Wednesday, August 19, 2020

Truth to Our Material Lives

 

 

Going back now to June in this Summer of Covid.  I applied to take part in  an online Demostage event for the new  Bristol Culture Channel to discuss the thinking behind and development of Age Queer.  https://www.mayk.org.uk/whats-on/demostage-2.  As this link describes it, a chance to outline an idea and get feedback from an audience. The selection of six, five minute presentations was wide ranging, including technology inspired street games, community theatre and novel modes of communication.  I had to come on last on a very hot night!

Being used to fifteen minute conference presentations I found five minutes a tough call particularly attempting to include extracts of the script.  Nevertheless I’m learning that each iteration of Age Queer leads to new insights for myself.  Feedback was positive with virtual claps and comments in the Zoom chat box that suggested the concept of Age Queer appealed to an audience largely comprised of Bristol's arts and culture community. What does stand out was interest in my reference to material culture and its personal significance in later life.  I’d cited the contrast between the sensuality  of pure, linen sheets valued throughout the life course and the peach, polycotton sheets on a single bed in a care home. 

In fact a napkin made from the kind of linen used for bedding that I wish I had!

We agreed that the tactile, sensual elements of the performance really mattered. This led me to think far more about the immersive turn the play should take beyond verbal exchanges with the audience, to the point where they can touch, hold or smell  significant artefacts. At least some time beyond Covid. 

 I initiated the question of funding the project by suggesting that I would have to crowdfund from particular communities.  I pointed out that this week would have been Glastonbury Festival and I felt that Michael Eavis and the wider Festival community would have appreciated and supported the project.  Of course I was not suggesting the Arts Council was ageist!

 

Here are two extracts from Age Queer  I’d intended to include in the presentation to clarify the project’s purpose.  The first extract is a critique of using chronological age as a determinant of who you are and a hint at the way time and chance will inform the trajectory of the play.  The second an appeal to recognise cultural diversity in later life.  (The first fitted in but there was no time for the second).

From the opening scene (provisionally any of the projected characters): Sometime in the 1980’s  I am on a train back to London.  I pick up a Sunday Times colour supplement and start reading an article about a German soldier, a keen photographer,  stationed in the Lodz  ghetto, Poland, during the 2nd World War. 

And I come across this picture.  At its centre is  a small child.    He or she is   lying  on their  side on a pavement, knees pulled up and clothed in layers of  rags,  with filthy bare feet  and a woollen peaked cap on their head.  He or she is alive,  eyes staring out ,  lips parted.  Passing behind this child are three older children, two boys and a girl.  Only the girl glances down.  Even though her legs are stockinged they are painfully thin.  You know why they are passing by.  They do not want to catch that child’s  imminent death. 

This moment in time is within eight or nine years of my birth.  But this child is born into acute suffering.  I am born into peace, warmth, nourishment and love.   Clarks sandals,  boiled eggs and soldiers…but the difference between me and this child is well under a decade.

That little boy or girl and me.  Such a short space of time between us.

So my birthday age doesn’t fix me.  Not at all. I didn’t choose it.  But this does.  This child and me. 

So don’t fuck about with my age.  You don’t own it any more than I do.  That would be messing with my sense of time which belongs to me.   My being in the world, where I’m at.  Don’t go there. 

The second extract is from a scene set in a local café / bar. A representative of a charity for older people has been promoting the range of opportunities and activities for those “over 55”.

Alan: But just clock  that woman by herself over there. Reading the New Statesman upside down.  That’s Evelyn.  Modelled for Mary Quant, Biba, Dior,  photographed by Bailey, Parkinson, the lot in the sixties.  Her daughter leaves her here in the afternoons with an espresso and a baguette.  Wouldn’t dream of taking her to the playschool at the community centre. Anyone here will take her to the loo, buy her another coffee or take her outside for a fag.    She’ll get up and join us when she sees the bottle of Prosecco I’m about to buy.  She just likes to be treated like an adult. And the beautiful woman she still is.  See that framed  photograph up on the wall over there?  The management put it up.  Evelyn modelling a St Laurent dinner suit.  On a summer’s  night, somewhere in Le Marais.  Terry Donovan I think it was.   She just knows where she belongs.

