Yorkshire performers, aged over 60, are helping to change perceptions of older adults in a theatre show exploring ageing. Nick Duerden and Laura Drysdale report.
When people reach a certain age, many say they feel as if they have fallen off the social map. They are facing retirement, and feel they no longer matter in quite the way they once did.
They are routinely misunderstood and underrepresented, sidelined, their voices – previously so strident – curtailed and silenced.
But a theatrical production aims to offer a more balanced view of what it feels like to both get older, and to be old. Performed by a cast of people aged between 62 and 89, Talkin’ ‘Bout My
Generation is a show that addresses, and challenges, the preconceptions surrounding the ageing process by highlighting the stereotypes around old people, and dismantling them one by one. It is provocative and poignant, and shot through and with a trenchant, mordant wit. It could well be subtitled: Never Underestimate.
The group was founded by Teresa Brayshaw, a theatre practitioner and principal lecturer in the School of Film, Music and Performing Arts at Leeds Beckett University. “What we are trying to do is provide a more realistic view of what it’s like to be older, and also to challenge society’s view of this generation – to show why their voices still matter,” she says.
Each of the roles the performers play in the show are drawn directly from their life experiences and explore what it means to be an older person living in the UK today. “It’s not a hugely theatrical piece,” explains Brayshaw. “It’s a bit like a conversation between the participants and the audience, a conversation about questions around ageing and inherent ageism in the way that we use language.”
The production was born out of a European research project pilot in 2014-15. CINAGE, supported by the European Commission’s Lifelong Learning programme, was made up of interlinked activities designed to engage older people in the analysis of cinema and practical film-making.
Its success prompted Leeds Beckett to start up a film-making course for older adults and, in 2017, Brayshaw launched CINAGE: Live, offering an opportunity for participants to create and perform contemporary theatre to a live audience.
It was shortly after the EU referendum and Brexit was one her starting themes “because of the demographic statistics arising from the referendum. “I wanted to try and discover why it was the case that the over 65s were more than twice as likely to have voted leave than the under 25s,” says Brayshaw.
“Then as the project developed inevitably this debate - and its impact - became one of the strands of the piece, which, however much we tried, kept re-emerging in different forms...This theme with its associated ideas of ‘leaving’, ‘remaining’ ‘ taking back control’ ‘ being independent’ ‘ working together’ ‘ mobility’ ‘ loss of mobility’ ‘taking action’ ‘ legacy’ and ‘ past present future’ became woven into the work in ways that are as much metaphorical as they are literal.”
Interwoven into the discussions about politics, were the life and experiences of the older adults - and so the theme of ageing came about. “From the talk about people’s lives came the idea of opening those conversations up, because a lot were challenging the stereotypical ideas around what it means to be an older person in England at the moment. There were things around loneliness, around having sex...all those conversations that are often not had.”
Former social worker Ann West, 75, is one of the performers and was keen to keep active during her retirement. She attended classes run by her local University of the Third Age and during one was shown a series of films made by older people that focused on their lives and expectations. Brayshaw, addressing the class afterwards, had explained that she now wanted to do something similar, but in a theatrical setting. Any volunteers?
“I put my hand up straight away,” says West, who lives in Shipley, West Yorkshire. “Watching those films, I just felt completely euphoric.” Had she acted before? “No, though I did do a little drama at school to help me combat shyness. But in the intervening years, no, nothing. I didn’t even think about it.”
For West, each performance is as therapeutic as it is cathartic. “It really makes you think about yourself,” she says. “As preparation, we’ve had to write some very in-depth analyses of what we feel when we look back at our former lives, and what we see for us in our future .”
This is the group’s third year together and members have performed various different versions of the show, adapting to each of the venues they have graced since their debut at an Education and Learning of Older Adults conference in Leeds in 2017.
The production has proven to be a hit, last year featuring at both The Cornerstone Festival of arts in Liverpool and Edinburgh International Fringe. Brayshaw likes to keep the performances flexible. “By keeping it all fluid, it really highlights the challenges we face with a cast who might have issues around tiredness and memory,” she says.
“Sometimes the cast members will forget their lines, or what’s coming next. The piece is never entirely stable, but then that’s rather the point: it teeters on the edge of falling over, of collapsing, and in doing so reflects the ageing bodies and minds of our cast. But it always manages, ultimately, to regain its balance, and to continue on.”
Most recently, it was back to the city where it all began, when the troupe performed three one-hour shows at Leeds International Festival, inside Mill Hill Unitarian Chapel earlier this month. The added synergies included the recital of Talkin’ ‘Bout My Generation on an organ.
“This was by far the most interesting,” says Teresa. “We got a big audience and people were very excited about it really, seeing what non-trained performers over the age of 60 are capable of, in terms of telling their stories and making a very different kind of theatre work to what people might expect for that generation.”
New phase of life
CINAGE, which helped Leeds Beckett gain recognition as an age friendly university, was the first time she had worked with older adults, but she now feels she has become an advocate for their cause, and is passionate about them having creative spaces and opportunities to find their voice and use it. A tour of Unitarian Churches with the show could be in the pipeline next, as it continues to make an impact, resonating strongly with audiences.
“So many people have come away in tears, because it really does seem to touch them,” West says. “That’s rather empowering, I think. We’re lucky, today’s generation of older people.
“We’re more likely to be healthy, to have a reasonable income in retirement, and to have the time and freedom to choose what we want to do next. That’s why these productions are so exciting. It’s not about seeing retirement as a requirement to wind down, it’s about looking at it as a new phase of life, as a privilege, even.”