The time of our life

A presentation at Theatre 2016

Friday 13th May at Lyric Theatre, London

Kate Organ

 Defining Age

I suppose we should  define older…… the quick answer is anyone that it is anyone who is 10 years older than you are.

The slightly more complicated answer is:

The UN defines it as 60+

Most developed countries make it 65 and link older age with retirement from paid work – tho this is of course now changing.

In London you can get a free bus pass at 60

In Birmingham I’ll have to wait til I’m 66.

In Wales Arriva trains had a £10 deal for the over 55’s to go anywhere on their trains

At the Arcola Theatre I can join an over 50s group

At the West Yorkshire Playhouse they have had a long-standing programme for over 55s ( so George Clooney can join that one) .  Salisbury Playhouse have an over 55s drama group and an over 60s dance group.

Baring Foundation recently commissioned 13 new works of art by professional artists over 70.

Research reveals a distinct connection between biological ageing processes and social economic class. So you might be old at 60 in Dudley and in your prime in Knightsbridge

50 became the new 40, 70 is the new 60 and eventually 100 will be the new 80.

UK Population STATS

10 million over 65

19 million by 2050

3 million over 80

8 million by 2050

The proportion of “retirement age to working age” is narrowing and so it will be necessary to persuade people to work for longer, delay their pensions, and focus on how to maintain a happier healthier population who will routinely live to be centenarians.

Age is not simply a physiological state it is highly socially constructed –your age is in your own head as well as everyone else’s.

Because of increased longevity, a bulge in the older population – we are busy re-constructing what it means personally and socially to be old and of course the arts have a very big part to play in helping us understand that and the spaces for art are important places to do that together.

Today’s over 60s and their relationship to the last 50 years of theatre.

The current over 60s grew up in a period of expansion of access to opportunities to encounter the theatre arts:

1961-1976 saw huge expansion of access to theatre – Housing the Arts built civic theatres

1960 – 80s huge expansion of TiE (Theatre in Education)

A Youth Theatre movement began and has stayed with us.

Here’s me in 1969 in my first youth theatre – run by the Essex County Education Authority. Many local authorities had summer schools and youth theatres for all state school pupils.

Thanks to pioneers such as Rose Bruford, Dorothy Heathcote and co  – Drama became a medium  for teaching and learning as well as a subject in its own right in schools and universities.

Several University Drama departments have celebrated their 50th anniversaries in recent years after the expansion of Higher Education  in the 1960s.

As arts funding expanded and decentralised in the 1970s and 80s, so did its stipulations about priorities and strategies – but one thing remained constant and has done to this day – the priority to engage young people. 

By the mid- nineties, I had worked as a theatre maker – with old and young –  sometimes in separated groups and sometimes together.

And I began my period of “national service” as a drama officer in the funding system – where  I saw how the implementation of this priority for young people – admirable and important as it was and is – was in danger of  making it institutionally acceptable to belittle and mock theatres that catered for older audiences, fostering  a casual dismissal of older people and their contribution to the theatre and the communities it served.

I once received an assessment report from an advisor to the Arts Council who dismissed the value of an event by describing its audience as “elderly people accompanied by their parents”.

When researching possible themes  for Baring Foundation’s funding– I asked a theatre we had funded for their work with refugees and asylum seekers – given the quality and thriving nature of their youth theatre, “do you ever work with older people?”  and they candidly said –“ we tried once but they were very annoying! “

Inspiring Practice

I was researching themes for The Baring Foundation’s arts programme and amongst others looked at was there a need and would it be useful if we focused on arts and older people.

Looking further and closer at the work that was being developed across the country I felt that the times were right for support and attention to be paid to the engagement of the older generations in arts practice.

I met artists engaging with and coming from the generations of the boomer bulge in the population, emerging as a force both in numbers as well as attitude. This was a generation of theatre goers and makers who pioneered all kinds of challenges to the mainstream theatre forms , voices and contexts.

I met many artists who, alongside their work as artists in their own right, had worked extensively with young people– after all – there’d been a lot of resources and infrastructure for such work for many years – be it through Youth Music – Education and youth programmes in theatres. Creative Partnerships., Sing Up, Shakespeare in Schools, etc. and so we had a very strong workforce of people skilled in collaborations and the creation of original works in many contexts – often bringing unheard voices to the stage and extending the forms and contexts for theatre.

