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 ?


                               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.



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.



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


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


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.

Saturday, August 17, 2019

Summer Update One

The last couple of months have been relentless and having building work done on the house has delayed my blog posts.  So I’m playing catch-up on what has been going on recently.


on 19th June at Ashton Court Mansion. So massive thanks to Tribe of Doris / Diverse Artists Network for providing a platform for myself and everyone else to air topics that are so important for the arts and society.  I was invited to give a talk followed up by hosting a discussion table on Ageism, Diversity and the Arts. 

I  focussed on recent evidence, emergent over 2018-2019, that we had reached a “Time’s Up” moment, given the extent of ageism in U.K. society.  This also justifies  why we need to think of “hyper diversity” in later life, reflecting the complex make-up of  Bristol’s multi-cultural communities. Finally I  made clear that arts organisations in Bristol need to be inclusive of older men and women in terms of the artistic mainstream rather than using community outreach/ health and well-being initiatives as the automatic default position.

I was so pleased that a range of interesting and talented people got involved in discussion afterwards.  So, in no particular order of importance I highlight the following.

Firstly, Hari Ramakrishnan  of Creative England drew our attention to a great annual event: Women over 50 in Film Festival.  A glance at their website indicates real possibilities for a Bristol contribution.  Rachel Clarke from Knowle West Media Centre had joined us at that point stressing how open her organisation was to engagement with artists and the community.  A really good potential collaboration here, particularly for those of us, like myself, whose experience has been limited to the theatre. 

Lucia Thomson, a dancer/ choreographer introduced the powerful work on our experiences of grief that she had been creating with her ensemble. I alerted her to a study of conversations around death just beginning at Graduate School of Education, University of Bristol.  Also  to similar  work  by Peta Murray who will be visiting Bristol in late July.  She is a performance artist and research associate at MRIT University Melbourne.  I am hosting Peta one weekend and  I hope to introduce her to some local artists / theatre makers.

We were joined at that point by a young social work researcher involved with the Manor Community (my apologies for not noting her name).  She was so pleased that I had a mentioned Sir Martin Green’s strident calling-out of ageism as she was an admirer of his work like myself.

It was great to have two amazing artists with me on the table throughout:  Hilary Finch and Delia Whitbread.  Delia  called  out some bad experiences / situations where she had been treated in an abusive, ageist way, for example rudeness from a young cyclist. She stressed the importance of resilience and visibility in later life to counter ageism. 

Hilary drew attention to the real constraints to securing occasional, freelance work for anyone reliant on universal credits.   Such income freezes the credits, creating  uncertainty and insecurity because the system is bureaucratic and inflexible.  This suggests the stifling of the ongoing potential of artists, across all media, to generate the work they’d like, particularly in later life.

Deborah Oliver, an author currently studying on a creative writing course, talked about the situation whereby older students are unable to seek funding for post-graduate courses after the age of 60.  Rightly she wanted this put under scrutiny and a campaign organized.  I pointed out that current trends in population ageing indicate that this policy is outdated.  Take for example,  the evidence that  many men and women are embarking on later life careers, or the evidence that women are now having babies much later – even in their early fifties.  Also as  the media clearly demonstrates, older men and women are just as likely to be  well and truly grounded in the cultural and economic mainstream of society. Our conversations indicted that attitudes towards ageing really need to shift in a big way this including the acknowledgement that older men and women in Bristol are a truly hyper diverse demographic, in tune with the cultural landscape rather than outside it. The arts have a crucial role to play in effecting change.

My only regret was that because I was hosting a table I did not get a chance to circulate around other groups.  I’d particularly wanted to speak to Bashart Malik / Lawrence Hoo / Zaheer Mamon the maker of “I am Judah”. 

https://chuffed.org/project/iamjudah  I was interested in the role that institutional ageism played in interpretations of Judah’s abuse.

