Geraldine Pilgrim

This case study is from our Sharing the Stage initiative, which was part of the Foundation's Participatory Performing Arts strand (2014-18)

Sitting Comfortably

“They made no distinction between us, even at 83 I felt included, even though we are different generations.” Participant

This case study looks at Sitting Comfortably by Geraldine Pilgrim. It was designed for both theatre spaces and care homes, celebrating memories of joy and happiness held by residents, and is suitable for touring. Find out more about Sitting Comfortably by watching the film and reading the project summary below.

The UK Branch of the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation’s Sharing the Stage initiative ran from 2014-2018. It supported arts projects in which vulnerable and under served groups of people 'share the stage' with professional performers, and projects that are based on partnerships between arts organisations and social partners.

Phase One supported the research and development (R&D) stage of 14 consortia projects. Phase Two ran from 2016-18, supporting 10 consortia projects to full production of the work created through the participatory process. 

Geraldine Pilgrim works across theatre and the visual arts. She stages installations and site-specific performances in occupied and deserted historic houses, buildings and landscapes. She is Artistic Director of Geraldine Pilgrim Performance Company which she set up to create performances and events, predominantly with older people, young people and arts and community groups. 

Geraldine Pilgrim's goal for the production phase of Sharing the Stage was to challenge the perceptions of age in the wider arts sector and in society, and to promote opportunities to learn, explore and develop throughout one’s life through Sitting Comfortably.

In particular, Sitting Comfortably sought to:

  • develop sustainable and committed partnerships that would provide continued support
  • counter negative perceptions of old age in the arts sector and in society
  • give a platform for older people’s stories and the voices that are seldom heard

Sharing the Stage supported the creation of two touring versions of the same show, which maintained the integrity of both purposes socially and artistically.

  1. October 2016, a low-tech site-specific production of Sitting Comfortably took place in the George Crouch extra care home in Dagenham, with one performance for an invited audience of residents and staff and one performance for an invited audience of friends and family of the residents. This came out of an intensive, immersive seven days of preparation.
  2. February 2017, a theatrical version (including a hired revolving stage) for the Broadway Theatre in Barking was presented with a free performance for 40 invited residents of care homes and sheltered housing in Barking and Dagenham, and members of the Peel Centre King’s Cross (one of the partner organisations). The public paid performance had 151 attenders with an intergenerational and cross cultural audience from Barking and Dagenham, other parts of London plus a number of theatre professionals who made their first visit to the Broadway, the spreading reputation of the theatre beyond the local to Greater London and national arena.

Sitting Comfortably

Sitting Comfortably was about memories of older people in care homes, often confined to a wingback chair facing nowhere, and how they remember happiness and joy, as well as grief and loss.  The project was a response to the current narrative around older people only remembering unhappy events in their lives – Sitting Comfortably was about happiness. The show was generated by two years of research, which saw the team visiting sheltered housing, extra care homes, nursing homes, stroke centres and community centres, interviewing people to gather their memories of happiness.

Working with an expanded cross-generational cast of young and older professional performers and local older volunteer performers, the team were able to work not only with the original participants from Barking and Dagenham but also for newly recruited older performers and five younger performers.

Sustaining partnerships

Geraldine Pilgrim successfully gained and sustained the support of their project partners, to the extent that it created momentum. For example, the Catherine Low Settlement supported the early stages, even though the distance from Wandsworth to Barking and Dagenham made it difficult for them to participate in the later stages. Their initial support made the project possible. Other partners included the Peel Institute and Novak Collective, and the performance programme shows the range of other partners and collaborators that Geraldine Pilgrim gathered for Sitting Comfortably.

Sitting Comfortably created and nurtured other partnerships, which supported the company’s learning as well as making the two versions possible:

  • Chelsea Theatre, the use of its theatre enabled a research showing of initial ideas including a hired revolving stage, enabling the idea of the winged armchair to be developed,
  • Artsadmin with rehearsal space also enabled the idea of the winged armchair to be developed, helping to realise it for the mainstage production
  • Broadway Theatre Barking, which programmed the piece of work and also benefited from seeing that there is an audience for this work,
  • the George Crouch Extra Care Home which embraced the company’s presence and offered the opportunity for their residents to participate
  • the relationship with Creative Barking and Dagenham (CBD) was also deepened, and in fact CBD awarded a small grant towards supporting the marketing of Sitting Comfortably to reach a local audience of older people and increase the profile of the Broadway Theatre locally. It also supported the company in reaching out to individuals and organisations who came to the free dress rehearsal, arranging transport and refreshments for them.

Countering negative perceptions of old age

Sitting Comfortably was a participatory performance inspired by memories of happiness from residents of care homes and sheltered housing. This in itself challenged the common perception that old age is miserable.

