Friday, September 10, 2021

EXPLORING AGE QUEER THROUGH THEATRE



 



In 2019 I enthusiastically read Ashton Applewhite’s “This Chair Rocks: A Manifesto against  Ageism” and was immediately drawn to this concept.   

‘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, 2019:43). [1]

 I lost no time sounding it out amongst friends of all ages, gay and straight, and via arts networks I am linked to.  It always triggered a smile;  here’s something new,  fresh.  We liked it. Then there was Covid.  It seemed that all the sterling work that had been done to challenge age stereotypes and the homogenisation of later life went down the tubes.   Older people became the lumpen, vulnerable elderly. 

So why theatre?  I have been in the business of showing rather than telling for most of my life.  Drama school, drama teacher, community theatre, then a much valued detour around academic sociology and gerontology, before finding myself going full circle back to theatre. Bizarre that I should get work as an actor in my sixties when even a PhD wasn’t going to get me a job.  I had to up my game, reskill and learn new conventions far removed from my initial training in the 70’s.  The collision of these complimentary disciplines that had so enriched my life was inevitable.  I wanted to create theatre far removed from what I call ‘DDD’  drama, whether on stage or film.  By this I mean the current proliferation of ‘decline, dependency and dementia’ narratives, however excellent and relevant.  

 I envisaged age queer functioning firstly, as a provocation.   I wanted to give voice not only to my fellow children of the 60’s, the activists and  free spirits I have grown up and grown older with, but also anyone, whatever their age, at odds and  uncomfortable with the status quo in the U.K.  Conformist, reductive approaches to later life perpetrated by the  Government, the Market, the  Media and unfortunately some of the charities dedicated to older people, however well-meaning.  We cannot see our faces in the sanitised world view they represent.  But it’s those faces and their voices that dominate policy and practice and not ours.   

Secondly, as a counter-blast.   A challenge to the way these institutions use chronological age to bracket-off older men and women from the mainstream of society. Being an ‘older’ person often  begins at 55 in the U.K.  Interventions and activities targeted at those who are 55+ are a feature of every neighbourhood, representations of which reinforce a dominant narrative of what ageing should be:  respectably active, virtuously healthy.  Ignored is the fluid, dynamic nature of the individual life course.  At this point I’d be very remiss not to point out that gerontologists have been rattling cages like for ever, but the(gate) keepers, the policy makers are seemingly deaf. Life Course sociology in this field has indicated that the traditional stages of a life should no longer be informing public policy as it did during the 20th century.[2]   For heaven’s sake, many over-55’s are mums and dads at the primary school gate or contemplating a new career rather than retirement. 

Thirdly and in light of the above, I wanted age queer to be a wake-up call.  I wanted to flag up the complexity of older generations, forged by the cultural and political changes they have lived through.    All this is overlooked by a tick-box approach to diversity that lends itself  to having the dimensions of your later life calibrated by algorithm.  I love the way the  author, Elif Shafak  underscores this in a  remarkable talk:  ‘So slowly and systematically we are denied the right to be complex…. I have multiple attachments just like all of us do.  And multiple attachments mean multiple stories.’ [3] Elif’s focus here is the  authoritarian state.  The question is how authoritarian, particularly in the wake of Covid, and Brexit,  has the current U.K. administration become?

Having served very well to establish a distinction from traditional and conformist expectations of heterosexuality, I like the way queer can be re-purposed to define an individual’s divergence from normative and often negative expectations of later life.  But  if you use a concept you have to do justice to it.   I did not want it to qualify visible difference or behaviours; just some up-to-date term to replace what have often been markers of disapproval, for example, being ‘bohemian’ or ‘eccentric’.  Nor should it reflect the optics of being cool across generations.  I was struck at the time by the musician Paul Weller, lounging in a designer chair, cigarette in hand, on the cover of his album True Meanings [4].  An image I could identify with in a broadly tribal sense, but it does not hint at the potential of age queerness and the work it is capable of in asserting individual self-determination. 