Charity Worker. Surely she has a social worker?

Alan: (pause)  I think perhaps you’d better go. 

These recent iterations of Age Queer have made me realise how much my doctoral thesis, now five years old, left its impression on the way I work now.   “Truth to the Materiality of Later Life: the Significance of the Aesthetic for the Support of Older People”.  The cultural and aesthetic foundations of our life course should be sustained. Instead your later life is vulnerable to the imposition of a false, homogenized version of what passes for support.

My next post will chart the development of Odd Lot Theatre Company established over this Covid Summer and which I feel privileged to be part of.

Tuesday, August 4, 2020

Life Course Expressions

The last month or so has seen me shifting between divergent expressions of how I feel.  On the one hand, the romantic, pastoral response to new environments I’ve discovered under lockdown, and on the other, an angry, subversive interpretation of the concept of “Odd”. 

First up the pastoral.  Another response to one of Dave Martin’s  and Hannah McDowell’s Artistic Expressions of Ageing workshops when we thought of the impact of the environment throughout your life. My first thought was of the iconic, possibly last  poem by Helen Dunmore “Hold out your arms”. 

https://www.theguardian.com/books/2017/jun/06/helen-dunmores-family-reveal-poem-written-in-the-authors-last-days

And then of a wooded, riverside  walk in the St.  Anne’s area of Bristol I discovered during lockdown.  I could truly understand the concept of “forest bathing” walking  along the path.  I used my photo as  driver for experiences across the life course. (I superimposed the following words over the image at the time but am unable to transfer this here).


St. Anne’s Undisturbed

 Trees sheltering, wild garlic and bluebell sap,

Nails splicing a daisy stem and conkers,

Applewood smoking, blackberries simmering,

Frost and leaf mould,

Heart, earth, pulsing, shifting, growing, breaking, settling.

My resting place.

 

By way of contrast,  the theme of “Odd”  was suggested by Louisa Fearnley who has very kindly been hosting our Odd Lot Theatre and Film Zoom meet-ups. A poem , a monologue or whatever which we would record.  So “Oddly Enough”  (below) came out of this.  I began by trying to film myself on my phone in the back garden.  Predictably this solitary exercise felt and appeared very laboured and I wasn’t happy with it. 

Certainly  I look a bit stressed here. It also evidences that  my hair has started to go white during lockdown!


 So thankfully Andreea Rea agreed to film me, Rebecca Braccialarghe and Liz Cashdan in July (others from Odd Lot to be filmed in August).  We spent a good, two hours at Greenbank Cemetery (another amazing place I discovered during lockdown) and I think we got a much better result.  Hair a mess, old clothes and a less contrived effect. Thank you, Andreea for being both an excellent director and camerawoman!  Screen shot and link to all our films to follow when we put them in the public domain, hopefully  by the end of August.   

I could not help but preface this piece with a quote from Elif Shafak’s TED talk:  “The Revolutionary Power of Diverse  Thought."  https://archive.org/details/ElifShafak_2017G.   It sums up everything that concerns me at the moment.  

ODDLY ENOUGH

‘Slowly and systematically we are denied the right to be complex’ ( Elif Shafak 2017)

Sorry I’m not the way you’d like me to be,

 Sorry I slip through the cracks of your neat, tidy world.

This makes me  interstitial,

This gives me a little power

Should I choose to use it. 

My life, my rules.

Why should I,

Why should I  want to fit in?

 

Sorry I’m the garbage category that irritates you

Spoiling the software

Because none of the above apply to me. 

Sorry if I linger a while on your conscience,

But I can’t resist

Making you feel uncomfortable,

Just a little bit.

I’m sorry I have zero fucks to give,

I’m sorry my red lips stick it to the Man.

Rather a lot.

But I have a bit of a mouth on me,

I just want  to make you, him and every other fucker else 

Think.

That’s all.

 

Sorry I’m  not  quite the full ticket

So very imperfect

So perfectly odd.

So don’t write me out a moral prescription, Doctor Virtue

Because I just won’t take the pills.

