For a year, from May 2015 to May 2016, I was a member of a community theatre group for older people, Kaleidoscope, taking part in their ‘Acting Up’ programme.
I am in my mid-twenties, and the group was for over-sixties; everyone was two or three times my age. And yet, I consider it among the most rewarding experiences of the time I spent researching community arts in Northern Ireland. Projects like this one have enormous potential to flip our notions of people in an older age bracket on its head; this was certainly true for me.
There is a word of which academics in my field (anthropology) are particularly fond: re-presenting, that is, presenting something in a new way, changing the narrative about it.
This is exactly what community arts projects with older people, and arts performances by older people, do for those of us who are younger; these re-presentations force us to re-evaluate our preconceived notions about age and aging. In this article, I’d like to briefly share with you three important ways in which my own views of older age were challenged, and ultimately changed, through my interactions with Acting Up.
Much of the current literature on older age focuses on the global demographic shift toward more people living longer, along with anxieties over the ‘strain’ this will place on the economy and the healthcare system.
While the population shift is happening and needs to be planned for appropriately across all sectors, this narrative runs the risk of painting older people as a drain, as ‘takers’ instead of ‘givers’.
Contrary to this, my experience with Acting Up was that the group was incredibly generous. During the year I spent with them, the actors gave four performances, three of which raised funds for Action Cancer, Samaritans, and Diabetes research, respectively.
In their retirements, these actors are using community arts as a platform to ‘give back’ to the local community.
Secondly, many of the group’s participants told me they found their age to be an asset, not a barrier, to their acting. As they pointed out, at sixty or more years of age they have accumulated so much life experience on which to draw when performing a part.
When planning a project with any group of people, it can be easy to focus on anticipated barriers or struggles. While we should always pay attention to, and work to mitigate, barriers to access, we should also take the time to celebrate the advantages that exist alongside those barriers.
Finally, there is, what is probably the easiest trap to fall into, thinking of older age as a period of decline.
The Acting Up participants challenge this notion every day, simply by being themselves: by learning new things, by becoming better actors, by living richly.
Towards the Horizon
Life … is a movement of opening, not of closure
I recently stumbled onto a particularly beautiful passage: Tim Ingold, an anthropologist at the University of Aberdeen, writes, ‘Life … is a movement of opening, not of closure’ (Ingold 2011: 4). He compares life’s journeys to a movement toward the horizon, in which our aims and goals are always changing, advancing ahead of us.
The actors in Acting Up live this out, and in so doing challenge our stereotypes of what old age ‘ought’ to look like, substituting instead a myriad of creative ideas for what it can look like.
Reference: Ingold, Tim. 2011. Being Alive: Essays on Movement, Knowledge and Description. London: Routledge.