A natural corollary presented itself. Queer theory, as a philosophical standpoint, has for some time offered an understanding of contemporary, later life in line with our Life Course sociologists.    As Linn Sandberg suggests:

‘Queer temporality may thus challenge what is considered normal and good ageing but also reveal the taken for grantedness of normative time…….. by thinking queer theory and old age together a resurrection of knowledges is made possible, outside the good, successful and respectable old age.’(Sandberg, L. 2008)[5]

So we can subvert the institutional use of chronological age as a means of managing the ageing demographic  when we turn our attention to our preferred place in the fabric of time, regardless of our birth date.  We  need to draw out life course events that matter to us and the imprint they leave on our world-view, values and decision-making. In the play, “Age Queer” I wanted to demonstrate an historical sense of self and a rejection of the assumed life trajectories imposed on us by the institutions described above; the straight, socially conservative, middle England version of events that evokes so much anger in my peers.

At the beginning of 2021 I submitted a draft script to Theatre West for their Arts Council funded,  Zooming Ahead scheme for women writers.  Mine was one of ten scripts out of a total of eight-three to be awarded  support.   My script underwent considerable redrafting thanks to the dramaturgical, moral and intellectual input provided by Theatre West. [6]  I was given three, Zoom readings by some amazing actors  who captured  characters I’ve grown  very fond of.  At the time of writing, theatres are barely beginning to recover, so under current circumstances a future production remains a hope rather than a reality. 

Here’s an overview of the way I have structured my play, indicating how  the fusion of  history, identity and  material culture, once embedded in the characters’ younger lives, determine their world view in the present.     

Central to the drama is an older character, a sociologist, aware of their own vulnerability to ageing by stereotype or algorithm and furious at the institutional appropriation of their date of birth.

So don’t fuck about with my age.  That would be messing with my sense of time which belongs to me.   My being in the world, where I’m at.

To investigate the age queer thesis, they conduct an ethnography on the lives of two friends via their roles as participants in, and  custodians of a sensual, radical history:   Alan, an architect and gay man and Norma, a barmaid, an occasional escort and later an artist. I decided that Alan and Norma should be played by younger actors throughout, not least to underscore the paradox of them being talked down to in the later scenes of the play.

 I adapted participant observation methodology for theatre. As participant, our sociologist intervenes in the action:  as a policeman, a thug, a charity volunteer, funeral director, M.P. and care assistant.   As  observer, they  mediate between Alan and Norma and ourselves as audience.  Known in the script as the P.O., they are alternately intruder and provocateur within the action, or  guide, critic and narrator outside it.  An off-centre zone of a minimal set contains a desk and laptop from which the P.O.  pulls up iconic, relevant images for projection. Beside it a coat stand holds coats and jackets to distinguish their participant roles.

The play is in  two acts: the first set in London in 1981 and the second act shifting between the present, when Alan and Norma are in their late sixties, and the mid-1980’s.    It begins with their initial chance, chaotic meeting in a multi-storey car park in Bayswater, London.  An affinity develops between these two, along with a sensibility and a breadth of vision,  when they engage with two significant events of that year.  Alan, living on the New Cross Road, shares his neighbours’ horror at the circumstances of the infamous house fire. Norma will join him on the subsequent protest march, the Black People’s Day of Action.    We go to Norma’s run-down flat share in Kilburn.   A casual visit by a policeman turns into an interrogation when he sees a poster of IRA hunger striker, Bobby Sands,  Norma defending her feelings about his recent death.  She is arrested as a sympathiser and taken to Paddington Green police station for questioning.

P.O.:Your presence matters alongside the presence or absence of someone else.  Someone who’s been brutalised by the State.   But you haven’t.  You’ve been spared.  But you’re still implicated.  You’re within touching distance.

On her release, Alan takes Norma to the legendary, London, night club Heaven.  She dashes off to make friends and have fun.   Alan holds back.  Finding himself isolated, he is confronted by a mysterious thug from his past.  He physically bullies Alan, taunting him about his sexuality and challenging his political activism.  Norma returns, excited to have met an artist called Mark (not an actual character) who, she says, calls her his “Angel of History”.  The analogy here is the philosopher Walter Benjamin’s interpretation of Paul Klee’s “Angelus Novus”.  Norma is touched by the fact that she is taken seriously, that she is special.  She  is inspired to become an artist, Mark, her likely mentor.  