And 

Forgive me, Father but

I’d rather watch Tiger King than Normal People.

(a beat)

He’s a piece of work isn’t he?

(a beat)

 “You’ve got a face on you like a smacked arse.”

Jo Cross July 2020


 

 

 


Friday, June 12, 2020

Lockdown Perfume and a Little Bit of Lippy



I wrote this in response to the theme of a workshop run by the excellent Dave Martin and Hannah McDowell of the Centre for Policy on Ageing - An Artistic Exploration of Ageing. 

This began with an old, French film “Une Aussi Longue Absence”. Made in 1960, in the spirit of  poetic realism, it is about a café owner who believes a tramp wandering around her neighbourhood is her husband who disappeared during WW2.  I am reminded of all that I love about a Paris I never knew beyond my imagination.   Flavours, smells and   perfume even though there is none of the glamour we associate with it in the film. 
 Then I recall a dark blue  bottle of “Soir de Paris”  that, as a small child,  I found in the  drawer  where my mother kept her make-up. 
My first encounter with perfume and its power.  I think that Therese, the protagonist of “Une Aussi Longue Absence” as an unvarnished woman, pretty much like my post-war, everyday mother,  would have just such a bedroom drawer containing a small, blue bottle of intimacy. 
In the drawer beneath it were some long, black, suede, evening gloves with tiny, pearl buttons at the wrist.  To go with a black ball gown with a big taffeta skirt hanging in the wardrobe.  All nothing without that “Soir de Paris” because that was the very essence of the kiss goodnight. The smell of your mother leaving. That very particular intimacy. 
Perfume operates in two ways on your body;  within to your sense of self and how you want to be, then outwards to the physical, social environment you are part of. 
 Right now, in the Age of Covid,  it’s an outrageous  gap in our ways of being.  I can only please myself and not those others, particularly my significant others two metres or more away from me.  A sensory deprivation that’s slipped under the radar.   
So.  The perfumes that span my life.   First, Je Reviens by Worth. The bottle the same, dark  blue as Soir de Paris.  your body absorbs an inheritance as special as a grandmother’s recipe. 

Created in 1932 Je Reviens is born of a  jazz age Paris   It’s  delicate, pale blue box with white, neo-classical detail masking  the dirt and the decadence of the then as much as the now.

Then Yves St. Laurent’s  Rive Gauche. Launched in 1970,  it captured the immediacy of  sex in a silver, bright blue and black metal tube.  Sex masked by a sharp, black tailored suit and crisp white shirt, the only give-away lips smeared with some Christian Dior Iconic Rouge. 

Later, two or three  bottles of the democratically priced Marianne,  the perfume created to mark the bi-centenary of the French Revolution in 1989.  Long discontinued, I crave it still.


And  Dior’s  Poison.  The first bottle presented to me by my then  long-term boyfriend. He said with some irony his sister had chosen it for me on a return trip from Pakistan.  But I loved it and loved it for all the right reasons.  

But. Dawn Sturgess.  In 2018  gifted a boxed perfume by her partner who  had found it in a charity shop bin.  It contained the same Novachok poison Russian agents intended to murder the former intelligence officer Sergei Skripal.  Dawn died a few days after spraying her wrists with the deadly substance.  A tragic heroine like Therese of “Une Aussi Longue Absence”, perfume the poetic corollary.

Our lips are now negated by a face mask.  The silent scream of a new world of invisible deadly droplets and fear.  A call out on the street that you are a good citizen, just part of the mass. Just like everyone else. Just not easy in your skin in the way you should be.  The way you feel when you put on your lipstick just before you present your public self to a world you want to have a stake in. The way you feel when you spray your wrists and neck with a little sensuality.

 




Wednesday, April 8, 2020

Odd Lot Theatre & Film




A few weeks ago I was sat in the Bristol Loaf having a coffee with my friend Andreea.  We felt our “Ideas Exchange / Meet-Up” group would benefit from a Facebook Page so we set about brain storming possible titles.  Given that we were a pretty diverse group in terms of age, background and particularities “Odd Lot” seemed to fit the bill.  Andreea, bless her, had the Apple Mac expertise to find a good image.  I liked it because it smacked of the kind of vintage cinema graphics ( Pearl and Dean) I’d grown up with.  

https://www.facebook.com/groups/205069034062077/ 
We are currently a small group given that some members don’t do Facebook. Its purpose is to be a forum for ideas particularly during the Lockdown.

