Theatre In The Mill is an artist development centre focusing mainly on the intersection between representation and technology. They support artists in the creating of new work or new ways of working, often using technology to enhance their practise. Here, they interview Alan Dix about the ten-year commission “Decade”. Alan is the Artistic Director of 509 Arts and the main subject of Decade, an exploration of ageing which began in January 2019 on the last day of Al’s 70th year, marking the beginning of a ten-year journey into the unknown.
How would you describe your creative practise, Alan?
My early professional creative practise started at Theatre in the Mill, back in 1979. Before that, I had been a Deputy Head at a special school in Bradford. I had gone to college to train to be a science teacher and in my first term did one drama workshop which was a revelation. So, I changed all my courses! My creative practise emerged out of student life in the 60’s and the revolutionary playfulness of the times was reflected in the arts and culture of the UK. It was profoundly political, and the sense of change was everywhere.
After college I went into primary school teaching and then special education until I started working in theatre. I might have done a drama course at college, but I didn’t understand theatre as a profession. In 1978, I was asked to direct a show for the Edinburgh Festival which was a crazy experience, and for a while I thought that’s what theatre was – a 24-hour party! I rather naively resigned my well paid and secure job as a deputy head and set up a theatre company which could have been disastrous but fortunately wasn’t.
We were all technically unemployed, performing shows in schools around Bradford and running the company on benefits. You can only do this for so long and eventually we ran out of steam. I then applied for (and got!) a job at Theatre in the Mill, working with the then Fellow in Theatre Graham Devlin, who is a good friend to this day. It was a turning point in my life. Even then, I didn’t know how to describe myself. I used to say I was a ‘theatre worker’ which could be anything, really.
In some ways I have taken that approach ever since although these days I’m happy to describe myself as the Artistic Director of 509 Arts. I am much more interested in the way theatre is collaborative and integrates many kinds of practice. Sometimes I am a writer, sometimes I’m a director who works with writers, composers, choreographers, and designers.
Theatre stages can be anywhere. The beauty of a studio theatre means you can create your own intimate magic, but I also love large scale environments that are outdoors. I have made shows in places like the Piece Hall in Halifax, the streets of Bradford, forests, castles and parks – all these can be stages for performance. And it’s always about storytelling, using words, music, visual imagery, and the language of the body to communicate interesting ideas.
The creative starting points for a show can come from anywhere. I’ll give you a very practical example: In 2017, my eldest daughter gave me a copy of “Meal One” by Ivor Cutler and illustrated by Helen Oxenbury. I used to read Meal One to both my daughters when they were young in the 1970s but now it’s out of print. My daughter had found a second-hand copy on eBay and gave it to me as a memento. It’s an extraordinarily surreal story about a plum tree growing in the middle of a boy’s bedroom. As soon as I re-read it, I thought I could do it as a show. And now, 5 years later, I am in the middle of rehearsals for the music-theatre production of Meal One that will go out on tour nationally.
My work is rooted in lived experience, whether that’s the wonderful inner workings of our imaginations or the politics of the time. I think my practice is hard to put in a box, but it’s always mad in collaboration with other artists and creative practitioners.
Can you talk a bit about Decade, and what inspired you to create it?
When I was 65, I thought about retiring but that didn’t seem to be happening. I had become interested in men’s attitude to ageing and I could see that some men become quite silent as they get older. For my generation and certainly my parents’ generation, it was thought that men shouldn’t share emotional vulnerability, and getting older and becoming frailer was not something they talked about. I talked to Iain Bloomfield – then Director of Theatre in the Mill – about this and he commissioned a small project called “Sing, and Louder Sing” (which is a quote from a William B. Yates poem) to explore older men’s attitudes to, and experiences of, ageing.
We interviewed older men from many different backgrounds across Bradford about their experiences of getting old. We made it clear that we wanted to talk about stories of the present rather than the past and this was enormously fruitful. Identity and a sense of self can become frayed and lost as you become older. The world can become smaller, you may not socialise as much, your family might become more distant, or you might end up living with your family. Who you are, what you’ve done, and what your achievements have been can feel distant and less relevant to life today.
We asked men about their attitudes to family, friendship, sex and sexuality, faith, and of course ageing. We met a number of men who had become carers for their partner and their stories were particularly poignant. Sing and Louder Sing was presented at the Bradford Literature Festival and subsequently became a rather beautiful book with photographs by Shanaz Gulzar. Around the time Richard Warburton became the Artistic Director at Theatre in the Mill, he came to see the final presentation and asked where we wanted to take it. Our research had shown that for many the decade from 70 to 80 is a very different experience compared with 60 to 70. It is much more of a journey into frailty for almost everybody. So, Rich in his wonderful enthusiasm said, “why don’t we explore that?” and Decade, a commission to explore my own personal journey, and consequently the journey of many other people from 70 to 80, came into being.