I include this reference to underscore our friends’ relationship to the seismic events of that decade, the epiphanies that require them to reorient their lives and that distance them both from the perceived, and often tired,  cultural tropes associated with their chronological age. 

P.O.as THUG: (to Alan)  Later down the line, the line of your privileged life, the only history expected of you is what was top of the Hit Parade when you met your wife or when you ate your first Vesta Chow Mein 

The second act of the play begins with our friends, now in their late 60s, enjoying a drinking session in a suburban café.  Norma, is an artist and Alan, a successful architect.   They are interrupted by a charity volunteer promoting age-appropriate activities for the ‘over 55s’. As the wine flows, the action is punctuated by  ironic, childhood guessing games reinforcing Alan and Norma’s resistance to the bland stereotyping the volunteer unwittingly imposes on them:

ALAN:  In my left hand I have what is  called a Diamond Card.  Smacks of aspiration don’t you think?  Like an American Express Gold Card?  Now watch carefully the interaction between the card and my  mottled, wrinkled,  right hand. Hey presto – it’s an  Old Age Pensioners’ Bus Pass.     Once on that bus I might as well lick my Diamond Card and slap it on my forehead like so…….. Flash this card and my masculinity, my sexuality, my professional  identity evaporates. 

However the power balance shifts once the charity volunteer reveals his day job is that of a funeral director, his sales patter turning to the extensive range of coffins Alan and Norma might chose.   He singles out Norma as a problem, a transgressive refusenik, deviating  from the  traditional old age society expects of her.  Until the inevitable meeting with himself.  After he leaves,  Norma finds yet another childhood pursuit to explicate her own distinctive queerness for our benefit. Like many contemporary café bars there is a children’s corner with a toy box.  Alan notices an Action Man doll, abandoned,  trousers round its ankles:

NORMA:  If you’re queer then so am I.  Like Action Man I don’t fit into any box.  Put me in there with Peter Rabbit or some artisan, crafted, rag doll and I tell you it wouldn’t end well.  Watch this. 

Yet our sociologist, the P.O., remains unsatisfied, needing  to understand more about Alan and Norma.  So we return to the 1980’s, in fact 1986, this time shift serving as both prelude and contrast to the final scene.  There we find Alan in a flat that belonged to the aforementioned Mark,  he and Norma having  become close friends with him.  They, with others, have been caring for him in his final days before dying of HIV/Aids. Alan is packing away some of his valued possessions.   Norma arrives, wearing a kimono of Mark’s she refuses to part with. She has just had an abortion.  They share what becomes an emotionally charged task, each of Mark’s belongings evoking a celebration of friendship, intimacy and sensuality.  Norma tells Alan she has slept with Mark and that she loved him.  They are harshly disturbed by Mark’s estranged brother, an M.P.

 I needed this scene not only to demonstrate the M.P.’s nasty prejudices, but also for its focus on artefacts and sensuality.  An over-riding memory for me  is the heart felt, material quality of care and solidarity  provided for friends and lovers with HIV/Aids during their final days.  Much later in my life, when researching elder care, I realised that this loving attention to detail was in stark contrast to the market-led, bargain-basement offer experienced by so many older men and women today. 

 P.O: So, Lord Algorithm, how do you capture this?  How do you make sense of all our muddled, messy, but oh, so sensual lives?  The glue that bonds our emotions.  Whether it’s a cologne, a bottle of wine or the stash of weed hidden in Mark’s bedside table that Alan failed to find.   What matters to you?

I will say little about the final scene which is set in a care home in the present.  Norma is there for reablement after a stroke.  Alan can only watch as she refuses to eat,  occupying  herself making a pirate hat and paper planes out of a copy of the Daily Mail.  Sensuality and history will coalesce as this  scene is played out.   

