When Ballet Lorent put out a call for knitters aged 70+ to be part of their family dance production of Rumpelstiltskin, Cast Theatre in Doncaster were able to use their community networks to reach out to potential participants.
Cast Communities is a fledgling initiative which aims to build relationships with local groups who may face barriers accessing the arts, and builds on the work and learning undertaken through the Paul Hamlyn Foundation funded Social Seats project. Working alongside local community advocates, professionals and volunteers the theatre ensures that the hardest to reach groups have opportunities to get involved.
Lisa Cole is a local community volunteer and keen advocate for Cast who regularly attends Scawthorpe Community Library which is three miles outside Doncaster Town Centre. Lisa encouraged and promoted the opportunity to appear onstage with Ballet Lorent at the library ‘Knit and Knatter’ group. The library is staffed entirely by volunteers including Sue Vestey who started the group in 2017 to give local people, some who are socially isolated, the chance to meet, socialise and knit together. All the wool is donated and items made are sold to raise funds for the group.
Knitters Joyce Butler (83) and Dot Turton (75) agreed to be part of Ballet Lorent’s intergenerational cast. They met with the company for a few days rehearsal prior to the show opening at Cast. Joyce was a dance teacher who has “danced since she was 10” and enjoyed a long career teaching and judging ballroom, Latin and sequence dancing, only recently retiring due to arthritis. Dot is a retired school meals worker who had no experience of performing. Dot wanted to get involved to enable her to get out and to try something new. Both talked warmly about how exciting the opportunity was and were assured by the company not to worry if they got it wrong, because the audience wouldn’t know; Joyce was very pleased because at one point she forgot to bring on the prop baby!
Joyce had never been to Cast before and explained that “It was the best crowd of people I’ve ever worked with.” Dot said “Everything was fantastic. From the moment we arrived the company was so lovely with us, everyone was just lovely.” On stage the intrepid duo were directed to act as grandparents, knitting on stage whilst watching young children play. Both agreed how fantastic the children, who also formed part of the community cast, were. They agreed that “knitting was awkward; it was difficult because we had to knit with felt.” However, Joyce also found time to pursue her own projects managing to actually knit two hats!
Dot had never seen a ballet or any professional dance and was full of praise for the lead dancer who played Rumpelstilskin, “He was so lovely, he wanted me to knit him a pair of pants.” Dot joked that Joyce had offered to measure him, “he said he liked his pants tight fitting.”
Dot spoke about the nerves she felt during the lead up to the performance “I had butterflies in my stomach, but I was fine during the performance. On the Wednesday night after the shows I was so excited I couldn’t sleep.” Both Joyce and Dot spoke of feeling down on the Friday when it was over “I wish I could have gone to Wales (the last performance), because if I could have I would have.”
Dot and Joyce’s friends and family came to watch the performance. Joyce explained “My son fell about laughing when I told him I was going to be in a ballet. Everyone who came to see it said it was fantastic”. Dot became emotional during the performance “I nearly cried during the wedding scene at the end.”
Ballet Lorent funded taxis for Dot and Joyce to get to the theatre which was a big help as Joyce’s husband (80) found the traffic and parking problematic. “They were so good with us, we were so looked after.” Both women agree that transport is a problem for older people as, despite nearby disabled parking, walking can be a struggle.
Joyce was impressed with the theatre “When you go to places like Blackpool Tower everything is really old, but Cast is beautiful.” When asked if she would now be more likely to visit Cast in the future, Joyce said “absolutely.”
The women were keen to share their signed programmes and show pictures of the “beautiful flowers” that Ballet Lorent had bought them. Dot explained “there aren’t the words to describe how fantastic an experience it was.” Joyce agreed that the experience had exceeded her expectations. “When we got up to bow I said, don’t the leads need to be at the front? They said, no, we are all equal... they were such a lovely company.”
Joyce wrote a letter of thanks to the company, and both women knitted the cast and crew gloves and socks “We made the stage manager cry when we gave her the knitted gloves” and the women took in Yorkshire Tea for the cast “you have to have a proper cup of tea.”
Joyce and Dot are hoping to attend Cast as part of a Cast Communities group outing next year. Working alongside Ballet Lorent provided the opportunity for genuine and meaningful engagement, giving both women a stake in their local theatre and the chance to work with a professional company, integrating their own skills with something new. Rumplestiltskin attracted 300 people from the Cast Communities projects, who may not have had the chance to experience theatre before. Intergenerational work has had a positive impact on the women, their families and friends, and their relationship with Cast. Working within and alongside communities provides the chance for Cast to better know and understand their audiences, and break down any perceived barriers that some may hold about accessing theatre.