But it was some days later that the title “Odd Lot”  had additional relevance to me  This goes back to my days as a drama teacher at South Hackney School.

I had a group of Year 10 / 11 boys and girls preparing for what was then C.S.E. Drama.  And they were an unusual bunch.  Only about 10 regulars, given the tendency, by that stage of their education, for some pupils to get excluded or just not attend school anyway.  A multicultural mix typical of the school: White, Turkish, African-Caribbean and Nigerian origin.   But what distinguished them from other groups was their fascination with theatre.  They were a little band of individuals, certainly not a gang who, most Fridays evenings, would accompany myself and often my fellow drama teacher, Martin up West.  We benefitted then from the Inner London Education Authority’s Drama Centre’s benevolence in securing free tickets for a range of plays.  Occasionally we stopped off, if there were time, and the theatre was nearby,  at Patisserie Valerie on Old Compton Street for tea and cakes. We saw a wide range of work: from Shakespeare at the Young Vic to  the Black Theatre Co-operative’s performance of “Welcome Home Jacko” by Mustapha Matura & Charlie Hanson. When it came to ballet at Sadlers Wells they were all up for it.

But for me, my characterisation of this particular group as an “odd lot” comes from a particular drama session.  They were developing short scenes for assessment.  A mix of boys had been focussing on a dispute over some stolen goods stored in a lock-up garage.  They had recorded their improvisation and scripted it.  I was pleased because they were deeply engrossed in it.  Three pupils had decided to take a completely different trajectory.  They were two savvy girls, little Elaine and a slightly taller Serpil.  Making up this trio was Bod a very large, like 6ft plus, Nigerian boy.  School was challenging for him, as I think life was generally. He had care of younger brothers and sisters while his dad was out at work.  He was accepted by others but not included.  Except in drama lessons. 

We had at that time a huge expanse of theatrical gauze which had been donated to us and was  rolled up in the corner of the studio.  Acres of it and very unwieldy.  Elaine, Serpil and Bod set up about unfurling it.  Then Bod stood completely still while the girls started to slowly and carefully wrap or rather cocoon him in the gauze until he was completely concealed.  I was getting a bit concerned by now, and told the girls there must be a gap through which Bod could breathe.  But they were totally confident and knew what they were doing.  They then proceeded to use the last, few metres of gauze to wrap themselves into what now looked like a colossal piece of off-white sculpture.  Only Elaine’s and Serpil’s arms were raised and visible.  Then just as slowly they began to unwrap themselves and finally  Bod.  By this time all three seemed to have absorbed the fluid and malleable nature of the gauze into the way they moved. The groups shared their work before the end of the session.  The boys from the lock-up garage scene were clearly spellbound by what Elaine, Serpil and Bod had done. Automatic respect.  

Many years later and well after physical theatre practice became rooted  in exam courses could I really identify its true origins, thanks to those three.  Some sense of autonomy over their bodily selves, their circumstances, their environment and their interrelatedness.  

I’m mindful of this as I try to develop a comparable dynamic for the opening scene of “Age Queer” – or “The Queering of Age” as I might end up calling  it.  When of course the Bristol / UK Lockdown is over.   




Tuesday, January 7, 2020

Suited Booted and Inked


When I was doing my PhD I belonged to the British Sociological Association’s “Aging Body and Society” special interest group.  I recall one event at the British Library when the amazing sociologist Les Back was the keynote speaker.  He talked about his early life growing up in south London and the significance of his niece’s tattoos.  They were proudly on display as is the norm today. But this reminded me of a few, older women on the Clapton Park Estate in Hackney who told me they concealed the tattoos they had done in the 1950s – 60s.  For them it still signified  that they must have been a bit of a scrubber to have had them done in those days.