The play is self-reflective.  The action is set in  London, where I have spent most of my life: the Bayswater multi-storey car park, where my sex-worker friend took clients; low-rent flats in Kilburn, communities sympathetic to Irish Nationalism and resentful of British troops in Northern Ireland; references to pubs and clubs, like the Grenadier where I once worked, the Hawley Arms and Heaven.  The tragedy of the New Cross Fire impacted on East London teachers like myself; those youngsters might have been our pupils.  The solidarity we felt with the multicultural communities we served, and where we lived, needed realisation and this I did through the character of Alan for whom the New Cross Road was where he not only felt at home but valued in the community.    

The later, contemporary scenes,  the identikit, suburban café bar and the equally  identikit, suburban care home, are familiar to us all, particularly the latter if we have had to seek, in desperation, long-term care for a relative. Here I have also drawn on data from my own doctoral research[7] and the stories accumulated from friends about their relatives in long-term care; the cultural shortcomings and the inevitable cherished items getting “lost”.   What I have tried to capture throughout, as an ethnographer might, is a sense of place:  affective, hostile or liminal, rich description  woven into the characters’ narrative as we move from scene to scene.   

The action is busy and physical.  If there is a constant running through the play it is both the allusion to, or enactment of childhood games.  Firstly, as  paradox, given the infantilisation to which so many older people are subjected to.  Secondly, as a reflection of the way we use play and games as a means of self-determination, even rebellion.  Thirdly, games injected a dynamic unpredictability into the action.     

One curious thing though.  The very ending of the play was conceived  early on and did not change throughout each iteration.  I needed to demonstrate that our intrinsic sensuality and lust for self-determination should, by rights,  endure to the very end. 

 My fingers remain crossed that “Age Queer” will eventually be produced.  Maybe  age queer will gain traction as a preferred identity but my aim, as both a theatre maker and gerontologist, is that my venture  will kick start conversations about cultural diversity and complexity across the life course and ways in which we can resist the  creeping authoritarianism and disrespect for human rights meted out in later life.  

 

References & Links

 



[1] Applewhite, A. 2019. This Chair Rocks: A Manifesto Against Ageism. London: Melville House.

 

 

[2] I’d recommend Chris Gilleard’s and Paul Higg’s work. Eg. Gilleard, C. & Higgs, P. 2013. Ageing, Corporeality and Embodiment, London: Anthem Press.

[5] Sandberg, L. (2008) The Old, the Ugly and the Queer: thinking old age in relation to queer theory. Graduate Journal of Social Science – 2008 – Vol. Issue 2.

[7] My thesis: Truth to the Materiality of Later Life: the Significance of the Aesthetic for the Support of Older People (2015)  University of Bristol.  Available online via  the British Library.

 

 


Wednesday, August 25, 2021

Odd Lot Theatre at Cafe 5

 

 

Much of July  has been spent developing Odd Lot Theatre’s “Odd Soiree” at  Café 5 here in Easton, Bristol.    Here’s the programme:-                                      

ODD LOT THEATRE AT CAFÉ 5  July 17th

             A fundraiser for Bristol Refugee Rights   https://www.bristolrefugeerights.org

1.      Space 1. Devised by Tom Hayes

2.      Space 2.  Written and performed by Andreea Brown.

3.      ‘How Many Things Can You Think About…..?’  A very recent and provisional  response to contrasting events this year:  the solidarity of Glasgow residents in preventing two of their neighbours from removal by Immigration officers and the brutal treatment by Border Force staff of E.U. citizens arriving at U.K. airports for legitimate reasons.  Verbatim accounts of this treatment are drawn from articles in the Guardian newspaper.  

[The suitcase in this performance belonged to Liz Cashdan’s  grandfather, Elias Trilling who was a refugee from Russia in 1917. It then travelled around the world with her father, Samuel Trilling.  Liz was named Elisabeth after her grandfather.]

