Wednesday, October 21, 2015


1972 -  We take the arts out into the community, linking lives. John Lennon had proclaimed in 1968 "I am a revolutionary artist." We became bricoloeurs, early re-cyclers, using waste to create art on the streets. Art and creativity was a right that belonged to everyone, not just an expression of the elite. Our collective impassioned work sparked friendships based on trust, relationships formed through intense activity. We formed bonds lasting our lifetime. We were part of something, more than ourselves.
                      from "Send me a parcel with a hundred lovely things."

We were activists, our work with the poor and disadvantaged was based on dreams of equality and opportunity. Theatre was a metaphor for inter-dependency and collaboration. Our commitment was to unleashing creativity, believing it to be the essence of all human life and that the potential to heal was embodied in the arts.

We shared salaries, shared facilities and promoted a generalist, anti-celebrity, anti-elitist approach. Our work was influenced by Paolo Freire and August Boal, our aim to give voice to the disenfranchised. I worked with Inter–Action, a pioneering social arts trust, performing on the streets, in pubs and on play sites in deprived neighbourhoods. At the same time, in Inter-Action's West End theatre, the Almost-Free, Ed Berman was initiating  the first season of Gay plays, and collaborating with the first Women’s season

Defining content

Then there is the content. What stories will engage our chosen audience? What will fire the imagination? What will stir an audience to action?  Issue based themes? Political satire? Fantasy? Metaphor, stories that echo the culture and experiences of our ancestors?

Defining form 

My own theatre work during that time focused on form rather than content.  We became most preoccupied with the process we led the audience through. Our key question was what form does a dramatic intervention take to initially engage, then inspire and shift the thinking of the audience?

Theatre itself is the metaphor for social action and collaborative practice. The work of Boal, or Dorothy Heathcote and of Ross Kyd, theatre for development, the dramatic form was essentially participatory, leading the audience to become an integral part of the action and cause a change in the dramatic narrative. That process, we observed, often led to feelings of empowerment within the audience we had gathered. This might be short lived, but maybe created a window of energy and motivation.

The metaphor of theatre is therefore found within the structure of the piece, but also in the process of making theatre itself, a truly collaborative art form, where there is total inter dependency, the need to appreciate different skills and subsequently build on each other’s creativity.

Defining where was the audience

Where is the audience? There is an arrogance in expecting them to come to you, within an intimidating building. To reach poor people, marginalised, people, those struggling to survive, physically, emotionally, spiritually, we need to find them, we need to walk the streets where they live, find their gathering places, meet them on their own territory but most of all work with them, to create theatre, publish their own stories and experiences in their language in a form they respect and understand within their own  experience.

The theatre work we developed at this time focused on creating and supporting community.

Were we working with the community, for the community, or developing theatre by the community?

Our initial involvement would be the use of   participatory theatre working with our audience but our intent was mainly to develop programmes that were by the community, slowly withdrawing our own level of input.

Make a Newspaper - Australia 980

The UK was seen as  a global leader in community arts  when, in 1980, the Community Arts Board  of the Australia Council created partnerships with state and local organisations to develop projects, aiming to  mobilise local communities.

Three projects were to be   nourished and informed by artists, from the UK, who had been working for a sustained period in community contexts.

These interventions were designed to have a ripple effect. The project would be of value in itself, it would be an example of possibilities and each artist would be a national role model for other artists. In addition each artist   had a mentoring/ role to play with local practitioners at different levels. Two projects addressed community sculpture ,the third, my intervention, used theatre to create community and connection between disparate  residents, many refugees and migrants ,  marginalised through poverty and lack of education opportunity,  unable to speak English and fearful of state intervention and ‘officialdom’.


Richmond, a suburb of Melbourne; a series of high rise apartment blocks around a health/community centre adjacent to a football pitch and neglected children’s play.
Amongst the 5,000 tenants in the flats, over half were refugees from Chile, Poland, Vietnam, Turkey and East Timor, there were several other ethnic groups.

I was invited to try and reach the teenage mums, single parent families, refugees, elderly, all isolated in these flats.   
Stage One

I was an outsider, there for a two month period. I needed a team, trusted by residents, who would provide continuity and identify those who would be interested in participating. A meeting was convened with health staff, community workers and interpreters in the centre. I showed slides of other projects and we generated ideas.

They knew families from different ethnic groups and had gained their trust. The most difficult residents to reach were on their caseloads. They could immediately identify people who would be enthusiastic and get the project going.

Questions I needed to ask them about their workplace, later would be transferred to residents

What do I need to understand about Richmond Flats?

What do you enjoy about visiting your job?

What would residents like to do together? What are their dreams and wishes?

And many more questions.

That meeting we drafted and photocopied a leaflet explaining the project, interpreters immediately translated. There was an explanation on one side and, overleaf, a questionnaire. We were embedding the idea of the   community implementing   research and inviting the curiosity of residents about each other. The emphasis was on   the importance of the stories of   local people and their questions and hopes. We were talking about a print project which could take place over six weeks.

