Alan Lyddiard is Director of The Promise of a Garden, at Leeds Playhouse’s Quarry Theatre on 18 – 21 August. The audiences are in for something not just a little bit different.
We knew that the production was unusual. So what could audiences expect? Alan explained that the audience enters a completely empty space and is then introduced to 30 performers and gardeners who will create a garden as the audience watches – and this creation will be complete in just an hour and a half.
Alan: “As they’re building the garden, they’re sharing stories from their lives. The production is full of dance, music, visual imagery, projections and photographs – it’s full of life – but it’s not a play or a musical or a ballet. It’s a complete piece of theatre – a unique piece of theatre that only these people can perform because it’s created from their experiences and their lives.”
So this is about the lives and the stories of the people who are performing and gardening? They are not in character? They are not playing roles? Alan’s answer was clear: “The 30 people at the heart of The Promise of a Garden are the subject matter of the piece. These are real life stories; stories from the heart.”
It’s obvious that Alan is enthused with this production, with the joy he gains from working with older performers. He explained that hundreds of people in Leeds have made flowers for the garden, making use of whatever materials they had to hand. Then they can see their own creations on stage whilst the communal garden is grown.
Alan: “It’s a fantastical garden, not a real garden. It started life with me thinking about the Hieronymus Bosch painting The Garden of Earthly Delights. I wanted our garden to be just as visceral and exciting and vibrant.”
We wondered about older artists having a voice and more to the point, one which is heard, so that they can truly share their life experiences. Alan: “Life is a beautiful thing made up of beautiful moments. Sometimes by sharing the seemingly insignificant moments they become meaningful; moments we can all recognise. Audiences will recognise and empathise with the performers’ issues, concerns, aspirations and ideas no matter how old they are.
The older you get, the more contribution you can make to society. You are an asset. But this production is not about looking back. It’s not about reminiscing or peering through rose-coloured glasses to ‘the good old days’. This is art with the experience of age. We’ve lived a long time and have a library of things we have done, emotions we’ve experienced and stories we’d like to share. It’s about how we are living now. What it’s like to be 78 or 85 or 92 and living in Leeds today. What it’s like to be alone. What it’s like to lose someone. What it’s like to have achieved incredible things without realising it or gaining the plaudits you might richly deserve.
One of our members is a rocket scientist, another a probation officer. Some are Jewish, some are from the Caribbean, some from Hong Kong, some from mainland China. We have a whole range of people coming together to share their lives and their creativity. We are all creative and if you join with us, if you’re part of this movement, life is going to get better.”
We explored the contribution of the local community to the performance; those who have made the flowers. Alan explained that it’s not about the number of people; more about everyone feeling the connection. Even if someone has made just a single flower, it’s a contribution and goes towards the collective energy so crucial to the undertaking.
Alan is hoping that there will be a recognition by the audience that everyone can make something beautiful if we’re all interested in one another. Taking that interest and sharing those stories through the creation of a garden certainly does seem to be a novel way of building a mutual understanding.
Alan: “This is a unique moment in the lives of the performers and in the lives of the people watching it. It all happens in the moment. The production is a gathering of people sharing their creativity. As a result, it’s a very beautiful, moving piece of work, which I hope will prompt people to share their own stories. When we listen to somebody’s story we understand them better. We can bring peace to the world by understanding each other, and we understand each other by sharing our stories.
Our magnificent performers believe they’ve done nothing special; they’re just people getting on with their lives. But they are extraordinary and have extraordinary stories to tell. Telling a story is a generous act, and listening to a story is also a generous act. We are a theatre company of generosity.”
There is something reassuring about the constant of nature’s energy and freedoms, regardless of what is going on in our sometimes constrained lives. No matter whether we’ve taken our exercise in our own gardens, or a public park or in fields, beside rivers and lakes or on hillsides, nature has helped us through difficult times, has soothed and calmed troubled minds. It seems natural to make connections by crafting flowers and bringing them together with their makers, to share stories which may otherwise remain untold.
THE PROMISE OF A GARDEN is at Quarry Theatre, Leeds Playhouse on 18–21 August
Book online at leedsplayhouse.org.uk Call the box office on 0113 213 7700
A Leeds Playhouse, The Performance Ensemble, Leeds Older People’s Forum and Leeds 2023 co-production.
Photography: Delaine Le Bas.