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Animated Edition - Summer 2004
Engaging with all our elders: Hamaray khawab/Our Dreams
Chris Sudworth, head of education & youth theatre for activ8 at the Octagon Theatre, Bolton, was the drama practitioner and a member of the steering group for Hamaray Khawab/Our Dreams, an innovative participatory arts project for South Asian people over 50, living in Bolton, which took place between February and May 2004
Bolton is a large town in Lancashire, situated approximately 12 miles to the west of Manchester. Over one in ten of its population are from minority ethnic - mainly South Asian - backgrounds. The town has a growing Pakistani community and is home to the largest Indian population in the North West of England. It is also home to the Octagon Theatre, a significant regional producing theatre.

activ8, the Octagon Theatre's Youth, Community and Education department, has been developing participatory arts projects both at the theatre and in communities across Bolton since its inception in 1995. Their programme prioritises work with young people and community groups under-represented by mainstream provision and, as such, many of the projects involve strong partnerships with local agencies and service providers. Several of these relationships have developed over a number of years.

Hamaray Khawab/Our Dreams, an innovative participatory multi-artform project for South Asian people over the age of 50, was developed as a legacy from Act Your Age, a previous collaboration for the over 50's age group between activ8, Age Concern Bolton and Bolton Metropolitan Borough Council (BMBC)'s Social Services Department in 2001-2002. The success of Act Your Age, coupled with all three partners' desire to engage more fully with the town's culturally diverse communities, led to a four-way partnership for the new project, including Asian Elders Initiative (AEI), a care organisation catering specifically for the needs of South Asian older people in Bolton. Additional funding for the project was received from the National Lottery's Awards For All scheme.

activ8 has been successful in engaging with a wide range of community groups over the last 9 years - over 25,000 people participated in its projects last year and the Octagon Theatre has recently demonstrated a clear commitment to making every level of its work more accessible, especially to Bolton's culturally diverse communities.

The Hamaray Khawab project and Hear My Voice, a devised performance project with South Asian young women aged 16-25, are only one strand of an organisation-wide approach to celebrating diversity, participation and creative potential at the Octagon.

As John Blackmore, Executive Director, explains, "The Octagon Theatre's mission is 'to use our unique resources to make unforgettable theatre experiences that give pleasure, stimulate, challenge and enrich the lives of our communities and help release their creative potential'. It is my firm belief that creativity and creative potential exist in everyone, everywhere, regardless of background and circumstances and that the arts exist to allow people to develop themselves and see their world with fresh eyes. As we say in one of our four key aims, we try 'to use the resources of the Octagon Theatre to enable people to explore their experiences of the world and articulate their concerns and aspirations, thus challenging and celebrating their lives and communities'. Cultural diversity is at the heart of our complex society and we can learn and develop through bringing together different cultural backgrounds and celebrating the cultural richness which our society has developed. The Hamaray Khawab project, and indeed Hear My Voice, fit absolutely into these aspirations and aims. Our society and we are enriched by this interaction of cultures, not through their separateness."

This commitment extends beyond activ8's participatory work to the introduction of the Platform programme, showcasing the work of emerging and culturally diverse artists, in the Octagon's studio space: the Bill Naughton Theatre. Recently programmed artists include Arun Ghosh (Music), Shamshad Khan (Spoken Word), Rani Moorthy (Theatre) and Bisakha Sarker (Dance). Two of these artists were subsequently approached to contribute to the participatory programme as workshop leaders for Hamaray Khawab / Our Dreams.

The four partner organisations (activ8, Age Concern, AEI and BMBC Social Services) planned to build on Act Your Age, the earlier performance, creative writing and photography project for older people - undoubtedly successful but accessed by an entirely white British participant group - by creating a participatory arts project specifically designed to engage older people from Bolton's South Asian communities.

The aims of the project were:

  • to encourage older people to use the arts to enable them to articulate their ideas, concerns and aspirations to a wider community;
  • to encourage older people to use the arts to explore issues around healthy lifestyle choices;
  • to build individual and group esteem and confidence;
  • to celebrate and positively represent the views and experiences of older people from the South Asian communities of Bolton.