Perhaps that is why tattoos – or whatever  is inscribed on your body – has such interest for me and why they are such good examples of Embodiment: that communion between your sense of self and the physical body you inhabit.

Anyway, working along with Scottee’s Notepad Warrior I assembled some images that spoke of embodiment in later life.  But they all feature young women.  Postmodern irony ?


THE THEATRICAL MODEL

                               Steve Tanner


A young actor being an older woman in “Wise Children” , directed by  Emma Rice at the Bristol Old Vic and based on the Angela Carter novel.  Underneath her bra and knickers is a body suit representing her naked as she appears in one scene.   She is a much loved, sympathetic character in the play with a penchant for wandering around as such.  On reflection, I am more appreciative of the  device of the body suit on a young actor in that it is true to Carter’s magical realism and the way she plays with identities.



THE MEDICAL MODEL

https://www.dailymail.co.uk/femail/article-2584638/My-terrifying-step-old-age-A-special-aging-suit-gave-Amanda-Platell-insight-elderly-parents-endure-day.html 


I have long been fascinated by but sceptical of the Age Simulation Suit. A complete suit or a range of accessories that replicates the experience of sensory loss, reduced mobility and even pain.  A while back, when I read an article pointing out that children had great fun trying the device on, all in the name of reflective learning, mind you, this increased my interest in subverting the concept.   I did email a local centre that had one so I could  experience it for myself, but I didn’t get a reply.  Perhaps I’ll try again!

This is a young, female journalist trialling one.   What it lacks in style it makes up for in substance.  All that plastic and Velcro must cost a lot of money.  I think it could be replicated with salvaged / recycled materials and rendered much more jolly.


THE MARKETING MODEL

https://www.rivalclothing.co.uk/contents/en-uk/p703_Ladies_fleurette_supersoft_button_front_dressing_gown.html


This is a young female model perhaps taking this kind of work whilst waiting for the next La Redoute shoot to begin.  Or it might be the wife or daughter of the director of the La Marquise company.  Or even one of the machinists.   Likewise ripe for exploration.  This style is called, “La Marquise Ladies Fleurette Super Soft Button Through Dressing Gown.” There are issues over just such a  dressing gown replacing  a vintage kimono in a scene I’m developing in Age Queer.


Finally back to the tattoos.  Please check out the images in the programme for the Age Against the Machine Festival in Deptford last October.  https://www.ageagainstthemachine.org.uk/    All the men and women are well inked up and I could identify with them immediately.

 You can read my review of this event  for Theatre Bristol through the link on the right.




Monday, October 28, 2019

AGE QUEER






I’ve been focussing on this  project  over the last few weeks, first chancing on   the concept in Ashton Applewhite’s This Chair Rocks: A Manifesto Against Ageism (2019):-

“I want to be age queer by rejecting not my age but the fixed meanings that people assign to it, the roles and stereotypes that (I) decline to abide by.  I claim my age at the same time that I challenge its primacy and its value as a signifier.” (Applewhite, A. 2019:43)

 I introduced age queer into my June workshop, and since then, when time has permitted, I’ve been advancing it in tandem with Scottee’s Notepad Warrior scheme.  Of this I have to say that Scottee has been of delightful but limited value.  But he is subversive and provocative and I needed that dynamic to bolster the critical gerontologist in me.  Also there is a strong causal link with his ‘Fat Blokes Show’.  Here Scottee jolted us out of our complacency, rattled our pathetic assumptions, and certainly made me think differently.  This is at the heart of what I think theatre should do.

The link between Scottee’s work and  the potential of Age Queer as a preferred identity  materialises for me  through Queer theory in the Social Sciences.  In particular its relevance to time, the life course and the ageing process.  Linn Sandberg underscores its critical edge: 

‘Queer temporality may thus challenge what is considered normal and good ageing but also reveal the taken for grantedness of normative time.’ (Sandberg, 2008)

For me, this then takes a scalpel (rather than a sledge hammer) to the practice of age ordering or the use of chronological age categories to circumscribe the ageing demographic.  A practice that I am so glad that Dr. Francesca Ghillani of the Oxford Institute of Population Ageing called out last year.  As she argued,  our ongoing compulsion to classify age is, ‘culturally, politically and ethically charged.

