In the middle of my crib scene every Christmas there is a unicorn. There is no biblical evidence for including this creature, but for me it fits perfectly. Unicorns are magical, if not spiritual beasts and there is a long tradition of linking the unicorn with the Virgin Mary.
In this picture of the annunciation, the unicorn is being held by the virgin herself and this link with unicorns and virgins is the one most people would know.
Why that should be so has always fascinated me. The unicorn is untameable and wild. It can only be captured by a young girl, going alone into a forest, sitting down and waiting for it to appear and put its head in her lap. So do the legends symbolise the power of virginity over lust, or perhaps over magic? Both were feared as a threat by the Medieval Church, which seems to have turned the unicorn into a representation of love; it also stands for loyalty and love in marriage.
Softened the unicorn becomes harmless. Nowadays it’s a cuddly cute, sometimes winged creature who is far too plump to fly, or even canter at any great speed.
It is time then to reinstate the unicorn to its rightful place in the pantheon of mythical beasts. Unicorns are wild and unpredictable. They kill the knights who are sent to hunt them down. They don’t grant wishes, or give kids rides on their backs. And they can be evil.
Not all unicorns are white, in fact very few are, as white, outside the polar regions is an anomaly. The white unicorn, with the silver horn, is the albino, the outcast. The true unicorn is the black, one horned beast that roams the forests of your mind and whose eyes glow red through your nightmares.
When I rang my mum this afternoon she was about to start setting up the crib ready for Christmas Eve. Every year the Nativity figures come out of their box, brown paper is crumpled up to make the cave and the wooden ornaments that stand on the living room shelves become part of the scene. It doesn’t matter that the original characters are made of plastic and are much smaller than the cotton wool sheep, or the wooden shepherds, or that a whole menagerie of zoo animals are pressed into service, this is how it has always been done.
Tomorrow, when her great-grand-children come over for their pre-Christmas visit, five year old Maddy will put the Christ child in the manger to mark the start of the celebrations.
Like Mum, I too set up the crib every year. Mine is in the dining room and is also made up of a disparate collection of figures and for me, too, it’s the start of Christmas. Because how can you have Christmas without a reference to the events that started it all?
Whether or not you believe, a story of a dispossessed family, helped by kindly strangers, is one that has and will continue to have relevance to the world we live in.
There is too, something comforting and life affirming about the passing down of family traditions from one generation to the next.
It’s almost Christmas and most of us are in the middle of, or have done, our shopping for presents. For me much of this is done on Amazon. I scroll down wish lists, or remember books I think would suit the recipient and send off for them. A couple of days later, the doorbell rings and that’s another person ticked off on my list.
The best presents I can give my writer friends is to buy their books. A couple of years ago, this worked really well for me. “Sussex Tales” by Jan Edwards was a perfect choice for my sister, while both my husband and brother-in-law enjoyed Jem Shaw’s novel, “The Larks” about flying in the First World War.
My daughter gave her mother-in-law “House of Shadows” and my sister-in-law got a copy from my mum. Result!
None of my writing friends are, as yet, on the best seller list, but buying each others’ books is a way of spreading the word and most of all of supporting each other.
Writing is a solitary occupation and sometimes on a dreary, dismal December morning, when each sentence is wrung painfully out of your consciousness, you wonder why on earth you do it. When someone tells you that they’ve read and enjoyed your book, then you know.
You are not alone. There’s at least one more out there.
Tesco should hire me today as a mystery shopper.
Let me say that the staff I spoke with were all superb. Polite and helpful and more than willing to go that extra piece. The lad on the checkout had a smile and a chatter about produce and Christmas shopping – and yes, in the interests of bouquets among the brickbats, I stopped on my way out to compliment one of the floor managers on how polite the staff are.
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- My Guest Blogger today is Jill Rezzano
I live in Leek with my family, husband Kevin who is a painter and our children Sofia who is 12 and Ava who is 7. I’ve been at the New Vic since 1999, which is quite a long time, but it’s an ever evolving, exciting place and tends to hang on to people because of this. Before I came to the New Vic, I worked for English Touring Theatre and also in Hampshire and Northern Ireland, which was a great experience. I also write both plays and prose and I’m in the middle of a book for children about the friendship between a refugee child and young British boy. It’s quite challenging, because so much between them is unsaid.
- Can you tell us about your work at the New Vic?
I work in the Education Department at the New Vic and that title ‘Education’ covers a lot of ground. We are committed to life long learning, so we create projects for very young children and their families, often with children’s centres, where we can support people who are not currently accessing creative activities. We also work with schools and colleges to develop creative approaches across the curriculum. This often happens in partnership with other organisations for this, including the Royal Shakespeare Company, We also have a large Youth Theatre and work who also work with Ages and Stages on intergenerational projects.
Can you tell us about your work with Keele University? In particular, Live Age and the development of the Ages and Stages Theatre Company.
