No place for 'pack up your troubles'

5th December 2003 at 00:00
"It's night school but at a sensible time", says Hilda Ingham. "And it's not all about education. We have companionship. We learn from the tutors and we learn from each other. We don't want to be bothered with exams."

Hilda, who is in her mid 70s, is explaining the appeal of Heydays, a weekly arts programme for the over 55s at the West Yorkshire Playhouse in Leeds.

The scheme began 13 years ago and now has more than 300 members.

Every Wednesday the vast restaurant area at the Playhouse is given over to Heydays' craft workshops. In rehearsal rooms and meeting rooms choirs are singing and groups are acting. People are discussing the morning newspapers and a group is busy with some Chinese physical culture. A talk about the life of Ella Fitzgerald is filled with listeners.

"They are so pleased that I don't give them First World War songs," says singing tutor Edith Rogerson. "Especially the men. We sing light opera and modern show tunes. And they do like to be pushed. They want to be good."

There is a definite buzz. Heydays is not, I am constantly reminded, an old folk's centre. The theatre is filled with people asserting their right to be valued and showing their value. The phrase "people think we don't count" is often mentioned, but politely. "Our brains are still working" is another mantra, delivered with a smile. It is quickly followed by "We have to remind people that they don't have to speak slowly to us."

Heydays is a great way to put a theatre to good use during the day time.

Other UK theatres, such as Oldham Coliseum and Glasgow's Tron Theatre, have been taking notice and setting up their own versions. Visitors from China have also visited and taken notes.

Victoria Allen, the Heydays co ordinator, explains that the activities are changed each term. Victoria has worked as a youth tutor in Wakefield and she insists that there are similarities in that everyone deserves to be treated as an individual and there must be no preconceptions.

Members put in requests for specific activities and many tutors are hired on recommendation and are changed each term. They tend to be artists with a commitment to community projects.

Members can spend most of Wednesday's daylight hours in the theatre, which is pleasantly warm, comfortable and convenient for city centre shops. They can enjoy a subsidised meal and perhaps buy a discounted theatre ticket - and all for pound;15 per year.

The club is particularly proud of the craft work it produces. Some of it is sold at end-of-term bazaars to finance activities and outings and members are often asked to produce props and outfits for the Playhouse's stage productions.

A Heydays drama group has been touring, throughout the North, with a play warning of the danger of burglars who distract the elderly. That play was supported by the police and the Home Office and there is to be a play warning of rogue traders.

Members also turn up in large-scale stage productions at the Playhouse, while some have appeared in a pop video soon to be aired on MTV. Others have performed in Victorian costume at the city's Thackray Medical Museum.

"There's a lot of wisdom in this room and we've all experienced some of the trials of life", says Audrey Gannon. "And the Playhouse uses our wisdom and experience. We go out to schools with the Sparks scheme to put artists in schools. Many of the children haven't met someone of our age and we can teach them such a lot."

Audrey is on the Heydays advisory group. She stresses the welcome and support that new members receive. No one should feel isolated and no one ever is. Heydays members know what it is like to walk into a room filled with people and not know anyone. So they help.

Kath Phillips used to walk past the West Yorkshire Playhouse every day on her way to work at nearby Quarry House, a huge National Health Service administrative building.

"I was intrigued by the Wednesday crowds," she says. "They looked so busy and happy. So come retirement I joined and I've met so many new people.

When I first retired I tried an Open University degree and some evening classes but there wasn't a social dimension. With being in the civil service I've done enough exams to last me another three incarnations.

"We don't feel old when we're here. And nobody gets impatient when they are following me up the stairs."

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