4.      Incident at the Frontier, 1938.  Written and performed by Liz Cashdan.

5.      The Right Thing A retired couple stumble on the realities of today’s world. At a doorstep press briefing Toby responds to criticism of their response.  Written and performed by Richard Worsnop

 BRIEF INTERVAL

6.      Monologue from Age Queer written and performed by Jo Cross. This script is supported by Theatre West under their Zooming Ahead scheme for women writers Theatre West (theatre-west.co.uk)

7.      How Long And Odd 9 Minutes Are written and performed by Rebecca Braccialarghe.

This  links patriarchy and a need for change to events including George Floyd’s murder and community resistance to immigration enforcement raids

8.      Supernova  written and performed by Andreea Brown, from her forthcoming anthology.

9.      I Come From the Cut - written and performed by Poppy Jermaine from the perspective of Alex Groves, a character featured in Odd Lot’s forthcoming project: R.I.P [Working Title]. This poem was inspired by Robert Seatter’s poem I Come From. 

 


 

We all needed the boost that developing this show gave us and we benefitted from rehearsing at WildCat Studios off the Gloucester Road.  After all this time it was fantastic to be working face to face.  Or almost!   Liz Cashdan could  join us via Rebecca’s laptop and  Tom Hayes rehearsed his Under Van Man role via mobile phone. 

A reminder, given the length of time between blog posts, Odd Lot Theatre is a multicultural and importantly, an all-ages inclusive professional company.

We raised £120.00 for Bristol Refugee Rights.  Hopefully we can put “How Many Things Can You Think About…? on a more formal, research and development footing.



 

Monday, August 23, 2021

Age Queer Final Reading

 



                                                                                             Image:Theatre West

 Much of  Spring this year has been spent on the Age Queer script.  I could not have chanced on a lovelier group of people while attached to Theatre West’s Zooming Ahead Scheme. theatre-west.co.uk  Dramaturg Bea Roberts, Artistic Directors Ann Stiddard and Alison Comely  and Alan Coveney, Noni Lewis and Gareth Kennerley the actors delivering the final reading on June 14th by webinar.  Here are some of the comments posted afterwards:-

‘ Loved this script! Very moving, and very authentic. Congratulations and good luck!’

‘Such a wonderful script! Love how you've structured the scenes to play with the passing of time.’

‘That was wonderfully moving, funny and inspiring (from the P.O.V. of someone 70ish!!) I enjoyed all the performances; it is beautifully written, original and ingenious in many ways and I cannot think of any ways in which I think it could be improved. I'll look out for a future performance. Thank you!’

‘Very much enjoyed the detailed history of the early 80s for the characters; all felt very true.  Established very strongly the history, activism, and engagement that gets negated when older (in others' eyes).  Decline of Norma at the end was strongly written and acted.  Thanks.’

….and I was grateful for critique to help me develop the script further:-

‘I liked the way you structured the piece a lot, though I think there might be more room for thematic continuity from one section to another? I’m not sure I totally understood the gesture - But I did really enjoy it.’

‘I enjoyed the play and think it has a great relevance.  I just think it lost its way slightly in the middle.  I would like to have known more about the characters in middle life.  Nicely done though.’

Currently, the script runs  for approx. 1 hour 15 minutes as read and sticking to the brief (as originally set by Theatre West).  Whether I have a production opportunity or not, I need to develop some of the scenes, refine the dialogue and so forth.  I’ve been mulling over how Norma’s and Alan’s middle years could best be illuminated.  

Thankfully the reading was recorded.  This  has helped me develop  an article/essay explaining more detailed thinking behind Age Queer which I hope will be published online or at least on this blog.  This is intended as a starting point for discussion, workshops and the like. 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Tuesday, March 16, 2021

1000 Witches and Other Stories

 


A busy start to 2021. This began with online rehearsals for “1000 Witches”, the title given to the ongoing (I hope) Creative Histories of Witchcraft project. Creative Histories of Witchcraft – France 1790-1940 (wordpress.com) 

This had been  suspended throughout the first year of Covid but thankfully revived just before Xmas.  We did an online performance in February, working as best we could with props arranged around our laptops.  Quite an experience.  I had one ghastly moment, when there were some 60+ audience members awaiting the start of the play and I had somehow been cut off from the Webinar.   It would have to be me.

