Jack and Jill and the Red Post Box is a fascinating theatre project developed during 2013 by Skimstone Arts. The piece is pitched as an exploration of “the complexities of living with dementia”, encouraging us to "think about how we live and work alongside those in our communities who have a diagnosis of dementia.”
The play gathered plaudits for being sensitive, humorous and challenging at the Edinburgh Fringe. It was, still is, a success.
But what I want to focus on is not the play itself, but the issues the work raises about dementia in the arts. I should say that am using the one piece to illustrate a more general point.
Lying behind the performance piece is a collaborative research project “Risk and Resilience: Living with Dementia” involving the University of Edinburgh and Northumbria University. The performance piece was developed out of 89 interview transcripts to “explore questions involving changes in identity, sense of place and roles within community and society.”
The researchers are clear on the value of the research and the specific reason for its transition into art. “Often, it is everyday activities such as going to the hairdresser or the post office that can present considerable challenges for people living with dementia. Such challenges may be as much to do with how others communicate and engage with someone with dementia, as they are about the person themselves. We felt that the issues raised through the research deserved a life beyond a written report.”
On the face of it there are worse jumping off points for art than academic research. But to retain its integrity the art has surely to be inspired by the research and not just be a way of illustrating it. From the audience reaction Skimstone Arts managed to achieve that separation. So far so good.
But does the link between research, University sponsorship and art come at a price? Subsequent events suggest so.
Firstly, the University of Edinburgh, in what might be seen as a legitimate extension of their involvement in the project, have held a symposium titled “From Research to Theatre Exploration of Dementia”, as part of the ESRC (Economic Social and Research Council) Festival of Social Sciences. Fair enough perhaps to reflect on the transition and the issues arising from it. But the publicity by the University adds alarmingly “It is anticipated that future performances will then be scheduled to inform the training of social workers.” It looks like the art has become a servant of academic and professional education – surely not the original motivation behind the art project.
Does this re-use of art developed out of research undermine the integrity of the work of art itself? I think there is clearly a danger and it may even alter the way future audiences engage with the work.
Secondly, back in Northumbria the play is positioned in a different way. Here the piece is explicitly offered as a servant of government policy. The performance is promoted as “an important event for Northumbria as it builds on our long-term ambition to achieve Dementia Friendly Community status, identifying us as having high awareness of the implications of dementia and being more inclusive for those living with the condition.”
Does any of this matter if it means a high-quality play is staged again – surely a positive result in itself?
Well yes it does. It reflects a trend to squeeze extra value and directed meaning out of any art at the moment. Aside from its inherent value art now is vulnerable to the demands of being (ab)used for other unrelated purposes. The art of course remains what it is, whatever its origins. But there is a risk its integrity as art will be compromised if performances are put to specific uses, to serving other purposes without any challenge.
I hope this will not discourage anyone from going to future productions as smart performances which focus on dementia need active support. But what smart performances do not need is to become servants of government policy or corporate marketing, do they?