While creative writing and photography had been appropriate arts to employ in the previous project, it became apparent through research and discussion with key figures in the local South Asian communities that music, textiles / visual art and, particularly, dance would be more culturally accessible artforms to accompany activ8's drama work for Hamaray Khawab. These three disciplines are embedded to differing extents in a range of traditional South Asian cultures, whether in community celebrations or simply as recognisable forms of entertainment. It was hoped that this connection to a shared cultural experience, common to many of the target participant group, would increase access and remove some of the perceived barriers to active engagement in the project. Language differences among and between participants and practitioners are but one of these, and Dance, of course, offers the significant additional benefit of not being reliant on a specific verbal language to communicate.

Recruitment of Artists
The partner organisations felt strongly that, in order for the project to operate successfully, it was important that the lead artists employed had a good understanding of the cultural and language issues relevant to participants. With this in mind, the main recruitment process was targeted at South Asian artists based in the North West, through a project brief distributed via decibel's mailing list of culturally diverse artists, and direct approaches were made to Arun Ghosh and Bisakha Sarker, who had recently appeared as part of the Octagon's Platform series.

Following the submission of CV's, project proposals, discussions and interviews, the creative team was established as Arun Ghosh (music), Khadija Ingar (textiles / visual arts), Bisakha Sarker (dance) and myself, Chris Sudworth, from activ8 (drama). All these artists had a high level of artform expertise, clear ideas of how their strand might work, a passion for and experience of delivering participatory arts activity and something unique to offer to the project. I have delivered multi-lingual and culturally-specific drama projects in the past; Bisakha is an extremely talented South Asian dance practitioner with substantial experience of elders' participatory work; Khadija uses both ancient embroidery and contemporary textile techniques; and Arun's music fuses traditional Asian forms with Jazz and Hip Hop. In short, the team seemed to blend an understanding of relevant cultural traditions with current and innovative arts practice.

Structure of the project
The project was made up of six phases: planning and preparation, launch events, taster sessions, skills development courses, rehearsals, a celebration event, and evaluation.

The extensive planning and preparation period lasted around three months, with weekly steering group meetings to drive, organise and manage the project, and monthly artists' meetings to update on progress and liase over creative ideas around the central theme, 'Our Dreams'. Although we discussed our ideas, each artist's brief was to work with their group to create a discrete performance piece and, as such, our creative visions did not have to match up entirely. During this period, the structure of the skills course phase of the project altered slightly on the artists' advice to include an assistant artist for Music, Dance and Visual Arts. The original plan had been for one artist to deliver ten skills development sessions in each artform, but Arun, Bisakha and Khadija all felt that the participants would benefit from the extra individual attention and support that a second practitioner would be able to give during the workshops. It was agreed by all that this new structure would also offer an excellent professional development opportunity for the assistant artists recruited to work alongside more experienced colleagues; and for all artists to explore new methods and techniques. The artists and steering group first met together as a combined group a week prior to the launch events.

A half-day launch event was held in each of the centres where the taster sessions and skills courses were to be delivered. It was anticipated that around 20 people would turn up to each, but around 40 attended two of the sessions. All artists were present at these events and gave a quick demonstration of their art form and an introduction to their vision for their strand of the participatory project. Refreshments were served and potential participants had the opportunity to ask the artists questions on a one-to-one basis.

Each artform had a different centre as its base for the taster sessions, skills courses and rehearsal phases. The dance strand, based at Bolton's Cobden Community Centre, placed a clear emphasis on what participants could do rather than trying to teach a prescriptive range of steps. Bisakha Sarker allowed the participants to discover a movement vocabulary entirely appropriate to the group, blending everyday movement with traditional dance forms and storytelling gestures, as she observes, reflecting back on the project.

