Ages and Stages

The place of theatre in representations and recollections of ageing

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Working from within a critical gerontology perspective, this interdisciplinary research project aims to develop a sophisticated understanding of changing artistic and social representations of ageing and old age, and their interconnections with the performing arts and the local community in the Potteries, North Staffordshire.

The project will employ a mixed method approach organised around three interrelated and complementary strands: Strand 1 explores historical representations of ageing through detailed literary and cultural analyses of materials held in the New Victoria Theatre Archive. Strand 2 focuses on recollections and contemporary representations of ageing through qualitative interview work with four groups of people who are now old and were: (i) sources for the Vic's ground-breaking social documentaries; (ii) volunteers with the theatre; (iii) audience members throughout their lives; (iv) actors and others who made their lives in the area and continue to be part of the local community.

Material drawn from Strands 1 and 2 will then be used in Strand 3 to work with the Youth Theatre and older people to create a 'new' social documentary performance and exhibition, and evaluate the associated educational materials and activities which will also be produced.

*This project is linked to a Canadian Research Project funded by CIHR-IA (link)

Investigator(s)

Miriam Bernard, Keele University

Team

  • Lucy Munro, Keele University
  • David Amigoni, Keele University
  • Mike Murray, Keele University
  • Jill Rezzano, the New Vic Theatre

Partners and Collaborators:

  • New Vic Theatre, Newcastle-under-Lyme
  • the Victoria Theatre Archive, Staffordshire University
  • the Beth Johnson Foundation/Centre for Intergenerational Practice
  • Stoke-on-Trent Primary Care Trust

Contact details

Miriam Bernard

Background

Contemporary gerontology has highlighted the value of engaging older people in a variety of artistic activities, and the importance of the arts in constructing, perpetuating and challenging models and stereotypes of older people and the ageing process. Simultaneously, literary and cultural scholars have been increasingly interested in representations of ageing and the artistic output of older people although, to date, there have been few UK studies that have brought these areas of scholarly enquiry together. The theatre is a particularly fruitful context for such investigations since it has historically been a cultural arena in which older people are particularly active participants, as audience members, employees and volunteers.

The location for this project is the Potteries, North Staffordshire: an area with a long history of heavy industry (ceramics, coal and steel) that, over the past fifty years, has undergone considerable social and economic change and decline. Local cultural institutions have both reflected and reconstructed these changes. In particular, the award-winning New Victoria Theatre pioneered a distinctive form of ‘social documentary theatre’ under artistic director Peter Cheeseman. These documentaries chart social, economic and political changes in the Potteries, reflect the community’s self-image at various points in recent history, and illustrate the roles and positions of different generations within the community.

Aims/objectives

Through the lens of older people’s recollections and involvements in a particular place (The Potteries), linked with a particular artistic institution and its ground-breaking social documentary work (the New Victoria Theatre), and from the 1960s to the present day, we aim to explore how people, place and theatre come together to co-construct, represent and reflect on ageing and old age within the continuing struggles of this unique industrial community. Specifically the project asks:

  1. How has age and ageing been constructed, represented and understood in the Victoria Theatre’s social documentaries from the 1960s to the present day?

  2. How have local older people been involved in the Victoria Theatre as a cultural institution since its creation; what part has it played in constructing individual and community identities; and what role has it had in creating and preserving community memory?

  3. What is the relationship between older people’s involvement in the theatre (as sources for the social documentaries; as volunteers; as ‘actors’; as audience members), and continuing social engagement in later life?

  4. What are the practical and policy implications for involving the theatre, and the arts in general, in promoting active ageing and intergenerational understanding?

Design

The project will run from October 2009 to July 2012. It will employ a mixed method approach organised around three interrelated and complementary strands: Representation, Recollection and Performance. Strand 1 explores historical representations of ageing through detailed literary and cultural analyses of materials held in the New Victoria Theatre Archive. Strand 2 focuses on recollections and contemporary representations of ageing through qualitative interview work with four groups of people who are now old and were: (i) sources for the Vic's ground-breaking social documentaries; (ii) volunteers with the theatre; (iii) audience members throughout their lives; (iv) actors and others who made their lives in the area and continue to be part of the local community. Material drawn from Strands 1 and 2 will then be used in Strand 3 to work with the Youth Theatre and older people to create a 'new' social documentary performance. The performance, together with an exhibition and a range of associated educational materials and outreach activities, will also be evaluated.

