Gwanwyn Clubs: Above and Beyond

Posted Friday, January 31st, 2020

Gwanwyn Clubs are a series of weekly sessions led by experienced artists introducing participants to activities that are maybe a little more adventurous or challenging than they would ordinarily engage with. The aim is to smash the stereotype that activities for older people are sedate, traditional and dull, and to open up new, exciting opportunities, encouraging older people into active, creative and self-perpetuating communities.

Ultimately this approach generates a thriving, diverse and vibrant local community that feeds into the arts scene and includes members from a range of backgrounds, ages, abilities and cultures. By facilitating a variety of creative opportunities, we’ve seen the myriad talents of older people across Wales flourishing in unexpected ways – from aerial aerobics to stand-up comedy.

But what happens when participants love their project so much that they decide to continue it by themselves? This is exactly what happened with Gwanwyn Clubs at the Riverfront Arts Centre in Newport in 2019.

The Mice Girls

The Mice Girls are a group of women who love crafting in all its forms. If you can knit it, weave it, sew it or glue it, they’re interested.

After trying all the sessions that Gwanwyn Clubs offered, from African drumming to soap making, they settled on crafting as their activity of choice. They would meet up to swap ideas and share expertise with one another over a cup of tea.

This relaxed approach meant that membership of the group grew organically. Sessions were not ‘taught’ or sequential, so there was no pressure if a session was missed or if someone couldn’t stay for the duration. As a result the group formed tight friendships that they were reluctant to leave at the end of the project.

Glenys Mouse lives in sheltered accommodation with her husband, where there is very little in the way of activity. She often found herself getting bored and restless, sometimes slipping into a kind of malaise without the motivation to stay active:

Jill Mouse lives a short drive away from Newport, outside of the city, and sometimes will only speak to her husband or her 90 year old neighbours.

Seeing how keen and creative the new friends were, and sensing the potential for some creative collaboration, the Riverfront’s Creative Producer Olivia Harris asked the group to help out by making some props for the 2019 Pantomime, Cinderella. The group set to work creating the prop mice that featured in the live performances.

Those who contributed were offered tickets to the pantomime to see their work in situ, introducing a new audience to the theatre, who may not have considered attending a performance before.

The result was remarkable. The group have named themselves after this project and it has given them a real sense of ownership over it. The Mice Girls were born and the end of the project was certainly not going to mean the end of The Mice Girls!

The group agreed that they didn’t want to stop meeting once the project was over and the Riverfront offered them a regular meeting space, without which the motivation to continue may well have fizzled out.

They plan to have membership badges made and have formed themselves into an inclusive community who help and encourage one another to learn, improve and stay active and engaged

Now they meet every week at the Riverfront, where they build friendships, share gossip, ideas and crafting tips. And you can see the knock on effect this kind of social interaction has in the wider community:

While there’s a real pride in the skills they learn and the objects they create, the group unanimously declares that the friends they’ve made being part of the group are the best thing to have come out of the project. As well as meeting to craft, the girls sometimes go out to eat together, or to see a show. They’ve developed a social group that encourages them into different activities

Another fantastic benefit is that the Mice Girls have begun to frequent the Riverfront Centre on a regular basis. They come in for a coffee or to see a show with friends, supporting the local arts scene. Being in the building means they see the adverts for upcoming performances that they would otherwise miss

The effects of this small investment of time and space has manifold benefits that branch out into the wider community and have a tangible impact on people’s daily lives and wellbeing..

Stand-Up Comedy

Llinos Mai is an experienced comedy writer and performer who approached Gwanwyn in response to the call out for artists. She had been working in care homes and was enthusiastic about the benefits that participating in comedy and performance could bring to older participants.

She ran a series of interactive workshops to help participants find their funny side. It was here that Llinos met Donovan.

Donovan is in his seventies. About to begin his third round of treatment for cancer, he
was looking for something to do that was interesting, but wasn’t physically exhausting.

Donovan wanted to use his personal experiences in his routine, which meant sharing some private thoughts and feelings in a very public space.

Donovan performed his stand-up routine at the Gwanwyn Clubs showcase. He focuses on finding the things that people have in common and bringing them into the light. For example, making fun of the parking nightmares faced by regular visitors to the Royal Gwent Hospital might seem dark, but his audience related to it; they laughed together and, in that moment, they were not alone.

In fact, Llinos and Donovan have hit it off so well that they continue to meet monthly to work on his writing, along with another participant. They practice writing techniques, critique one another’s work and write between sessions so they have something to work on and show when they meet.

Donovan hopes to develop his writing and performance further in the future and looks forward to their writing circle growing.

And in conclusion…

These projects have demonstrated that connecting with one another makes people happy, engaged and motivated. Older people in our communities are at a real risk of missing out on these connections, for the lack of encouragement and opportunity. They become isolated and lose the motivation to carry on.

Donovan’s work will touch the lives of people of any age struggling with chronic diseases, helping them to feel less alone, less vulnerable and like they, too, belong. He now feels part of the creative community and has developed a real sense of purpose around his new found writing and performance skills.

The Mice Girls’ confidence and happiness radiates outwards impacting their families, friends, the wider community and the arts scene in general, as well as the girls themselves. They have formed a strong bond and feel enabled and motivated to take an active part in society; the will to make an effort rather than hiding away and giving in to lethargy and boredom

A small investment of funding, time and space can remove these barriers, bring people together and yield extraordinary results that unfold into the wider community. Simply giving people the space to meet, the time to create and the opportunity to try new things forms new connections and allows people back into the community in an active, participatory way.

We’ve run Gwanwyn Clubs in Aberystwyth, Caernarfon, Swansea and Newport, all with
the aim of creating sustainable, creative groups for the 50 plus community. We have seen the impact of providing opportunities for creativity and growth for older people across Wales and are committed to continuing to deliver these through the Gwanwyn Festival and the cARTrefu arts in care homes project.

Look out for creative opportunities near you this May!