Music, dance and memories came together at York’s The Oaks care home this summer as Sensory Stories demonstrated the power of performance in the community.
The final performance of the Sensory Opportunity took place in June at the Oaks, in New Earswick, to a rapturous reception from an audience of residents, carers, relatives and project participants. The event involved three dances choreographed around residents’ life stories, specially composed music and talks, and brought together people of all ages, including professional carers, local schools and University of York students. The project was months in the planning, as Opportunity directors, Kate Compton and Ben Elliott, explain.
‘The process began when we met with Karen Davidson and Carol Raper from The Oaks to discuss the possibility of working with some of the residents living with dementia, way back in January. From this meeting, the seed of a project was designed, which would look to conduct oral history interviews with a small group of residents to document and record some of their favourite stories and anecdotes. These recordings would then be used as a stimulus for a range of different performance groups, based at the University of York. The final products of this process would then be rehearsed and performed back to an audience of residents at The Oaks itself, which would include the original storytellers, their carers, families and friends.
‘Once the project design had been approved by the University Ethics Committee, we organised an oral history interview techniques training session with the help of Dr Geoff Wall, a specialist in oral history from the Department of English and Related Literature. This was delivered to a group of postgraduate students, and three interviewers were subsequently selected for the task of documenting the Oaks residents’ stories. Meanwhile, at the home, Carol and Karen were busy recruiting three volunteers for the project: Harold Otter, a retired academic; Muriel Kelly, a former nurse and Chris Watson, an ex-policeman and York tour guide. The interviews themselves were then conducted by the York students, in the presence of the carers and project directors. These were a tremendous success, with the residents feeling comfortable enough to tell us a range of fascinating tales which left most of our jaws on the floor!
‘Following the interviews, the directors then set a date for a “Reflection” seminar – a chance for various creative performers to come together and brainstorm ideas for the different ways in which these stories could provide inspiration for performance. Representatives from the Dance Society, Music Department, Community Music MA and local freelance dance artist Holly Clarkson participated in discussions alongside the project directors, Professor Jane Moody, the original interviewers and oral history training seminar attendees. This again was an immensely enjoyable and stimulating afternoon, with many new connections forged between creative performers from all corners of the university community. As ideas began to take shape, groups of interested performers emerged together to take responsibility for the mini-projects, each under the supervision and management of the original oral history trained postgraduates. This collaboration helped create interesting work in itself, but also gave the participants a new level of experience and enrichment.
‘After weeks of rehearsal and development, the music had been composed and recorded, dancers recruited, sequences choreographed, costumes designed and props arranged for the big day. One group had utilised their own personal connections to enlist the help of three pupils at the York Steiner School: Mary-Jane Hopkins, Katie Murphy and Mia Shepherd. All the performances were enthusiastically received by the residents, and many lingered long after the final curtain had fallen to talk to the performers and directors and to express their thanks. This led to some touching scenes as people from a variety of different backgrounds bridged the generation gap to share in their enthusiasm for the project.
‘The daughter of one of the storytellers, Elaine Otter, told us she felt that the day had helped to raise other residents interest in her father’s life, and that Harold had really appreciated the time spent meeting new people during the oral history interview. She also noted that the project was a great way of providing stimulation for the entire residential community, and that the format could be used elsewhere in other care homes. Other audience members expressed a real interest in the creative process behind the performances, and were keen to suggest a follow-up session for the various performers to return to the home and discuss the thinking behind the pieces. This was a particularly rewarding aspect of the project, as it hinted at the germination of a new relationship between the University of York and partners within the local community.’
‘Afterwards for me was when the whole project came to completion, particularly when Elaine showed the children Harold’s photo album and they spoke together about other parts of his life as they looked at the photos. In doing this project people from totally opposite ends of the life line were brought together seamlessly. The girls were fascinated by Harold’s life and were eager to meet him with genuine curiosity.’
Holly Clarkson (freelance dance artist)
‘As a musician, I think Sensory Stories has helped develop my confidence with multimedia projects. Seeing Holly break down and lead creative dance elements was really interesting to watch, and Jon’s soundscape idea was so simple but effective. With a bit of practice with the technology I would definitely use this idea in future projects.’
Dyzelle Sutherland (Community Music MA)