Outcomes

Supported by an Advisory Group, this project is designed to have practical, cultural and scholarly outcomes and outputs addressed to different, and overlapping, audiences. These will include:

  • A new social documentary performance and associated exhibition designed to stimulate ongoing community and academic debate and discussion about the ‘new dynamics of ageing’.
  • A range of innovative materials and associated workshops for practitioners, primary and secondary school teachers, and other individuals and organisations wanting to engage in similar work.
  • Policy guidance/policy briefs and policy workshops targeted at those responsible for local, regional and national policy-making initiatives designed to improve the quality of older people’s lives and enhance community cohesion.
  • Contributions to both disciplinary and interdisciplinary knowledge in relation to theory, methodology and the substantive issues addressed by the research.
  • A major international, interdisciplinary conference on the theme of ‘Theatre, Ageing and Community Memory’, to take place towards the end of the final year.
  • The training of postgraduate and postdoctoral scholars in interdisciplinary and collaborative ageing research.

Policy implications

1. Key policy and/or practice implications of the research

The project will be of interest and benefit to a range of individuals, groups and organisations. We anticipate that it will have potential policy and/or practice impacts on:

  • Older people;
  • Professionals working with older and younger people in various settings;
  • Policy-makers working at local, regional and national levels and in voluntary agencies;
  • The academic community.

Implications for Older People

Older people in the Potteries, as well as those living in communities which have undergone similar social, industrial and economic changes over the last 40-50 years, will potentially be impacted by the project in the following ways:

  • Through the provision of detailed information about the meanings such cultural involvement has for older people’s identity and for their continuing social engagement in later life.
  • Through highlighting both the aids and the obstacles to participation and providing pointers for how ‘active ageing’ might be better supported and facilitated.
  • Through bringing local older and younger people together to potentially enhance understanding between the generations.

Implications for Professionals

In similar ways, the project will also be of benefit to a range of professionals who currently work either with older or younger people in community arts, in educational settings, social care arenas and health promotion, and/or who might wish to explore the scope for intergenerational arts-based activities. This will include:

  • Indicators and recommendations for others wishing to pursue similar work in other communities.
  • Provision of a range of innovative materials and associated workshops for practitioners, primary and secondary school teachers, and other individuals and organisations wanting to engage in similar work.
  • Sound research evidence on which to base practice decisions.

Implications for Policy-makers

The project will yield research evidence of use for policy makers working at local, regional and national levels, and in voluntary agencies. This will include:

  • Knowledge about the role that the arts and the involvement of older people has had and might have, in helping build cohesive communities and combating social exclusion.
  • Awareness raising of the issues involved in working with older and younger people in ways that promote, rather than inhibit, intergenerational understanding.
  • Feeding into/informing current local strategies aimed at the physical and cultural regeneration of the Potteries, and the development of ageing initiatives such as the city's 10-year plan for ‘Ageing Well Living Well’, its ‘Healthy City’ initiative and the county’s ‘Ageing with Opportunity’ strategy.

Implications for the academic community

Through its innovative interdisciplinary methodological approach combining archival, empirical and action research, the project should be of interest to colleagues working in both the Humanities and the Social Sciences in that it will potentially:

  • Generate new knowledge about the ways in which representations and discourses of ageing are embedded within changing social and cultural circumstances.
  • Act as a model for future interdisciplinary studies and help towards the creation of a new generation of skilled interdisciplinary researchers in ageing.

2. Key non-academic user groups that will be targeted

  • Older people in the Potteries
  • Professionals who currently work either with older and/or younger people in community arts, in educational settings, social care arenas and health promotion.
  • Charities and other voluntary organisations representing older and younger people.
  • Educators and trainers of community arts, educational, and health and social care professionals.

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