Decade opened the door to lots of other things. I hadn’t quite realised it was going to put me on stage, and I hadn’t performed for a very long time. Using myself as the subject of my own work has been an interesting thing to tackle, but my intention is always to broaden it out and not make it self-centred.
This year we have created an exhibition about memory, time and identity. ‘On Reflection’ uses my own timeline – back to 1948 – and we have created a time tunnel filled with memories typed out on ticker tape. Some are mine; some are collected and some are shared by many. The end result is a fluttering tunnel of ticker tape memory which is both vulnerable and fragile. The process of forgetting is analogous to losing a piece of that ticker tape. If you lose a lot of memories, you begin to lose who you are and that fragmentation of identity is a big issue for many people as they get older.
Having a huge backlog of memory is also strange. If I remember something that happened to me when I was three years old I am looking back more than 70 years, which feels phenomenally distant to me now. It highlights what a wonderfully complex machine we are. If our computers had memories that still worked after 70 years, it would be bloody marvellous!
The robustness of the human frame has astonished me. The intersection between us as physical beings and the world of imagination and the interpretation that we bring to our experiences is enormously enriching and incredibly complex. We have different stories and different ways of telling them in order to make sense of who we are at any given moment in time.
The politics of old age and the ways in which older people can be cast in a particular way is a real issue. I am from the “baby boomer” generation and it is said by some that we’ve had everything and that future generations will have to pay for our greed. This simplification is reductive, and ignores personal circumstance or individual experience. Of course, each generation can have a different narrative attached to it and some of that narrative can be great. I can’t think of a better time to have been a young person than in the 60’s, it was glorious! Although it was sometimes childlike in its naivety, we knew that we part of a huge process of cultural change. All this provides a really rich playground for Decade, and On Reflection is a way of beginning to understand that.
The project began in January 2019, what has the experience been like thus far?
At first it was hard to get my head around what Decade was. Artists normally work on relatively short development periods and it stumbled slightly at the beginning because I’ve never done a ten-year commission before.
About two years ago – just before the pandemic – I performed a Decade spoken word piece with Peadar Long, a musician, as part of a conference celebrating older age at the Midlands Arts Centre. At the same conference I was on a panel with David Edgar, the celebrated playwright, talking about what it is like to be an older theatre practitioner.
After that, Covid stopped everything for a while, and of course I was very conscious of the impact the pandemic had on the older population. During this time, I began thinking about novel ways of looking back at one’s life, and have been developing a project called “A Brief History Of Time Backwards”. This will involve creating a large-scale installation piece to reflect some of the changes – cultural, political, personal – that have happened since I was born in 1948, the same year that the NHS was created.
Have your feelings around Decade or any of the themes you explore within it, changed since starting the project?
It has become more real for me. Decade has made me confront the fact that my window of opportunity is shrinking. I don’t even know if I’m going to finish Decade, but let’s assume I do get to 80. By then I’ll be thinking “if I get another 10 years, I’ll be lucky, and 15 years will be a bonus!” But my aim is to get beyond that.
When I was about seven years old and standing in my primary school playground, a boy who I hardly knew ran up to me and said, “Put your hand out!” He carefully looked at the lines on the palm of my hand and pronounced, “you’re going to live until you’re 103”and then he ran off without saying another word. I don’t know if he was psychic or not but since then it’s been my aim to reach 103.
Decade has made me interrogate the process of ageing from a more detached point of view, more objectively. As I get older I am looking for more time to write. The written word – prose, poetry, scripts – will maintain my sense of purpose. It’s my way of defining myself.
What has been the most meaningful lesson you’ve taken from the process so far?
Whether we wanted it or not, the pandemic has given us time to reflect. For some of us this has meant time to develop ideas and projects. For a practising artist, having enough time to develop something is precious. If Covid has taught us anything is that you can use long periods of time to develop something richer.
Looking to the future, how do you see Decade evolving?
“A Brief History of Time Backwards” will be a large scale, multimedia version of “On Reflection”. It will be built on the kaleidoscopic experiences of many people. For the last five years of Decade, I’d like to assemble a multidisciplinary team of artists and scientists covering a wide spectrum of skills to explore the physiological and social implications of ageing. This interrogation would then have multiple outcomes, each with creativity at its core.