It started way back in 2004, when we were approached by Professor Miriam Bernard. Mim wanted to create an intergenerational piece of theatre for a conference event at Keele. The idea was to use theatre as an innovative way of sharing knowledge with researchers about relationships between older and younger people and how people reflect on their earlier life experiences. This first piece ‘Stages’ was directed by my colleague Susanna Harding and although that was a one off, it made us believe that more was possible. From there, it was a question of getting the funding and the right sort of project to research and make more creative work from. 2012 was the year that the British Society of Gerontology conference was coming to Keele and it was also the 50th Anniversary of the New Vic/New Victoria Theatre Company, this seemed a golden opportunity to aim for. Through Keele University, led again by Mim Bernard, we managed to gain funding from the Economic and Social Research council to explore the community’s relationship with the theatre and how that has intersected with their own lives. We ended up with a massive amount of research material and interviews both from local people and those who had been affected by this theatre before moving on. From here, in the spirit of Peter Cheeseman’s famous Theatre documentaries, we wanted to create a documentary of our own telling those stories. So, of course we needed people to perform the documentary and to create it with us and we asked the people we interviewed to do this with us. It was characteristic of the beginning of the Ages and Stages project that we just didn’t know if anybody would! Fortunately, people did agree to work on the piece with us. After this documentary performance, which was called ‘Our Age, Our Stage.’ We realise that people wanted to carry on and do more and from here the Ages and Stages company began to form. Since then, we have made a number of pieces which have toured in the community and performed at a number of venues, most recently Keele as part for the Back to the Drawing Board exhibition. We are always looking for the next challenge for the Ages and Stages Company, whether it’s the venue or the subject matter, it’s a very innovative group. A huge amount has come out of this work, including The Live Age festival which is led by Keele University and Ages and Stages always play a big role in.
- What are the positives and negatives about working with a group of older people?
Well firstly, we have access to a huge amount of life experience and backgrounds, which is both an incredible privilege and an incredible resource. There is also an amazing work ethic in the group, I don’t really make any distinction between what I would demand of people of any age in a rehearsal situation. Also, I find in the group everyone takes responsibility for their work. If someone is having a difficulty with their performance, whether it’s about the space or remembering aspects of the staging, people work it out. The only drawback I find is that so called ‘retired’ people are incredibly busy and involved and so it’s not always easy to have everyone together for every project.
- Do you think that Ages and Stages should concentrate on community based work, or would you like to develop more creative pieces?
What is interesting is that more mainstream theatre is constantly trying to get closer to the reality of people’s lives, to be more authentic and connect with people in the community. I start from the premise that human beings are innately storytellers and the urge to tell stories is strong and vital to our existence. We do it all the time, from anecdotes about our day to huge epic tales. For me, the quality and the truth that is revealed through storytelling in Theatre, is where creativity lies, rather than the places where it is seen . The work made by Ages and Stages often works best in smaller intimate spaces where we can interact with audiences and put them at the centre of what we do.
- Where did the inspiration for Our Lives in Art come from?
Our Lives as Art was originally made fort he Live Age festival in 2015. The festival coincided with a major exhibition of work by LS Lowry and Arthur Berry at the Potteries Museum. Immediately, I wanted to create a piece to perform in the gallery surrounded by this work. In the end, it wasn’t possible to perform in the gallery itself, but the inspiration stayed. I was interested in exploring two main ideas, firstly how art, whether visual or literary often defines how we see the important moments of life and in some cases the important moments of history. I wanted to look at how we might make those choices about which moments would define our lives and see them as equally valid subjects for Art. Also, the artists themselves often divide opinion, they both depict ‘ordinary people’ making them extraordinary and I enjoyed hearing the strong opinions about both, whether loving or hating them, always passionate. So, what is it about art that can capture or repel us? what is a work of art saying to us that we also recognise so strongly in ourselves?
- What piece of art would you have chosen and why?
I think it would have to be a painting by Ivon Hitchings called ‘Two Ways through a Wood’ because it’s the first painting that really stopped me in my tracks and I couldn’t stop looking at it. The way he uses colour is amazing, It’s like you see colours anew because of the way in which he places them next to each other and they appear to ‘wake each other up.’ Also, even though it’s quite abstract, the composition gives you a real sense of story and of choice and opportunity. But, also there’s a darkness, because it’s so unclear where the paths could take you.
- Would you like to direct more conventional work? Ie. Shows for the main theatre.
I’m very excited by what I’m doing now. There is so much more to explore and understand about people’s real lived experience and how we can create work that reflects that experience back to us. Theatre is essentially about transformation and change, whether it’s in a character’s journey or the situation of a whole group of people, and in telling our own stories we can transform how we see ourselves and the world.
- What do you do to relax?
I find it very hard to relax, I can always think of something that needs doing! But when I get the chance I love to listen to music and especially live music. Also, you really can’t beat a long walk on a windswept beach in winter.
- What is your favourite food?
I think I’ll always yearn for the wonderful Italian food that my mum made for us. It’s always stood me in good stead, because you can make the most beautiful meals from very simple ingredients.