Tuesday, 29 July 2014

Closing the Lid on Pop Up Proms

It's time to put away the bunting, roll up the flags and file the lyrics sheets: The Pop Up Proms Project has finished!

We've given concerts for Older Folk at ten venues around Norfolk, and each one was unique, involving different performers, different songs, and very different audiences. 

Time for a roll call of thanks, and some musings on the whole experience.

My thanks go to the bookings officers at the following venues for placing their trust in us and inviting us in:
  • Brooklands, Costessey
  • Corton House, Norwich
  • Two Acres, Taverham
  • Swardeston Day Care
  • Mayfields, Long Stratton
  • Eastlands, Taverham
  • Overbury House, Wroxham 
  • Mayfields (again)
  • Austhorpe House, Tacolneston
  • Norfolk Deaf Association Hush Club, Norwich.
Thank you to all those venues for making us feel so welcome.

My most enormous and sincere thanks also go to everyone who has helped in any way: 

  • Maria from Corton House, Julia from Swardeston Daycare and Tracy from Eastlands, who all gave me excellent advice on suitable content and format for the performances, and again to Tracy for donating the all-important bunting!
  • Michael Dann, who furnished me with Almost-Impossible-To-Find-On-The-Web backing tracks for the Proms Finale.  
  • Jonathan from the Sound Archive and Christina, our team Reminiscencer, for their advice and practical work on the oral history recordings.
  • The performers (in no particular order): Martyn Shults, Joan Hocking, Gus & Heather Woodcock, Izzy Pitman, Sally Harris, Louise Smith, Tracy Melton, Kaye Wright, Caroline Caldecott and Trevor Burton.
When I put this project together my intentions were very honourable; to entertain the old folks and to get some useful recordings for the Sound Archive. We've achieved both, so I'm going to indulge in a little reflection. 

It wasn't all plain sailing; permission for recordings and photographs was sometimes tricky and/or impossible to get- I've got some gorgeous photos I'm not allowed to publish. Co-ordinating the availability of the volunteers could also be challenging (thank goodness for social media!), and sometimes the staff who were there at the venues on the day weren't the same ones who took the booking. This meant that on occasion we were met by some fairly bewildered looking staff as we billowed in on a cloud of red, white and blue bunting.

But really, those little administrative stumbles were insignificant. When it came to the performances, our audiences were brilliant. Some of the ladies and gents were far more poorly and frail than I had anticipated, yet the Pop Up Proms performances delivered some of the most spontaneous, funny and moving audience responses I've ever witnessed.

When we arrived at most venues we'd be ushered into the boiling hot Residents' Lounge, a room edged by enormous padded reclining chairs. Each chair would hold a tiny, arthritic, marbled figure in a cardigan. Sometimes one would call out, or extend a shaky hand, seemingly insensible to their surroundings. Some would be more jolly and engage in a conversational loop, some would sit begrudgingly as we clambered around hanging union jack bunting on to any available hook or ledge. 

Some venues had much more able residents- at Austhorpe House, for example, and at our final concert for the NDA, the sense of excitement and anticipation about our performance was palpable- but in general, initially we received a muted reception from our audiences.

And then the music started, and the magic happened. 

As soon as the music began- and we usually began with 'Oh What a Beautiful Morning' from Rogers & Hammerstein's musical 'Oklahoma'- it was like a light switch being flicked on. 

These people, who seemed to have trouble remembering where they were or what they had for breakfast, had no trouble remembering songs from forty, fifty or sixty years ago. 

They joined in the singing wholeheartedly, some knowing each and every single word of the songs. In spite of some amusing non-sequiters being shouted out (like "get me out of here" "help!" and "when's the Bingo?") our audiences made it obvious in whichever way they could, that they were relishing every moment.

The songs we chose were important. I'd been emphatically advised not to offer 1940s music. I wanted the music to be participative, and uplifting and familiar to the audience, yet I also needed a balance of moods and genres within the hour's show. Finally, I was reluctant to ask my volunteer performers to learn any new material.
Luckily the team was experienced enough to give an enormous variety: show content ranged from classical arias to Gilbert & Sullivan, Old Time Music Hall, musical theatre and even a bit of Doris Day! 

We worked hard to make eye contact and, where appropriate, gentle physical contact with the elderly folks. We started with a polite handshake during 'Getting to know you' and a bit of hat-wearing in 'A Policeman's Lot', then moved on to romantic hand-holding during the Matt Monro medley and  even a bit of light-hearted lap-sitting for 'Big Spender'. My top moment of the whole project has to be Martyn kneeling and singing 'A Portrait of My Love' to the old ladies: it brought a tear to my eye every time. One exceedingly poorly lady, who had done nothing but blow 'raspberries' throughout an entire concert, actually stopped and attempted to join in with the singing when it came to these very interactive moments.

Our song choices may have been cheesy but lots of the songs had an obviously positive and immediate impact on the residents and their visiting relatives. I spotted a lady resident weeping with joy throughout 'If I loved you', and the wife of a gentleman suffering with Alzheimer's recorded much of the concert for him so he could watch 'Nessun Dorma' again and again. 'Que Sera Sera' was poignant for another lady, who told us she had sung it to her mother to calm her during the aftermath of her recent stroke. We heard so many affecting stories like that, and hopefully, through our oral history recordings, we will have captured a few more for future generations.

Every concert finished with a 'Last Night of the Proms' finale. We gave out flags to wave and sheets with the lyrics for those who wanted them. We all sang 'Land of Hope and Glory', 'Jerusalem' and 'Rule Britannia' to round off the hour's entertainment. We never got all the flags back...

The photos I've added here give a flavour of the performances, but can never encapsulate the true atmosphere. I'm really glad I've had this experience. I'm not a saint by any means, but I genuinely did this for the benefit of others, and funnily enough I've ended up getting more out of it personally than I ever imagined. At the risk of sounding cliched, it has been a privilege.

This project has enabled me to get back in touch with singing friends from years ago, which has given me unspeakable joy. I've been deeply touched by the commitment to this project that volunteers have demonstrated, some going way above the call of duty in order to participate.

Visiting the various residential care homes and day-groups has also shown me the courageous and different ways in which human beings cope with their own age and infirmity. Most notably, I've been impressed by the everyday heroism of the carers, who look after all the elderly ladies and gentlemen with respect, with great humour and with utter humanity. 

A lot of the people who booked the Pop Up Proms have asked if I'll continue it for another year. I'm tempted, but I won't. It's been brilliant, but I don't want to push the limits or indeed the patience of my marvellous, wonderful volunteers. I think we all need a break! But who knows, another Big Idea might come to me. Do, please, watch this space!

And until then, a picture from the very first concert at Brooklands to say...
...and a final picture: performers and audience of the last Pop Up Proms concert today at the NDA Hush Club.