of them picking-up some props (e.g. hats, wicks, scarfs, masks) to help them create the character of their superhero. This was so fun to watch – and I couldn’t resist myself, so I also put on a mask and posed for a group picture!
As this was the final session for the Living Well group before Christmas holidays – next week all three groups will meet at the Belgrade for a celebration event – we decided that I’d conduct some group interviews with the participants. The main focus of the interviews was to gain an understanding of why our participants decided to join drama activities, instead of sewing or gardening groups, for example. In other words, what difference does taking part in arts and drama make to the lives of people over 50s? I’ll come back to this once I carry out the analysis of this data later this week.
Before we leave the Learning suite we prompted the participants to have a look at some of the photographs that were displayed in the room. These were photos I have been taking of them over the last few weeks. Observing their excitement in approaching this small exhibition, and the spontaneous discussions it prompted made me more eager to discuss with my team how we could integrate some visual methods in the future sessions.
The main purpose of displaying the photographs was for me to remind the participants that I’have been taking pictures of them. I also wanted to check if they are still happy with this practice, and also of the outputs that I had created. As a researcher in this project, and knowing that we are working with some vulnerable people, I’d like to ensure that our participants are aware of why we are doing certain things, and also feel comfortable with the ways they are represented. We always tell them to come and talk to us if they are not happy with something. I’m sharing here what one of the participants told me this week – a note to myself: “I’m happy with what you have there as long as you don’t label me as “[name] with dementia” I’m not just someone with dementia… I’m not a number, I’m a person”.