All told an absolute privilege working with Dr. Will Pooley of the University of Bristol History Department, the playwright Poppy Corbett, the poet, Anna Kisby Compton, the Director Ellie Chadwick and these formidable  actors: Esme Patey-Ford, Tobias Weatherburn, Alan Coveney, Matthew Bulgo and Nicola Burnett-Smith. Nicola  also composed an amazing score and a song for the play.   

Second up I was awarded professional support  by Theatre West to develop “Age Queer” under their Zooming Ahead scheme for women writers. Zooming Ahead Writers.pdf (theatre-west.co.uk) This has just begun and I am currently developing a second draft under the auspices of dramaturg, Bea Roberts.  Bea has also introduced me to a  range of new writers I’ve thoroughly enjoyed reading.

 I also loved Bea’s own critically acclaimed play, “And then come the Nightjars”.  And Then Come The Nightjars – Bea Roberts An account of an older, Devon, dairy farmer, Michael,  the traditional affection and relationship he has with his herd and its horrific cull due to foot and mouth disease. That this event unfolds through Michael’s relationship with his vet and friend, Jeff makes the piece all the more affecting.    I loved it because firstly, the experiences of ageing farmers or indeed country men and women  are so rarely  depicted.  Secondly because my late father, as an agricultural auctioneer,  would have instantly recognised Michael and empathised with him.

I have a Twitter account but regrettably do not tweet myself.  It serves to keep me abreast of positive initiatives in anti-ageism activism around the world.  Perhaps this UN report due out at the end of this month will shake things up in the U.K. The will is there but not the action. 

Kicking off a global conversation about ageism: launch of the first UN Global report on ageism (who.int)

 Finally Odd Lot Theatre's "Odd Stories" features a new work every Friday evening.

(6) Odd Lot Theatre Company | Facebook  

So proud of everyone.  

Wednesday, November 18, 2020

Odd Lot Theatre Company

 

Despite autumn seeing us going into a second lockdown, we have been as productive as restrictions have allowed. 

Here we all are via the medium-of-no-choice:-



The summer months resulted in seven, short, socially distanced films on the theme of “Odd”.   A three minute compilation of these was submitted to a Documental Theatre project as “Odd Stories: New Narratives on the Trajectory of Life”.   Our first foray into the public domain! http://documentaltheatre.co.uk/

Then another opportunity.   A big thanks to Diverse Artists’ Network for providing an amazing evening of entertainment on 16th October at the Centre of Gravity Art Space. https://www.centreofgravity.uk/timetable.   Andreea Gheorghe and myself were delighted to be included in this. We performed extracts from the above, including:  Rebeccca Braccialarghe’s “Odd, Odd, Odd” which perfectly  captures  our ethos; Liz Cashdan’s evocation of lockdown in her “Passover 2020,  Andreea’s “Friday Night” and my “Oddly Enough”.   

It was a great evening,  albeit a strange experience performing again. This was all a bit last-minute and I know that all the other “Oddments” as Liz calls us, would have enjoyed it as much as Andreea and I did.    I felt it was so much easier to communicate directly to a live audience rather than to a camera and   I have a lot to learn in that respect. 

All told though, these last few months  I have been  so, so grateful for  the hard work undertaken by  Andreea and Poppy Jermaine in pulling us all together film and technology wise.   Also Liz Cashdan for charging our creative batteries on a regular basis with her writing exercises. And of course Liz, Louisa Fearnley and Poppy for taking on the business of Zoom hosting over the last few months. But a thank you to every one of my Odd friends for helping me keep body and soul together this year.

And we have a Facebook Page!    https://www.facebook.com/OddLotTheatreCompany.  Currently this features our DAN performance and Rebecca's wonderful "Odd, Odd, Odd".  All our  films  will be posted there shortly. 

Our current work in research and development is “R.I.P.” (working title) directed by Poppy.   The action revolves around a contentious, community mural commissioned during Covid restrictions in a provincial town.  The message of the mural is mysteriously subverted by graffiti on a regular basis drawing together the competing perspectives and experiences of local residents and tradespeople.  All this is likely to be filmed rather than live performed.   

I continue work on “Age Queer” – or the more likely title - “The Queering of Age”,  inevitably to accommodate the Covid experience.

 

 

 

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