The Programme

I suggested Make a Newspaper and explained the function of theatre, visual impact, gathering and recruiting children and young people, creating a focus of attention which was celebratory. There was a lot of excitement and enthusiasm and so we met a week later to devise our play around making a newspaper. The central, theme was about different refugee stories, curiosity about the journeys and how they got here. We wrote a simple song presenting newspaper themed characters. There was a protagonist and antagonist and the audience would decide who to follow...


The local workers found a core group of residents   in each tower block. We would work one per week, producing a total of six newspapers and there would be a grand finale with food and fire at the end.
Processions to advertise the programme and recruit children and young people to interview residents took place up and down the tower block stairwells


We were   welcomed by residents with cups of tea. As we processed we encouraged our audience of adults and children to
Find someone to whom they had never spoken and ask them where they come from, what they like best about being in Australia/Richmond, just find their story and bring it back.
That simple game became the first newspaper, written stories, cartoons, illustrations, even grainy photographs. The papers were printed on a spirit duplicator, drawn on coloured carbons. They were produced on stairwells, interviews took place in peoples living rooms.

A Turkish family made meals every day for all of us, whilst they showed mementos from their homeland and sang Turkish folk songs.
Chilean women were knitting and talking, crying and laughing and giving little children home-made cakes.
Polish women worked the Gestetner and controlled the print-run.

Each edition of the newspaper was  distributed on Friday through a street parade and reprise of the show we had performed on the first day, a song with verses added each week, more and more people involved, the previous week’s journalists and subjects came out to see, bringing cakes and tea.
The last week ended with a party a barbecue and a bonfire. It was the lap of honour, the reprise of the play   with added songs and characters. The audience signed up for continuing the paper and initiating further activities. A teenager brought his band along to play and everyone danced in the firelight until late.
Theatre again was the focus of the last night. It was the bread and the newspaper was the filling, the bread that holds the sandwich together and provides the basic nourishment.
The alchemy of theatre created the magic, singing together, celebrating different languages, dancing linking arms, it was the beginning, the spirit of energy connection.




Fernando Botero

Etta and Otto and Russell and James

Saturday, September 26, 2015

LANGUAGE: Words that reach the heart.

We were raised between two languages. We accessed two cultures. Our parents inhabited an in-between world...they moved from a phrase in one language to a sentence in another. As a child I never knew which language was which.

My brother and I picked out words and strung them together, sometimes we picked out words that sounded funny, made us laugh and turned them into nonsense language, a code between the two of us.

Send me a parcel with a hundred lovely things

In CAMHS I saw teenagers; working against time, pulling them back from the edge, running away from home, truanting from school, theft, assault, drugs...the children who saw adults as creatures from another planet.


I tried to sit still; this woman was sat opposite me.
I couldn’t understand what she was saying, too many words,
You see

Just a jumble of words.
They floated past.
I just sat there letting them come.

My Dad’s words are different. They sort of hit me over the head;
A sharp pain running from my head to my heart,
my Dad’s words, when they hit me.

Words happen to me. I don’t understand them.
Sometimes I think if everyone talked slow, I’d get it.
I’d get what everyone goes on about.
It would all make sense.

School, it does my head in - the words are bad there. They come thick and fast,
Sometimes I put my head down on the desk ‘cos it hurts.
Sometimes I just run out of class, or even school, too many words jumping at me,
Too many sounds, they might catch me out.
They might find out I don’t know jackshit, Nothing, nada in my brain.

Rotten like my Dad says, a bad 'un – I got those words all right.

Words are enemies

I’m an alien.


Wednesday, September 2, 2015

"Draw it." Together we traced the outline with our fingers in the air, imprinting the trumpet flower shape on our minds, like we did when I was small....."Ill paint it tomorrow," I thought. "She can watch me." I pulled away, back into my own life and when I was ready to paint she had turned to stardust.
             Send me a parcel with a hundred lovely things Chapter 1, p.30.

Last winter I was life- drawing in London; my eye on my subject hardly on the paper. Throughout the summer, I have sat in a field still drawing from life, meadows packed with wild flowers in June. I had life- models, slender stems of grasses, rarely still, wind rustling through them so they stirred and shuffled. They whispered whilst I drew tiny grass buds, lacy mop-heads and blades either reaching up towards the sun, or bending down to mother earth who gave them life.

Sometimes I painted skies yellow, sometimes grey as another storm whips up over the Vosges Mountains where I am living.That’s when I discovered monochrome grasses against a sky washed with pink and violet.

Every evening I went into the studio to glaze another layer, in the changing light, at the end of the day. Mixing orange on the palette, too deep, more pale yellow, no a tinge of rose madder spray water across the sky and drip the colour wet on wet, mopping a sudden puddle and walking quickly out of the studio for my tea. I force myself to stop fiddling and widdling and wait till its dry.

Try again the next evening, a tinge of violet….a speck of ultramarine, keeping well away from white, the source of light on the page.