"It was an unqualified success. The Gujarati ladies had dance as a part of their culture, but they enjoyed these workshops because it was something different to their community garba steps. There was a huge difference of ability and mobility among the participants, and they constantly amazed each other. At the start of the project there was one lady that they all said couldn't possibly dance, as she'd have a heart attack - she ended up doing more than most! Also, there were several Muslim ladies who participated from their chairs, simply treating the hand movements the group had developed with their stories as 'exercise to music' rather than 'performance'. The group took more and more control as the weeks progressed - by the end they were telling me what they should dance and how I should dress at the celebration day!"

Bisakha also felt that she had learned several new methods to employ in future participatory work. "With the group including several participants who had never experienced the arts before, it challenged me to find new ways to encourage ownership amongst those who don't feel confident to take an active part in sessions at first. Several ladies in wheelchairs didn't feel they would be included in the dance at the taster sessions, but soon realised that in this way of dancing they could also take part. In one of the skills sessions, a lady began to sing a song and I danced it for her. The group's confidence grew and many others joined in, she felt she had a worth to the group and she began to take a more active part from then on."

The final practical stage of the project was a celebration event held at Bolton's Festival Hall, within the Town Hall buildings on Monday 10th May, 2004. The day drew on many aspects of the combined expertise of the partner organisations and artists involved. Asian Elders' Initiative and BMBC Social Services co-ordinated transport for all 55 participants to arrive at the Octagon Theatre in time for final rehearsals in the morning; Age Concern and Octagon staff were on hand with refreshments. Each artist had half an hour with their participants to make last-minute modifications and prepare the participants for their presentation to an invited audience in the afternoon. All project participants and staff had lunch together in an atmosphere typical of a project that had placed personal relationships, experience, warmth and well-being at its heart from the planning stages to this final presentation day. AEI staff then escorted participants the short distance to the Festival Hall.

During their workshops, the visual arts group had developed a wall hanging incorporating embroidery, appliqu�, reverse appliqu� and silk painting techniques. The art work had been suspended from the ceiling to form a backdrop for the live performances at the celebration event. The work was able to be fitted together to make one whole piece, but individual participants' contributions could also be detached so they could take them home after the presentation.

The drama participants had engaged in a devising process over their seven skills sessions, exploring their past experiences and future dreams, and resulting in a 20 minute devised piece of celebratory theatre in Gujarati and English.

The dance group had worked alongside Bisakha and her assistant artist, Vina Ladwa, to create a 5 minute dance piece to a traditional Gujarati song. One participant, Manjuben, also told a comic story set to music which was accompanied in performance by movements from the group.

Finally, the participants of the music strand of the project, who had recorded and burned a CD with Arun Ghosh prior to the celebration event, concluded the presentation section of the day by performing the two original songs they had written together during the project, about their experiences when they first arrived in England and the dreams they have now.

The sheer joy and pride on the participants' faces was evident to everyone who witnessed the performances as they shared the fruits of their labour from the previous two months with an audience of friends, family and invited guests.

It is, perhaps, best summed up by Karen Wolstenholme, BMBC's representative on the steering group, in a comment made during the evaluation of the project. "I feel very honoured to have been involved in Hamaray Khawab; from the start the project has embraced a sense of community, culture, memories and respect for others, through the sharing of hopes, dreams and aspirations. Everyone felt proud to be involved in the celebration day, including the audience who were captivated by the different expressions of enjoyment of each person taking part". These thoughts are echoed by Bipin Patel, editor of Apna News, a local South Asian magazine, who added his "congratulations on restoring the pride and confidence back to the faces of our elders."

I too feel 'honoured' to have been able to contribute to such a fulfilling and successful project, where all partners, participants and artists are agreed that all aims and expectations have not only been met, but exceeded. The enthusiasm and commitment is in place from all quarters to build on the successes of Hamaray Khawab / Our Dreams to develop a lasting legacy of participatory arts activity for older people from all of Bolton's diverse communities. Discussions have already begun about the next potential project. I, for one, can't wait.

Chris Sudworth can be contacted at the Octagon Theatre, Bolton on 01204 556501 or email:

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Animated: Summer 2004