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‘Sometimes you’ve got to take risks for the unknown. You don’t know what you are going into but you’ve got to take that risk.’

Gwen Sewell, Entelechy Elders Company

On a Bristol shopping street stands an outsize metal bed. On it lies an elderly woman in night clothes, propped against her pillows.

People walk by, hurrying, careless or sensing something weird: they don’t want to know. Others stop, concerned. Are you alright? Is someone looking after you? What are you doing here? The old woman responds by talking about her life. Her children who live far away in Leeds. The baby taken from her because she was unmarried. Her sorrows, her world. Memories. She asks for something tucked in the bedclothes; she talks about a photograph.

People gather round to listen. They join in. They talk about the parents they worry for, an elderly neighbour they’ve not seen for days; their losses.

‘I live on my own,’ says someone.  ‘I’m on my own every night with these two dogs, and every day. It’s bloody lonely, you know. Nobody understands if they haven’t got family and I haven’t got family. It’s a brilliant idea doing this. My dogs keep me going. If it weren’t for them, well, I’d have jumped out of the window ages ago.’

This is personal. A real conversation is taking shape. As it does, the sense comes too that this is not life, but theatre. And yet it is deeply real, in that intense way art has of heightening what we already know and feel. True and untrue at the same time. Now a couple of people have come over and they’re talking about what is happening. They explain that this is a performance, street theatre. They have leaflets about the company and about loneliness in old age, with contact details of organisations who can help. People nod their understanding. They relax a little. One by one they pick up the threads of their day and move on down the street. But they are not quite the same. They will remember this strange meeting. Some leave intending to act upon it. ‘You know what? I’m going to visit my grandmother this afternoon. I don’t see her often enough.’

The old woman lies back on her pillows, alone again, on the street. Someone stops. Are you all right?

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This is ‘Bed’, a street theatre piece devised and performed by non-professional actors from Entelechy Arts Older People’s Drama Group. Thelma Hunte, Rosie Wheatland and the other actors who play characters in the piece came to making theatre late in life. In retirement or after a bereavement, the group’s members were looking for something to do, a role, a way to make sense of being themselves, at the age they are. They found Entelechy Arts, a small participatory arts organisation based in a poor part of South East London. Entelechy defies categorisation. Its foundation is theatre but to say that risks giving a misleading impression of a company whose art involves diverse media, forms and aesthetics. Cabaret, tea dances, interactive performances, memory boxes, social gatherings, live art – these and other frames have held Entelechy’s imagination at different times.

Entelechy’s small staff and network of freelancers make art with vulnerable people: those with disabilities and the old. Consequently, its work is often low-key and intimate. Workshops and performances (the boundary between them is blurred) happen in domestic settings. The work is always experimental because it responds to the imaginations of those present. What will happen is uncertain, so people need trust and patience. So do outsiders, who can find it hard to understand what is happening below the surface.

Relationship is the heart of Entelechy’s practice, a living connection enabled by and expressed in art. But this is not the ‘relational aesthetics’ of contemporary art. The elements that fuse to compose a piece – aesthetic, practical, intellectual, narrative, physical, symbolic, emotional – are contributed by everyone. ‘Bed’ was not conceived by a single, designated artist. It was shaped slowly through the regular act of being together in a shared creative process.

‘I’m curious about how you can develop relationships with people so that you can get lost together and then find each other – and find a slightly different part of yourself in the company of other people.’

David Slater

This relationship is rooted in continuity, commitment and openness. People speak from the heart because what they are talking about is important and time is short. Here, ‘vulnerable’ can be a matter of life and death, not feelings. When the Entelechy Arts Elders Company tours its work, everyone involved knows that the effort may be too much. Age and frailty are real. The group has had to conduct its own rituals to mark the loss of its members.

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Sometimes, the creative work done in community centres and care homes demands a bigger forum. There is something that wants to communicate more widely and then ideas developed in workshops emerge, blinking in the glare of public space. ‘Bed’ is one of those. First presented in 2016 at a street art festival, the piece had been evolving for five or six years before finding its current form. The elders first gained experience of semi-improvised performance on London’s South Bank during the Capital Age Festival when they engaged visitors in structured conversations. The group were becoming aware of the power that silent attention can have in the interaction of performer and audience, something that David Slater, Entelechy’s director, had experienced in some sessions he’d participated in with the Rajni Shah company. The group started exploring how to enable people to sense the space between them and choose if and how to enter it.

These formal ideas connected with the sense of invisibility that members of the elders company often talked about. They felt that old age had simply erased them from the consciousness of younger people who,  seeing them as of no interest, didn’t see them at all. They were very conscious of the burden of loneliness this invisibility placed on millions of people, even if – or perhaps because – their own lives are enriched by the friendships and support that come from working with Entelechy Arts.

For several months the elders company worked on these ideas, sharing some of their own life experiences, and using a bed as focus for their ideas. They explored the paradox of treating this intimate human space as a platform. It steeped a small step to use the bed as a stage and take it into the street market beside the community arts centre where they meet. They very quickly discovered how disturbing that could be. Within an hour they’d had to explain to the police and social services that this was theatre, and that nobody had actually been abandoned on the street. Later, when two teenagers came into the building wanting to report a crime, the drama group began to appreciate the power of their work. After all, the loneliness to which so many people are abandoned is a kind of crime.

‘It has quite an impact, doesn’t it? It’s sort of shocking.’

Audience member

It has taken the company a while to work out how to handle sensitively the confronting nature of this performance. It loses its much of its power when it is presented as a theatre spectacle, yet it is essential not merely to manipulate and upset passers-by who come across an elderly woman lying in the street. Much of the responsibility for managing that lies with the performers because they are the artists: they know what is going on. So they must stay in character while responding to the feelings of the people talking to them. It would be a lot to ask of professional actors. It is remarkable that people who have become artists late in life are able to negotiate these fine edges so well. But perhaps it is because they are not hired hands relaying someone else’s experience but people enacting what they know that they get it right, most of the time. ‘Bed’ demonstrates that participatory art can be not just artistically powerful and unsettling, or that non-professional artists can be innovative, rigorous and brave in their work. It shows that when people have the opportunity to make art for themselves, they enlarge both the language of art and what it has to say.

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All photos by Roswitha Chesher, except the last, by David Slater,  © 2016