Back in April Val wrote about using forum theatre as a method to reimagine the future in older age. Forum theatre, she noted, allows performers and audience members to ‘actively participate’ in order to encourage critical reflection and rehearse strategies of resistance to challenge oppression and marginalisation. In this post I reflect on how I ended up participating more actively than I had anticipated.

Between February and June 2021 our project partners Active Inquiry facilitated a series of workshops that used forum theatre to explore topics such as identities in older age, ageism, and what we desire from the future as we age. Right from the start, Gavin Crichton, the artistic director, emphasised the importance of participation. As far he was concerned, if you were in the room (virtual or otherwise) you were a participant. I nodded along enthusiastically. I enjoyed joining in with all of the warm up activities, Jamboard exercises and discussions about identities and futures. So far so comfortable.

By May, we had split into two groups. One was working on a play called Waiting for Dot, about an older activist who wants to carry on fighting the good fight but is being pressured to ‘leave it to the younger generation’. The other group devised ‘Return to Wonderland’, in which an older Alice wants to go back to Wonderland to continue having adventures, but is thwarted by the Red Queen and the Hatter who tell her she’s too old and has become a liability.

I was in the Return to Wonderland group. I was delighted at how the participants (who were recruited as members of the public) developed the characters and plot, all under the masterful guidance of Active Inquiry’s Liz Strange. Delighted, that is, right up until the group realised they were an actor short and needed someone to play the Hatter. Eyes turned to me. I suddenly became painfully aware of the ‘act’ in ‘actively participate’.

Initially I agreed to read the part in the rehearsals, hoping that someone else could step in for the live performances. When I realised this wasn’t going to happen, I reluctantly embraced my fear and accepted that I was the Hatter. Not having acted since my primary school nativity, I was well out of my comfort zone – particularly with the improvisation involved in forum theatre. As the principal investigator on the project, it also felt strange to simultaneously be a researcher and a participant on the project. On the other hand, I felt that being one of the performers helped to remove some of the power imbalances between researcher and researched.

In the end I had a great time acting in the performances in June. We had three live sell-out shows on Zoom and audience members joining us from Australia, Canada and the Netherlands. It was exhilarating but exhausting; I meant to write this post immediately after the performances but it’s taken me this long to recover. I learned a lot, but these are the tips that immediately spring to mind, should you ever find yourself participating in an online play:

  • During dress rehearsals and performances, consider drawing the curtains to avoid giving the window cleaner a shock (particularly true if your costume is a little ridiculous)
  • If you have a cat, make sure their food bowl is well stocked so they don’t miaow loudly for food during a quiet scene. (Similarly you might want to move their litter tray well away from any microphones….)

All of the live performances were recorded and will be made available on the project website. Ray Bird has also been making a film of the project that will be released in the next few months. Look out for more blog posts in the coming months as we continue analysing the data and reflecting on the project’s findings.

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