At the weekend I saw a quite unique theatre production – Anniversary at the West Yorkshire Playhouse.
With a cast of ten all aged between 50 and 90 – five of them former world-class contemporary dancers and five community performers from Heydays, the Playhouse’s long-standing creative programme for the over-55s – the piece subtly challenged attitudes towards ageing and showcased the stories of older people. Inspired by the real events – memories, significant dates – in the performers’ lives and combining dance, music and the spoken word, it was in many ways unlike any other piece of theatre I’ve seen.
I knew it was going to be affecting – I was lucky enough to attend one of the rehearsals a few weeks ago – but I wasn’t prepared for quite how profoundly moving it turned out to be. As the performers courageously and openly shared their own stories, the production had a tenderness and raw honesty all of its own.
All artforms, but perhaps theatre more than any other, allow us to get to the truth of the matter. Maybe this is what made the whole experience so powerful and poignant. And judging by the number of sniffles and discreet scrabblings for tissues around me, there almost certainly wasn’t a dry eye in the house.
What was really heartening to note was the number of young people in the audience and their response to the piece, which on the night I attended was loud and appreciative. In fact, some of them led the well-deserved standing ovation.
“We are not over the hill, we are on top of it” said one of the performers, an octogenarian retired antiques dealer. A memorable line – and one which speaks to the societal ‘invisibility’ of older people. It’s a much-needed reminder that everyone’s story is important and deserves to be heard.
This belief is also at the heart of an initiative working with young people from low-income backgrounds, who are also very often ‘invisible’ or unheard. The charity First Story – which works around the country including in Yorkshire – gives thousands of students each year the opportunity to express themselves creatively. To tell their stories. Through their writing programmes and the contribution of professional writers, First Story gives those young people the chance to nurture their creativity, find their own voices and build their confidence and self-esteem.
Life is all about stories and storytelling – and that is why art, given the chance, can become a form of social cohesion.