All told, that day at Ashton Court was brilliant.  Some amazing dancing and singing, great conversations and all told a sense of  belonging felt by myself and, I’m sure everyone else there.
Ongoing and so very valuable, I have benefitted from two workshops this year.  Firstly, those run every month by South West Players Company for Equity members.  Very open-ended with the trialling of scripts and ideas.  Organized with such kindness by the amazing Kim Hicks. http://www.kimhicks.co.uk/Kim_Hicks/Home.html.
Secondly discovering Meisner technique with Ella Cumber has been an incredible learning curve for me.  Without realising it I had stumbled on a means of not only improving my own practice, such as it is,  but also how much it reflected my interest in process drama and social action theory.  Big thanks to Ella and a link to the Bristol Meisner Facebook page here. https://www.facebook.com/groups/242862463062113/?ref=bookmarks.  

Tuesday, July 2, 2019


It has taken me a couple of weeks to get my reflections together on this.  But to start,  big thanks to everyone  who gave of their time for this exercise,  to Trinity Centre for providing the space and Debs Weinreb for taking photographs.

Rather than copy and paste my session plan I’ll summarise the core components and indicate the potential alternatives I’d try in the future.

First up, and after all-round  introductions, and a summary of my aims, I gave out post-it notes and pens.  I cited the quote: “When I shut my eyes I can be any age I want” and asked participants to do the same.   Then to jot down that age.  I collected these in an envelope.  They then did the same with things they really loved and things that made them angry.  I put these aside.  Regrettably no time left at the end of the session to take these out and discuss them.

I then introduced the group to recent perceptions on ageing: the notion of “Age Queer” and “Post-Age” (principally taken from Ashton Applewhite’s “This Chair Rocks: A Manifesto against Ageism”. 

(Alternative 1: use these three “data sets” in the main drama situation.  Alternative 2: More discussion!)

I then set up a “Mapping a Life course” exercise, splitting people off into pairs. They were to chose an imaginary person and, using the surfaces and spaces in the hall, to take it in turns to describe key places, events and life course transitions in their chosen  persons’s life.  This took up too much time – as it did the previous evening when I’d trialled this with South West Players Company.  Getting the group back together I asked for brief summaries from everyone.

(Alternatives:  Put a 15 minute time limit on this or 5+ minutes for each person.  Ask for volunteer demonstration.  Swap partners and ‘hot seat’ each other.  Then ask the whole group to  ‘hot seat’ volunteer individuals).

I then put a number of random artefacts in the middle of the circle of our circle  and asked participants  to chose one that had an automatic appeal.  Some eloquent and deeply felt responses but participants reverted back to their real selves.

(Alternative: the artefact needs to be introduced before mapping the life course exercise, bolted on to the character they have created and woven into their narrative).

I then introduced the scenario which was to be the core of the workshop.  An imagined situation in which half the  participants, in character, would volunteer to take part in a clinical drugs trial for which the financial reward was remarkably generous.  They each had to affirm why they needed the money.

The remainder of the participants would be the personnel of  an international pharmaceutical company, meeting with and interviewing each participant to find the right volunteers.  The prospect of a week’s stay in a luxury health spa for the duration of the trial was added as a further inducement. This team were acquainted with the purpose of the potential drug: to cut off long-term memory but to afford a few weeks short-term memory with the day-to-day stability it might offer in later life. 

I gave the potential volunteers different attitudes to their own age to adopt, these  including “Age Queer” and “Post Age”.

(Alternative: Totally wrong stage of the workshop to introduce these.  Should have been established and shared amongst participants during the initial discussion.)

Inevitably this scenario over ran!  Much integrity from most of the participants in terms of sustaining their characters throughout.  When we had literally run out of time the potential volunteers were informed about the nature of the drug to be trialled.  More than frustrating as participants responded vociferously just as we had to vacate the hall.


To refine and develop this workshop and trial it with drama / theatre students.  One option is for a keen student to facilitate given adequate briefing.  Plans to approach the university drama / theatre departments, interns at Bristol’s theatres, local colleges and drama groups.


