Meet the Leeds theatre company dedicated to telling the stories of older people

Around four years ago I was lucky enough to spend an afternoon in a rehearsal room observing a group of extraordinary people making an extraordinary piece of theatre.

Arts leader: Alan Lyddiard, artistic director of The Performance Ensemble. Picture: Mike Pinches

In 2016 the Performance Ensemble, founded two years earlier by award-winning director and writer Alan Lyddiard, were working on Anniversary, a production that combined live music, contemporary dance and storytelling.

The unusual thing about it was that the company – made up of five professional world-class contemporary dancers and five community performers – were all in their 60s, 70s and 80s. The narrative comprised beautifully choreographed dance sequences and profoundly affecting sections in which each performer shared a significant date, memory or story from their own life.

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Performed at what was then West Yorkshire, now Leeds, Playhouse, Anniversary remains one of the most moving pieces of theatre I’ve ever seen. It was about valuing older people – challenging preconceptions about ageing in a subtle and imaginative way while celebrating the vulnerability, grace and beauty of older bodies.

Since then the Performance Ensemble, which now has a core company of 35 people and a wider membership of over 100, have made several other pieces including Bus Ride at the Queens Hotel Ballroom in September 2018, Bed on the streets of Leeds in October 2019 and Crossing, performed at [email protected] in February this year.

Some of the company members have had long careers in the arts as actors, dancers or writers, others have no previous performing experience at all. “I want to work with people in what I call ‘the space between professional, amateur and community arts practice’,” says Lyddiard, artistic director of the Ensemble.

“We focus on shared knowledge and experience, developing an understanding, learning from each other. There is still this thinking that older people are a burden on society, but actually they have an incredible amount to contribute.”

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“Everyone has a story,” says Lyddiard. “And for me as a theatre maker one of the most exciting things is to be able to perform the stories of people who think they don’t have a story to tell and to share it with the world. That is important. Telling a story is a generous act but so is listening to one. What we are trying to do is to create a theatre of generosity.”

Covid-19 has obviously complicated matters but Lyddiard and his team have managed to keep in touch with company members via Zoom or telephone. All being well they will present another piece at Leeds Playhouse in Spring next year.

And, of course, there is 2023 to look forward to. “I think it will be a wonderful time in Leeds,” says Liddyard. “And it is so exciting that we are going to be putting older people right at the centre of that cultural festival.”

You can hear stories collected by Performance Ensemble at theperformanceensemble.com

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Thank you

James Mitchinson