Many that had begun to collaborate with older people were finding it an inspiring development of their work   to collaborate with mature lives and attitudes, dramatizing extraordinary stories and rich ideas for the creation of theatre in original forms.

I had worried about the field of work being entirely and mechanistically about health issues. dance to prevent falls, singing to overcome Parkinsons tremor, storytelling to combat memory loss and dementia symptoms……  Many projects were required to prove their value in health and medical terms only – to gain funding as the arts funding sector seemed to place little value in work with older people – but as ever, the methods and art produced by artists were imaginative, engaging and powerful, beyond the narrow concerns of most clinical commissioning.

I met a group of elders working with David ( Slater) at Entelechy and asked them if their involvement in making theatre had any connections to their state of health –  they looked baffled and replied that attending a rehearsal took precedence over doctors’ appointments .

I saw the work of Re-Live in Cardiff, creating powerful testimony theatre with elders prepared to voice their experiences on age and sex and death and sing angry and hilarious songs about being ignored or patronised. One entitled “Why don’t you just shoot us now!”

I saw projects which told the truths of dementia, and demonstrated the place of arts in making living with dementia meaningful and at times even pleasurable; I saw theatres addressing the needs of audiences with dementia and I saw how theatre can work and be transforming in care homes and at end of life.

I saw works that simply made growing old look like a great lark and I saw many things that made me think quite differently from my own preconceptions of ageing.

I saw professional artists return to performance after 30 years of being off stage.

I learnt how the New Vic’s extensive work with in its Ages and Stages programme provide crucial research for Gerontologists at Keele University and how it gathered active volunteers into many aspects of its own programme, including offering new repertoire options and strong connections to the community. I learnt how they learnt that for many families it is the older generations  – grandparents who are most  likely to introduce children to theatre going – I learnt how in some theatres youth theatre members will fight to be part of an inter-generational  show – and do not run a mile at the sight of grey hair and a hip replacement – we are not as keen on being “segmented” as marketing would have us believe..

Baring Foundation

The Barings’ interest in this work drew all the arts councils together to look more seriously at older people within their “equalities” agendas. Each of them partnered the Foundation in different programmes  – Scotland established the Luminate festival, N Ireland has run a dedicated arts funding programme ….Wales has a programme of artist residencies in Care Homes.  England will, I understand, be announcing a new programme soon, inspired by the forays made by several theatres into welcoming older people to their venues – not least the work that David has been involved in at The Albany, Deptford.  All the 4 arts councils have reported that from these new (for them) initiatives, applications have increased to represent and connect with the ageing society, making it a natural part of theatre’s role as a part of how we make sense of and enjoy our world.

The Foundation has been instrumental in bringing practitioners together from across UK and Europe and beyond…. A partnership with the Winston Churchill Memorial Trust enabled 40 arts practitioners to explore arts practice by and with older people abroad, while the British Council have also enabled people to learn from Japan – whose ageing population stats are about 20 years ahead of our own.

And disseminating some of the learning through publication and conferences has been important too. Putting our mouth where our money is – I call it.  ( I believe there’ll be a conference at the end of this year at West Yorkshire Playhouse –specifically about older people’s theatre-  and maybe a visit from the Japanese Company formed by Ninagawa, who inspired David Slater and me last  year when we visited his company in Tokyo and whose death we are sad to say is announced today.

I have drawn together examples of some of the different ways in which theatres are responding to the Ageing Society in this pamphlet – as I realised that many projects were happening without any knowledge of each other’s practice.  My research uncovered all kinds of theatre forms – from stand up comedy by residents in care homes, to street theatre, mainhouse productions, immersive theatre in care homes, mob-flashing in Belfast, circus, campaigning agit-prop, classics re-cast for performance by elders, and powerful testimony theatre.

Copies of the booklet are here and online at

As Anne Torreggiani showed us in her stats -there is a big and growing audience of older people –  a significant population of people that we might fail to listen to or represent in all its diversity if we simply ignore it, assume that an ageing audience only wants nostalgia and musicals.

Rather than answer the question of this session, I prefer to challenge those thinking about the next session – and ask how are we going to make sure that the young and the old are not separated, patronised and stereotyped  in everything they do – and how can we ensure that old age isn’t dismissed or made invisible? .  – this is about all of us.

Kate Organ













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