“Who would like to play Joan? Do we have a volunteer?”
Joan looked over the group of primary school pupils sitting on the floor of her lounge at Abbeyfield St Martins care home. She had just told us that when she was a girl after the war, she would go dancing at the George Hotel in Ilminster. Before going to the George for the first time, she’d asked her mother for advice, and her mother had been very supportive. Joan told us that she’d loved and admired her parents, that they were wonderful to her while she was growing up.
We were at the start of our Lunsford School Studios production of This is Your Life, recreating scenes in the lives of residents and the people they treasured, casting the pupils in all the roles of the residents, and Oscar from Year 3 raised his hand.
“Is there anyone here who would like to play young Joan asking for advice?” A hand went up. “Oscar? You would like to play Joan?” Oscar nodded, everyone laughed, and we were off on one of the most joyful days I have experienced as an artist. Oscar asked the resident Kathleen what he should do at the dance. Kathleen replied, ‘You should ask someone first, and should they say yes, well you’ll be away, wont you?’ I yelled ‘Cut!’ and the room burst into applause: our first scene was on tape, and we moved on to the dancing…
Through the day we had several like that: Emma & Alfie played Vera & her friend Bobbie, meeting for the first time over a cup of tea and ending in hugs with the real Vera. Tobey in Year 4 played young David, a cinema organist, watched over by his teacher Miss Christmas, played by the resident Eileen, while everyone threw plum pits at him like audiences from the cinema balcony. April in Year 5 played young Ted, member of a glee club in his youth, and sang Moon River. Ted then sang ‘Too Marvelous for Words’ himself for us afterwards, while the pupils snapped and clapped along. And Maddie played young Mary, who would slip an extra fried egg under her fiancé Derek’s fried bread while she was a cook in the RAF. Young Derek, played by Harrison, visited the real Mary afterwards, and she gave him a kiss to thank him. His face was a mixture of embarrassment, affection and happiness about an unexpectedly accomplishing something with skill and no little panache, something that was recognised with appreciation and applause.
The gentleness and care that the young people took while recreating these scenes, or when putting makeup on a resident, draping a shawl around their shoulder for a role, when holding their hand or leaning in for a hug, was genuinely inspiring.
As a creative practitioner for care setting staff with the company Ladder to the Moon, I help lead staff development workshops on increasing vibrancy and wellbeing for people living and working in care homes, and the children of Lunsford School demonstrated the standard of behaviour and attitude we aspire to instil, standards we try to maintain ourselves. The pupils were truly wonderful with the residents and, in an unexpected way, these children have become my own role models.
We showed our This Is Your Life film last week during our final celebration day at Lunsford School: pupils, parents, care home residents, the mayor, school governors, artists, teachers, volunteers and People United, filled the hall. We shared all the phases of the project: pupils read poems, we sang together, passed out question cards and watched the film. As people arrived, they walked past images taken through the term projected onto the outside of the school, set to an original soundscape I called Larkfield Treasure. It was a warm, misty evening, and the atmosphere was bubbling and generous. I hadn’t planned to have a full-on event like this when I proposed the Treasure Project – just the outdoor projections – but it was an inspired, and inspiring idea from People United.
People at the school could witness the scope what we had achieved and celebrate the relationships that were established and deepened through the project. Residents from the care homes attended, many came to the school for the first time, and many of the pupils had insisted on coming to school instead of doing other activities – clubs, swimming, playing with friends. For example, the father of Alex, whose poem about his Nan with a suntan who ate spam and drank cider from a can was scheduled to be presented at the evening, rang up after school and apologised for him – saying he had a prior engagement, and that he hadn’t seen the messages about the event. I’d filmed Alex reading his poem at Lavenders care home a few months earlier, however, and organised for a clip to be shown on screen at the party. In the end it was unnecessary, because 20 minutes before the start Alex’s father rang back saying that his son had thrown such a stink at home that they were going to leave cub scouts early and attend, and was it all right for him to arrive in his uniform? Of course it was. Alex read his poem, and it was delightful, and he wasn’t the only child who came in their scout uniform. The fact that so many children actually wanted to come back to their school, a place where they spend so much of their lives, meant a lot to me, and shows what a wonderful place Lunsford is.