“My mum and dad spent their last days in a residential old folks home in Southgate and I really appreciated the poetic compression of so many episodes filled out those days, not to mention elegant projection tech that somehow made a bridge between the lost world of Capra and the world beyond the home, the one that perhaps the young carers return to on their days off.” Audience member

The creative process undertaken by the company with the participants over a number of months, which culminated in Sitting Comfortably, inspired the younger performers and made possible a number of strong bonds between the generations. Young people were invited to attend performances, and were enthusiastic in their responses and reactions, again indicating that making intergenerational events can start to counter negative perceptions.

“The young people were fabulous; I could have been their grandmother.” Participant

“They made no distinction between us, even at 83 I felt included, even though we are different generations.” Participant

The power and professionalism of Sitting Comfortably was recognised by the arts sector, securing a booking from the Broadway Theatre Barking, and the arts professionals who attended the public performance had their perceptions challenged through the themes and content of the work.

“We were very impressed with it, the clarity of the tableaux, the exquisite choral work and the engaging community cast.” The Barbican Creative Learning team

A platform for older people’s stories and voices

Despite living in an ageing country, our society is focused on youth – and youthfulness. With two performances, one of them a paid public event, Sitting Comfortably has provided an opportunity to hear older people’s stories and voices.  Despite a focused PR campaign, which generated coverage locally and in theatre media, one BBC freelancer attended.  Although there was a noticeable interest, this didn’t translate into coverage or reviews.  It will continue to be difficult to raise awareness of the quality and breadth of participatory performing arts, let alone participatory art with elders, when the media do not cover these stories.

“I came to see Sitting Comfortably last week and wanted to write to congratulate you on such a huge achievement. The layering of stories, different generations of people on stage and in the choir, the level of detail and high production values made for a complex and joyful work. Such a powerful antidote to the stream of gloomy stories about social care in the media! I so admire your tenacity and the sheer determination it must have taken to realise this important idea.” Audience member, Broadway Theatre Barking

Participants discussed the experience for them at length with the team, and in addition to being part of Sitting Comfortably, they confirmed that they felt:

  • their lives had been acknowledged and respected
  • their voices and stories had been listened to
  • they had been integral to the project and that it couldn’t have happened without them
  • that their confidence had grown, frequently saying that it had given them a “new lease of life”
  • they had developed strong personal relationships with the team

“What fascinated me was the timing, which was spot on. Everything mingled together. Subject matter touched you and my daughter said the audience next to her were over the moon. It hit home for a lot of people, it’s an eye-opener, a lot of people were in tears.” Participant

“I never knew I could have done what I was expected to do - I think I have given my best and I would never have known what worked or didn’t work.” Participant

In addition to a great deal of technical learning, Geraldine Pilgrim identified the following as its key learning:

  • Although there are technical and pastoral issues to take into account, this work has the potential to not only inspire new stories and performances but also add to individuals’ lives in a meaningful way, giving older people dignity and respect and inspiring young performers. Flexibility, and having understudies, is essential, to accommodate hospital appointments, sickness, etc, whilst support and training for the project team to handle the emotional challenges of working with older people (death, serious illness) needs to be built into the plan and budgets.
  • As with any production, it is preferable to have more than one performance, so that word of mouth generates attendance, and people have more than one choice. This also creates a longer life for the work.
  • There is a need to wind down the project after the culminating event, so that participants are not left suddenly without the structures, people and contact of the project that might have been a part of their lives for months. There is a responsibility on the part of the project team not to let participants down with a bump. Geraldine Pilgrim has a practice of small follow-up activities, even if just tea and biscuits, which gently winds down the relationships.  This practice could be adopted more widely.

“I was low when the project ended – it was something to look forward to. At our age it was fantastic to be involved in something.  It was a little bit of a downer when it finished; I look forward to doing it again if I possibly could.” Participant

  • Geraldine Pilgrim is the company, and vice versa: it is not uncommon for micro-organisations to flourish and have international reputations by bringing together teams to create a company for specific projects. However, this does mean that there are not the resources or organisational infra-structure to take on the additional logistics when working with specific groups of people with additional needs – not just elders.  Extra support should be available as part of the overall project resources and budget.
  • There were many benefits of working alongside nine other organisations and companies at different scales and types of artform and operation, including national companies, particularly through the learning community and regular sharing events, putting small and innovative companies alongside large and innovative companies.

Sitting Comfortably has not been able to secure funding so that it could be produced elsewhere, despite the clear benefits to the participants in terms of making and experiencing high quality performances, and the wellbeing effects for the duration of the project. 

However, the experience has confirmed Geraldine Pilgrim’s commitment (creatively, as an individual and as a company) to making work that matters – “that is, it has an effect on people’s lives; the opportunity to be involved can and does change people’s lives, through making art alongside professional artists.”

Geraldine has created new pieces since then, including continuing her Handbag piece, which draws on the use of specific spaces and multi-generational participation.

“I want to make more work of this nature and develop a participatory vocabulary that is innovative and transformative for both participants and audience.” Geraldine Pilgrim

 

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