“Because I think that as you do get older, if you don’t have a manageable challenge … you’re not developing yourself anymore, and I think that’s one of the things that the theatre does, not just for the young people but for us. It’s still developing us, and that’s what’s so great.’”
– Audio describer and Audience member
By: Michelle Rickett
Research Associate for the ‘Ages and Stages’ Project
What contribution do – and could – older people make to theatre? How are ageing and later life represented on stage? Can theatre and drama be used to promote understanding, communication and creativity between different generations? These are some of the questions asked by the Ages and Stages project, based in North Staffordshire in the UK, and funded by the New Dynamics of Ageing (NDA) programme.
The project is a partnership between Keele University and the New Vic Theatre in Newcastle-under-Lyme. The location for our research is the Potteries, North Staffordshire: an area with a long history of heavy industry (ceramics, coal and steel) that, over the past fifty years, has undergone considerable social and economic change and decline. Local cultural institutions have both reflected and reconstructed these changes. In particular, the New Vic Theatre (formerly the Victoria Theatre) pioneered a distinctive form of ‘social documentary theatre’ under artistic director Peter Cheeseman. The documentaries, produced between 1964 and 1994, charted social, economic and political change in the Potteries, and drew from the testimony of local people. Part of our research involved exploring historical representations of older people and ageing within these documentaries, using materials in the Victoria Theatre Archive. Then, turning our attention to contemporary representations and recollections, we interviewed 95 older people who are/have been associated with the theatre as: actors/employees; volunteers; long standing audience members; sources for the original documentaries. Finally, we drew our research data together to create a new documentary performance, titled Our Age, Our Stage, which explores ageing, intergenerational relations and the role the theatre has played – and continues to play – in the creative life of the people of North Staffordshire. This was acted by an intergenerational group, including members of the New Vic Youth Theatre and older people who had been interviewed for our research. Our Age, Our Stage was toured around local venues, including schools, a retirement village and local council, and finally performed at the New Vic Theatre to a capacity audience of 500 people in July 2012.
Ages and Stages highlighted the important role that theatre can play in providing sense of place and community. The Vic Theatre documentaries played a significant role in bringing together different groups of people – both in the process of creating the documentaries (which brought theatre employees into contact with people working in different local industries) and in the staging of the documentaries, which attracted diverse audiences to the Vic and brought generations together. People who had been interviewed for the documentaries or had family connections to the industries portrayed talked about feeling a greater sense of ownership of the theatre afterwards.
“I think I’ve been more intimately connected with this theatre than any other, and I regard it really as an enormous part of mental health… I’m really passionate about keeping the theatre going for the sake of people’s health!” (Audience Member)
Our research also revealed the significance of the theatre as an intimate public place, often described as being like ‘home’ or ‘family’. As well as providing a sense of social occasion and ritual, interviewees also felt that the New Vic was a ‘comfortable’ place to visit alone, something particularly valued by older women. Theatre involvement was particularly significant during times of transition in later life and interviewees often became more involved with it after retirement or widowhood, either by volunteering or increasingly attending performances, talks and educational events. This could provide continued social engagement and sense of value, as well as the opportunity to develop what had often been a lifelong interest in theatre and drama. We found that the theatre provides a sense of belonging and, from that position of security, can help people build confidence, develop new skills and take risks. Interviewees also associated their theatre involvement with feeling of well-being, confidence, self-esteem and vitality.
“It’s been my lifeline since my husband has died and I’ve made some wonderful friends and I love the camaraderie that we have there.” (Volunteer)
Participants in our intergenerational theatre group kept diaries, provided us with written feedback about their involvement and discussed what impact it had had on them in a final group discussion at the end of the project. Whilst some of the benefits echo the findings from our earlier interviews, others emphasise the intergenerational aspects of the project. The following benefits were commonly mentioned:
- New friendships
- Increased intergenerational communication and understanding
- Discovering shared passions, perceptions and experiences across generations
- More positive perceptions of ageing and later life (for both younger and older people)
- Increased confidence
- New skills
- Sense of challenge
- Broadened horizons
The Ages and Stages team have been awarded an additional year’s funding from the UK Arts and Humanities Research Council (from August 2012 to end July 2013) to establish a permanent intergenerational company at the New Vic Theatre, develop a new performance piece and professional training course, and scope out the idea of holding a ‘Creative Age Festival’ in North Staffordshire.
“Since my retirement, the theatre’s given me a new lease of life. I’m doing more now that I want to do, than I was 40 or 50 years ago.” (Volunteer)