Schools are amazing spaces of creativity and nurture, and it’s been apparent to me through the residency that the teachers and volunteers at Lunsford are dedicated to their pupils. I was a daily witness to their spirit of flexibility and openness: a child in one corner of the school receiving one-to-one tuition, four others in a small group around an art table, half a class reading in the library, the other half at computers, three pupils working at the table in the school entrance, another practicing maths on the floor in the hallway, two others on their scavenger quiz project digging in the store room, while three full classes lined up in the field lining for lunch, ready to traipse past everyone. All of it happening at once, all somehow coordinated, and all working, every time I was there. I got the real sense that individuals and their needs were valued at Lunsford, and, importantly, that the children there could sense it, too. This all helps when a child is in an unfamiliar place, where they have to rely on their sense of self to inform their behaviour. And when filming This Is Your Life, the young people were patient, respectful, kind, open, cooperative, communicative, a delight for the residents – and me – to see.
On Friday at the away day with People United and the other commissioned artists, we spent time at the grounds of a Franciscan priory and the Beaney Art Museum & Library, reflecting together about the Wonder & Role Models projects. I was asked what I’ve learned from the project, and as there was so much in such a condensed time, it was difficult to say. As I’d hoped, I learned that younger and older people working together is extremely beneficial to both groups – instilling a sense of value for young people who are listened to and appreciated, a sense of importance in care home residents who are able to pass along some of their wisdom and knowledge to people starting out in life. And that both groups thoroughly enjoy spending time together.
I learned that schools are amazing hives of creativity and expert improvisation; that the Painting With Light projection application is a wonderful piece of software; that it’s important to have final events in longer-term projects; that flexibility and remaining open to new suggestions greatly helps a extend and grow a project; and that nimbly ducking under door frames when wearing feather dusters on your head is a vital skill to develop.
The adage, ‘problems are opportunities’ was strongly confirmed as well. When Dennis, a resident at Lavenders care home, returned to his own home just a few days before the This is Your Life film shoot was happening, we were short one scene to perform. There was no time to find another resident’s story, so we decided to recreate one of the pupil’s relationships with someone he treasured: Year 3 student Max met his best friend James met at reception and they bonded over their shared interest in firemen, so we filmed another pupil playing Max and the Lavenders resident Veronika in the role of James, both wearing fireman’s hats, and it became a highlight of the day.
Another confirmation for me was advice from the artist and video blogger Ze Frank: ‘Put your ideas into action as quickly and faithfully as possible’. He strives for the shortest distance between an idea’s inception and it’s realisation, while remaining faithful to his original idea. The plan to photograph individual pupils together with the individual residents somehow without showing their faces was in my original proposal, but in the glorious mayhem of our sharing visits it would have been easy to just let this idea go, and work on it another time in a separate project. We persevered however, and my collaborator Shula Hawes and I spent the last ten minutes of the gatherings making our way through a cacophony of conversations, arranging hands on different coloured blankets and taking pictures as quickly as we could. This eventually resulted in the beautiful framed gifts for our participating homes, and one for the school as well.
The final idea that was confirmed for me is the proverb, ‘If you want to go somewhere fast, go alone. If you want to go somewhere far, go together.’ I could not have realised this project – it could not have travelled as far – working on my own. The skills that the visiting artists brought – John Hegley’s poetry and irreverence, Gitika Partington’s liveliness and musicality – brought enthusiasm and fun to the project early on. There is no way the film This is Your Life would have happened without Shula & Rose Turner from the organisation Ladder to the Moon, and I couldn’t have become integrated at Lunsford without the help and championing of Matt Dechaine, the Head Teacher there. And that final celebration day would not have come off without the encouragement, fortitude and support of the team at People United. They were a joy throughout, and I am very grateful for the confidence they placed in me to choose Treasure for their Role Models commission. It has been a pleasure and a privilege to work with them, the care homes, the school staff and the pupils. What a lovely, fulfilling project.