Wednesday, June 5, 2019



“I am not who you think I am.”

A free workshop taking a life course approach to ageing, identity, diversity and discrimination.

Thursday, June 13th 10.30 - 12.30

In the Main Hall (ground floor) of the Trinity Centre, Trinity Road, Bristol BS2 ONW.  

To book a place / find out more email: jecross19@yahoo.co.uk

This is an everyone welcome, all-ages inclusive, practical session for theatre professionals and anyone with an interest in the performing arts as a vehicle for social change. 

This is part of an emergent initiative: New Wave Ageing – Cultural Diversity and the Performing Arts:   a response to recent, research evidence of the extent of ageism in UK society, and the need to acknowledge the complex diversity of later life.

Dr. Joanna Cross

Saturday, May 25, 2019


Summer 2018 I was lucky to be involved with the Bristol Old Vic Young Company’s production of “Make More Noise”, this marking the centenary of some women being granted the vote in the UK.  It explored what advances women have made and, in no uncertain terms, called out  how much needs to be done to achieve true equality.  Hence the title taken from one of Emmeline Pankhurst’s speeches.   In fact making more noise is what many of us older men and women are doing on a range of issues.

That the “MeToo” Movement was well under way by then lent fuel to the energy and vision the Young Company girls brought to this piece, under the direction of the amazing Lisa Gregan, ably assisted by Maisie Newman.    There were only four of us women involved of whom I was the oldest but we were readily absorbed into the collective endeavor. A great leaning experience for me.  

A herniated disc cut short my involvement  just before the show opened.  Very depressing but timely  in that scans revealed a lot of wear and tear problems with my spine. 

During rehearsals we all wrote pieces that connected with women we admired, or were close to, known and unknown and from all corners of the world.  Madonna was one such woman cited by the girls.   Her strong speech on ageism chimed with my reflections at the time on later life. https://www.vogue.co.uk/article/madonna-on-ageing-and-motherhood

Here’s some of what I wrote:-

Age Part One

I am 66 years old.

I self-identify as a woman. 

I am on my home from work and I’m feeling good.

And I think, I think I look good.

 I’m wearing my vintage St. Laurent  jacket and Russell and Bromley boots.

But I confess they’re second hand.  I’m not that flush.

And I’ve just had my highlights done.

In my left hand I have a Diamond Card - but don’t be fooled.

It’s an  Old Age Pensioners’ Bus Pass. I’ll demonstrate how it works.

 Watch carefully the interaction between the card and the mottled, wrinkled right hand. One reinforces the other. If you’re not careful society can get you just where it suits.

A woman – my age? – gets up to offer me her seat.

Helmut Newton's icon shot of Yves Saint Laurent's /le smoking'

We all age.

 But to be  “old” is to have your sense of self stripped away.  

Your identity,

Your professional self. 

Your femininity,

Your sexuality.

I am 66

Deal with it.

 Age Part Two

No “Me Too” for you!

Not so, my friend Marlene would say.

After being harassed on holiday in Tenerife by hungry, young men

who took her and her girlfriends for ageing sex tourists.

She’s her own woman, is Marlene.

 Out there tonight as it goes.

Wearing her black corset underneath a man’s suit she had made

 By a Soho tailor sometime in the 70’s.

She’s slicked back her hair,

 and with a can of Stella in one hand and her phone in the other,

 she’s all set for her granddaughter Katy’s Hen Night.

 All the girls, all the women making more noise, having a blast,

For one night ruling the world even if its only Bristol Harbourside.  

And in quiet moments,

 in the Ladies,

 they’ll  tell how life once was, is and how it should be .

And nobody, but nobody, will tell Marlene how to age better than she’s doing already.

Finally, a big thanks to all of my peers who continue to take part in Extinction Rebellion protests.   Particularly our old family friend Oliver, also in his 60’s,  who stripped off in the Houses of Parliament a couple of months ago to make clear to our government how much they need to do to protect our planet.