Miriam Bernard: Ages and Stages

‘Cultural value can mean what you want it to mean and can mean nothing’

‘Cultural value? You can’t put a price on it, but you can buy a ticket for it although you don’t know what you’ll get!’

These are just two very preliminary thoughts expressed by a couple of participants in our ‘Ages and Stages’ project. We are delighted to have two awards under the Cultural Value Project: one exploring the cultural value of older people’s experiences of theatre making, and the other, a linked critical review on ‘Ageing, Drama and Creativity’. Both have been inspired by the continuing collaboration between researchers at Keele University and practitioners at the New Vic Theatre, Newcastle-under-Lyme. Their roots stretch back to 2004/5 when, with local funding, we mounted a small project which brought older people together with members of the New Vic’s Youth Theatre to explore what life was like for both groups. The resulting intergenerational performance piece – ‘Stages’ – was performed at two conferences and, ever since then, we had been looking for a suitable opportunity to do further work together.

However, it wasn’t until we received funding in 2009 under the national cross-council New Dynamics of Ageing programme (see: www.newdynamics.group.shef.ac.uk/), that we were able to realise this opportunity. Between October 2009 and July 2012, our interdisciplinary team explored historical representations of ageing within the Vic’s well known social documentaries and interviewed 95 older people who had been involved with the theatre as volunteers, actors and employees, audience members, and sources for the documentaries. That initial research was drawn together to create a new hour-long documentary drama called Our Age, Our Stage and the associated Ages and Stages Exhibition. This was followed by a year of knowledge translation activities in which we were able to establish the Ages & Stages Company; devise and tour a new interactive forum theatre piece: Happy Returns; develop, deliver and evaluate a pilot inter-professional training course; and scope out, with a range of partners, the potential for a Creative Age Festival in Stoke-on-Trent and North Staffordshire.

But what has all of this been like for the older people who have participated, since 2009, in what is now the Ages and Stages Company? What do they make of their experiences of theatre making – especially given the fact that, for many of them, this was the first time in their lives they had ever been on stage? And what meaning, if any, does that phrase ‘cultural value’ have for them? This is what our small ‘case study’ of ‘Ages and Stages’ is trying to uncover. We have also been going back to our original interviews with Company members and – this is the new and exciting bit – ‘training’ and supporting them to interview each other about their experiences. By the time you read this, Company members – who by the way are aged from their sixties to their mid-nineties – will have completed a series of recorded research discussions exploring the impact ‘Ages and Stages’ has had on themselves, and on others (e.g. their families; friends; the younger people they have performed with). In the New Year, the Company will be back together to co-evaluate the research process with us; to look at the transcribed interviews and begin to select and agree the issues to be developed into a new piece – or pieces – designed to show, through live performance, the cultural value of what they have been involved in.

We are setting these explorations in the wider context of a critical review which will examine both the published and ‘grey’ literature in this area. What, we are asking, does the research and literature tell us about the cultural value older people derive from their involvement with theatre in general and theatre-making in particular? What conceptual and theoretical frameworks, if any, have been used to research older people’s experiences of theatre/theatre-making? And, what methodologies and research designs have been employed in existing studies?

We are approaching both the review and the empirical work from our roots in critical gerontology and in participatory drama-based practice, and from a shared commitment to what colleagues Meredith Minkler and Martha Holstein in the United States have termed ‘passionate scholarship’. This provides an important corrective to the negative and ageist assumptions which pervade our society and which, more often than not, frame older people as a ‘problem to be solved’ rather than recognising, acknowledging and building on their skills, abilities, contributions and life experiences. Our ongoing work is, we hope, a small contribution to challenging stereotypical views and existing deficit models of old age and the ageing process. We will be showcasing the results at a workshop/symposium at the New Vic on May 9th 2014 as a stimulus to further discussions with an invited audience of older people, practitioners, policy makers and academic colleagues. If you’d like to find out more about what we have done so far, you can go to our website (www.keele.ac.uk/agesandstages/) and/or we can send you packs which include DVDs of our productions to date. If you’d like to be put on the invitation list for the symposium, please contact our Administrator Tracey Harrison on t.l.harrison@keele.ac.uk



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