Mark Powell finds it exhilarating to see the generations working side by side at Salisbury Playhouse

Photo of Mind the Gap dance residency - © PHOTO dominic parkes

When thinking of Salisbury, it’s easy to imagine a life of Constable landscapes and National Trust properties, but we’re actually in an area where wealth and deprivation are neighbours. Younger people can feel animosity towards those perceived as ‘having’ and older people can be ignorant of youth and its worth. Forty percent of Wiltshire’s population is over 50. Salisbury has both the highest number of retired age people and those over 85. A tiny 18–30s group means separation between those below 18 or over 60.

An Age Concern Wiltshire report cited the need to “develop more intergenerational respect between older and younger people” and the Playhouse decided to meet this challenge with ‘Mind the Gap’, an adult performance group (50+) which runs regular activities with young people. Wiltshire has plenty of arts for audiences, but few participatory projects for older people and their artistic development. Ironically, the majority of performance groups are for young people, including the Playhouse’s youth theatre, Stage ’65, but adults only really got to ‘see’ rather than ‘do’ and it was against our community values to let this continue.

Our pilot was in a community centre and worked with an older people’s club and the neighbouring secondary school. Workshops united the generations in discussion, exploring mutual experience: first love, families etc… but younger members lead in actual performances. Through evaluation, we identified the need for older members to develop confidence and performance skills before engaging more deeply with younger people, so six months of workshops followed in care homes and day centres. With strengthened skills, confidence and interest, these adults, together with others living independently, formed a new group at the Playhouse. Some members live with Alzheimer’s or mobility difficulties, so sessions employ dance and drama exercises proven to improve muscle tone, memory, co-ordination, balance, stamina and strength. The project promotes physical, social, mental and emotional wellbeing, with the social aspect of the group including trips to places of cultural interest: theatres, galleries, sculpture parks and museums.

Mind the Gap continues to grow and has regular engagement with young people, including a BBC Performing Arts Fund dance residency involving teenagers from Salisbury’s youth theatre and youth dance groups, which resulted in a public performance. The group is currently working with a primary school creating a joint production exploring regional legends. It’s been exhilarating to see the generations working side by side and confidence and understanding increasing so much that members now influence the creative aims of their sessions. Positive changes have been felt by many participants. Older members are more animated with improved physical ability or mental capacity. For those living with Alzheimer’s, the workshops release treasured dance steps or memories, giving a great sense of freedom through safe and social exercise. Younger participants become empowered by having older members value their contributions, applaud their creativity and nurture mutual development.

To acknowledge our own journey in this area and to encourage similar projects, Mind the Gap also has regular professional development opportunities for practitioners working with either age group, to promote best practice and integration across the region. The Project Manager attends and contributes to national conferences and research in this area, encouraging new partnerships and practice for our group and others. Mind the Gap stretches both staff and members and has brought the Playhouse’s audiences and activities together in a dynamic and valuable way. Jack, aged 14, summed it up: “We were scared of each other when we started: not anymore. The longer you spend time with people, the better you understand them.”

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Photo of Mark Powell