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.