The grasses went in later, the more distant blades and stems in Chinese ink diluted with water, grey layers of grasses and tiny leaves staying close to the earth, in the grasslands My final layer is a denser growth; many seed heads, thistle wild teasels lone solid shapes in a lattice of criss-crossing stalks and stems impossibly fragile captured against a sky coloured apricot by the setting sun

This is my fourth grassland painting, I painted the first one after walking through the autumn leaves as the season changed around us. Every day glowed with colour under a blue sky.

My first grasslands; I was overwhelmed with the sadness of having to return to the city. Every grass, as I walked along the path seemed to whisper goodbye, to me, to the season indeed to the year,itself.

Last Autumn’s grasses were illuminated by orange light, gold tinges and a sharp wind rippling through them. They hang now in living rooms across London, you can see the wind in the grass. I can feel it in my hair.

My grasses of the spring mingled with blue and yellow flowers, they had fat green stems growing under pale, uncertain skies.

Now my monochrome grasses, tinged with purple; soon we’ll slip into the glory of autumn, into the twilight of the vanishing year.

I shall be back with my grey fingerless gloves, a coat collar turned up and the wind whipping my cheeks red raw. What happens to the grasses in winter? Does Jack Frost coat their stems with shards of ice?

Will I be painting monochrome grasses under a monochrome sky?

My monochrome grasses

Eileen Cooper
Images from Between the Lines exhibition catalogue

Saturday, August 8, 2015

…They were granted an entry visa if they had a guarantor already living here. The only work permit they received was as a home help. They felt they had no right to ever speak about what happened to them, because in their eyes nothing had happened to them, compared to the millions lost. They were the lucky ones…..Send me a parcel with a hundred lovely things

Recently, in the press a sister was interviewed about her brother. His wet-suit was found washed up on the Danish coast.
 Looking out from a French beach he had seen the white cliffs of Dover across the English Channel.
‘I can swim, it’s not too far,’ he thought, and bought the suit with his last pennies.
 He was deaf to the warnings of 136 ghosts, from East Berlin who had perished, swimming across the river Spree to the West.
He was young, middle-class like many of the migrants at Jungle Camp Calais, from an African country, where he spoke English.. He had never before experienced the squalor, the disease, of what are now   the Calais camps. He had fled   his home country for fear of his life, young enough   to start again.

There’ll be bluebirds over
The white cliffs of Dover
Tomorrow, just you wait and see

His sister had been waiting to hear of his safe arrival before she would embark on the perilous journey away from corruption, violence, female genital mutilation, to the squalid camp on the French coast, where despair makes migrants fearless.
Calais is where I walk a caramel dog along white sands, before driving home to Blighty,  through the tunnel that divides us from mainland Europe.
A chill wind of cruelty is blowing over Calais. It is reported that there are now about 5000   migrants desperate to get into UK. The demographics have changed from single young men; over a hundred women and children are   living there. There is minimal medical   support   to deal with the diseases spreading through poor sanitation and the injuries incurred whilst trying to jump on the lorries en route to England.
 There are many kids jumping, 14 years old who have travelled alone, many teenagers with   nothing left   to lose.  They storm the tunnel at nightfall

I’ll never forget the people I met
Braving those angry skies
I remember well as the shadows fell
The light of hope in their eyes

Europe has already taken in many migrants, Sweden has opened its gates to any Syrian   requesting asylum. 
The beleaguered fishermen of Greece stretch out their hands to help the starving walk out of the sea.
Two years ago our   Prime minister, the elitist Eton educated David Cameron, said “I believe that immigration has brought significant benefits to Britain, from those who’ve come to our shores seeking a safe haven from persecution to those who’ve come to make a better life for themselves and their families, and in the process they have enriched our society by working hard, taking risks and creating jobs and wealth for the whole country.”
Since then, his heart has turned to stone; he has   already cut the welfare provision for our own poor and disabled. Now he builds a fortress of poisonous language and poisonous gas, dehumanising migrants, referring to them as a swarm. No they’re not bloody bees, they are human beings; how many of us or our parents were migrants once? How many are safely here because ancestors   fled from oppression?  
What has happened to us with our existence privatised by belongings    and insulated by our headphones, our chittering chattering on twitter and posting every gooey cake we eat on Facebook?
Anyone who has a heart  must rise up and stand on the white cliffs of Dover, braving the tear gas and shouting  across...come and join us...we’ll share our daily bread.
The migrants, waving not drowning…..

Tomorrow, just you wait and see
There’ll be love and laughter
And peace ever after...
There’ll be bluebirds over
The white cliffs of Dover
Tomorrow, just you wait and see

(Sung by Vera Lynn, World War 2)   

Wednesday, July 15, 2015

“You find someone with a story, Carry, record them and keep it safe, it’s a treasure, one day it will be listened to...”  Send me a parcel with a hundred lovely things.

I can feel your smile as you read my book. I can see you searching between the lines for the words I didn’t write. What of yourself might be revealed in my memoir? My story becomes increasingly yours as you turn the pages.

So many stories in so many books. Until recently I have been an anonymous reader scaling new heights of the imagination …through pages written by a stranger.

Now I am also a writer, capturing lived and told stories in my world as it changes around me, planting them on the page and placing the finished book on the shelf. Now the stories are there forever. Hard copy, cannot be deleted.