Image credit: Roswitha Chesher

Age Against the Machine

12 March 2020
David Slater, Artistic Director at Entelechy Arts talks about Lewisham's Cultural Impact Award project funded through London Borough of Culture, Age Against the Machine
Over the last few years older people have made a thriving contribution to the creative and artistic life of Lewisham. So when the opportunity presented itself to apply for one of the London Mayor’s Cultural Impact Awards it was no surprise that the Borough’s oldest residents would be at the heart of it. The Age Against the Machine Festival clearly demonstrated the power of the arts in enabling Lewisham’s oldest and often most isolated and excluded citizens to make an active and vibrant contribution to civic life.
For three weeks in September and October 2019 Lewisham’s theatres, parks, community halls, streets, libraries, residential care homes and myriad other public spaces were host to music events, theatre performances, craft workshops, discussions, fashion parades, films, exhibitions and many more creative events all celebrating the creativity of older Lewisham residents. Co-produced by the Albany and Entelechy Arts, with Lewisham Council, the festival aimed to both challenge, question and inform as well as celebrate and entertain within its numerous highlights.
The programme launched with a large-scale experimental show by Christopher Green. The Home was a 48-hour immersive theatre experience that gave audiences first-hand experience to discover the problems and pleasures of life in a residential care home. In the words of the Guardian’s 4-star review: ‘this extraordinary immersive experiment investigating the performance of – and line between – care and control is an unforgettable feat of emotional engineering.’ Performers from Entelechy’s Elders performance company collaborated with older Japanese actors from the Saitama Arts Theatre, Tokyo, in a street performance, BED, that highlighted the often hidden stories and life experiences of the isolated old. The work was performed in the contrasting sites of Potters Fields adjacent to City Hall and Deptford High Street.
There was an intergenerational commission from Tangled Feet. ‘Half Life’ bought together a company of ten, twenty, forty and eighty-year olds to explore different perspectives on ageing and the cross-generational theme was continued by contemporary circus company Upswing with Catch Me a beautifully intimate and surprising take on age and gender where an older woman and younger man balance, climb and jump across a stack of chairs discovering all the people they can be.
The festival ended with a Trinity Laban produced mass choral and dance performance commissioned from composer Liz Lane and choreographer Lizzi Kew Ross. Coinciding with “Silver Sunday” it became a mini festival to end the festival.
At the heart of Age Against the Machine was a programme of twenty-two community commissions. A borough-wide call for project proposals was met with a response of over seventy ideas from a huge range of local community groups and organisations. A community producer was appointed to facilitate a creative dating process where groups were introduced to local artists. This process produced a flourishing of rich ideas that became the bedrock of the festival.
From the community commissions came fashion shows and music sessions, fruit foraging in wild spaces, a Vietnamese moon festival, intergenerational projects, flash mobs, dances events, photography exhibitions and much, much more. Support was provided to ensure that events were dementia friendly and fully open and accessible.
The festival has strengthened and helped to consolidate links between Lewisham’s cultural sector and adult social care and health teams. Artists are at the heart of a number of local social prescribing initiatives and plans are being developed to launch an arts programme in one of the boroughs health centres.

Learning from the event ricocheted nationally and internationally. A symposium in the City of London’s Guildhall bought together contributors from London, Manchester and Tokyo to reflect on developing best practice. ‘Creative Ageing and the City’ explored effective ways in which artists, arts organisations, local authorities, health and other community partners can effectively work together to support isolated older people to connect with, and contribute to, contribute to the cultural life of their communities. Read a detailed report of the event.

Festival Key Learning Points:
• Structuring space and time to uncover and listen to the skills and imaginations that already exist in the community: the small grants community commissions provided an ideal vehicle to develop this process.
• See the whole of a borough as a venue: work happening on streets, in community halls, hair salons, parks, sheltered housing schemes and people’s front rooms ensured huge reach and a diversity of audiences.  
• The importance of placing the voices and imaginations of people from participating communities at the heart of the process: co-production was central to the festival’s success.
What next?
An audience member said after seeing BED: “Everybody has their own story to tell. That’s what I was reminded of here today”. Her reflection summed up the Age Against the Machine Festival: thousands of stories full of hope and the possibility of change. In February it was announced that Lewisham was London’s 2021 Borough of Culture. The adventure continues. Watch this space!


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