So in researching this problem for a piece of theatre – a power-play between convention and subversion -  I would be asking of anyone and everyone the following questions:-

Why do people use chronological age as a marker of difference across the life course?

 When does it shift from being a handy organising principle towards a means of segregation and the exercise of institutional power?

And –

How do we perform and celebrate our individuality - or queerness -in everyday life?



Applewhite, A. (2019)  This Chair Rocks: A Manifesto Against Ageism.  London. Melville House.

Sandberg, L. (2008) [PDF] The old, the ugly and the queer: Thinking old age in relation to queer theory  Graduate Journal of Social Science, 2008 – gjiss.org

Ghillani, F. (2018)  https://www.ageing.ox.ac.uk/blog/age-not-just-a-number

Friday, August 23, 2019

SUMMER UPDATE TWO




Further catch-up on what I’ve seen and done over a busy summer.

An excellent EQUITY MEETING  on 16th July at the Old Vic focussing on Equality and Inclusion.  No time available to raise issues of age, ageism and inclusion with Neil, the dedicated Equity officer, who had to dash off and catch a train. Afterwards we skyped with actor Daniel York who had much to say about limited opportunities for BAME actors but did put his foot in it when he stereotyped (female) casting agents in an ageist way!  We pulled some faces and I suggested to him that we should all call out misrepresentation and under-representation of any social group  in the performing arts.

I’ve been so lucky this summer to see some amazing work.  So in no particular order:-

My friend, Louisa Fearnley’s BTEC group performance at the CIRCOMEDIA SCHOOL.  She and they must have worked so hard on what was an inspirational, awe-inspiring show.  Such tremendously talented young people not only in terms of the circus skills they demonstrated but the sincerity and imagination of all the sequences.  

Also incredibly uplifting was the verbatim theatre work which the BRISTOL OLD VIC’S ADULT COMPANY shared in July.  This brought home how much, particularly at this point in time, we need good food for the soul such as my BOV friends created that night.

Some performance opportunities.  Some time back (May Bank Holiday?) I agreed at short notice to take on the role of a woman with dementia in a trial of a script entitled “BOLTHOLE” submitted to the literary associate at the Old Vic.  Two hours rehearsal with three other actors – really good sorts and a lovely director – and then straight on as an item in Bristol Old Vic’s Open Stage event. My singing of an obscure folk song at intervals left much to be desired but I hope that overall we did the author justice and that she gets some mileage from it.

Then a fantastic event.  A creative methodologies one day conference 24th July at  University of Gloucestershire held by the WOMEN, AGEING AND THE MEDIA RESEARCH GROUP.  I was there to assist Peta Murray in her performance / presentation capturing the essence of her Missa Pro Venerabilibus http://footscrayarts.com/event/missa-pro-venerabilibus/  - an amazing immersive theatre work on women and ageing as a creative process.  This was integral to her PhD thesis which she has very kindly shared with me.  A fantastic range of presentations and it was lovely to catch up with an old gerontology conference friend, Bridie Moore.    Bridie’s doctorate was incredible incorporating the significance of older women in contemporary theatre and I always enjoyed her conference presentations.  This day she presented work in progress; filming on her phone her experiences as an older woman walking alone through late night club land in Leeds.  

 I was delighted to host Peta in Bristol the following weekend. She’s such great company and I so appreciated being able to share ideas and future projects with such an inspirational woman.   We took in two plays on the Saturday: Emma Rice’s “MALLORY TOWERS” and a never less than excellent comedy at the Wardrobe Theatre, “VET DETECTIVE”

Peta left me a copy of one of her plays: “SALT”.


This charts the relationship between  a woman, Laurel and her adult daughter, Meg  across time but in one space – the kitchen.  As they age, conflicts and care are played out  in real time through the activity of cooking.  Literally!  Real ingredients, real recipes.  Very appropriate for Bristol as a foody city. 



Coming up: the business of being a NOTEPAD WARRIOR courtesy of SCOTTEE.