May 28 2013

Our Age: Our Stage

by Miriam Bernard

Through archival research and interviews with older people, an innovative project- ‘Ages and Stages’ aimed to explore the role the New Vic Theatre has played in the creative life of the people of Stoke-on-Trent and North Staffordshire, past and present. The project also considered how ageing and old age have been portrayed in the theatre’s famous social documentary productions from the 1960s to the 1990s in ways that shed light on the experiences of those in the local community. Findings from the research were drawn together to create a new social documentary performance, ‘Our Age, Our Stage’ and the associated ‘Ages and Stages Exhibition’. Here, Miriam Bernard the Project Lead and Professor of Social Gerontology at Keele University talks about challenges and benefits of going outside the traditional remit of academic communication and the impacts it has had.

To understand the impact of communicating our findings in a production, it is important to first understand the importance of this particular theatre in the community. The Victoria Theatre (now the New Vic) was the first professional company in Britain to perform permanently ‘in the round’ and the theatre has always had a long standing relationship with the people of the Potteries: an area which has undergone considerable change and economic decline and which has been very reliant on its heavy industries such as ceramics, coal and steel. Peter Cheeseman – director for 36 years – established his ‘community based repertory theatre’ in 1962 and intended that it should become rooted in the local area and should draw creatively from its locality. Cheeseman pioneered a distinctive form of ‘social documentary theatre’ which drew on the testimony and experiences of local people, on local history and on contemporary events, to chart the social, economic and political changes that were happening. He produced 11 verbatim musical documentaries, based entirely on interviews and documentary sources, and 5 documentary-dramas. When the theatre moved in 1986 it became Europe’s first purpose built theatre-in-the-round.

Our research programme consisted of three strands. The first of these explored historical representations of ageing in the theatre’s documentaries through materials held in its extensive archives. The second strand consisted of new empirical research focused on the recollections and contemporary experiences of four constituencies of older people: audience members; theatre volunteers; actors and employees of the theatre; and those who had been sources for the documentaries. The third strand of the research was the development of a performance piece, the aim of which was to draw together findings of the archival research and interview material into a new documentary on ageing, creativity and intergenerational relationships. The associated ‘Ages and Stages Exhibition’ also charted and celebrated the theatre’s 50 year history.

So, why theatre?

We were able to use the history of the theatre to structure the narrative of the performance piece and, within that, to address issues of how different generations view each other and explore what growing older is like in contemporary society. The performance follows the intersection of many lives with a particular place and cultural institution over a fifty year period and the dialogue is drawn from the interviews and from the workshops; we also produced composite characters speaking words expressed in the interviews by several different people. The piece also includes extracts heard as voice-overs from the audio-recorded interviews; music; and a specially prepared short film of scenes from the local area.

Using the performance itself to communicate the results from this research for me had four main benefits:

1. The practice element: producing a performance allowed us to communicate in different ways and to different audiences (not just academic) and provokes sensory and emotional responses and conversations. The Q&A part of every performance with the cast, crew and research team also provided a public forum for immediate feedback. The importance here lies in the audience being participatory and not just passive recipients of words on a page: it can sensitise them both intellectually and emotionally to the issues and ideas (the ‘research findings’) we wanted to communicate.

2. The interdisciplinary approach to ageing and creativity: the whole project and the final production was very much about interdisciplinary and partnership working. Big issues like ageing need creative approaches and ways of getting beyond the media headlines to examine and give voice to the lived experiences of real, ordinary older people. The development of the performance and the exhibition brought together young and old; professionals and amateurs; experienced and inexperienced actors; academics and non-academics; researchers and non-researchers; social scientists and humanities scholars, and so on. Importantly for us, it also mirrored the processes, values and ways of working of the original theatre company and how research was turned into theatre for the community.

3. Different types and forms of communication: the production has to be seen as one of a number of ways in which we chose to communicate the results of our research. The project has enabled us to produce different types and forms of communication to suit different audiences including the exhibition, resource packs, and a policy brief, as well as more conventional academic outputs such as conference papers and academic articles. It means we have had to truly consider the question ‘who are our audiences?

4. ‘Passionate scholarship’: working in this way and producing the performance piece and the associated outputs was very much about a commitment to what Meredith Minkler and Martha Holstein have termed ‘passionate scholarship’. It’s the ‘critical’ part of doing critical gerontology and being a critical gerontologist – doing research that is about illuminating ‘ordinary’ people’s lives – not the extraordinary or exceptional and not necessarily rooted in, or focused on, the problems that might accompany ageing and old age. Our choice to work in this way was also about aiming to make a change and contribute something sustainable to the community and to people’s lives.

The risks

Of course with anything branded ‘new’ in academia, especially in the realm of dissemination methods, there are risks that must also be considered. In brief, for us, this included considering:

  • Whose truth were we presenting in the performance? It was obviously impossible to include every piece of testimony or reminiscence so what this means is that what we have chosen to show may be disputed by other members of the community who see the work. Whilst this may be risky, it can also lead to further interesting debate and discussion about what we have chosen to focus on.
  • Who’s affected? The 25 people we worked with were all volunteer participants and many of the older people had never acted in their lives before. In the event that the piece was not well received in a public forum, we had to be aware of just how this might affect participants and not just ourselves as academics and professional theatre makers.
  • Trust. The devising and development was a risky process, requiring trust and faith in colleagues. The final script was compiled by Jill Rezzano (our partner at the New Vic) but in response to the data; team discussions; workshop experiences and responses of participants. But, ultimately, one person has to compile it – it cannot be compiled by committee –so it’s also about relinquishing control over that process which, as an academic, can sometimes be very hard to do.
  •  For REF or not for REF? Are these legitimate outputs for REF? Does a DVD and script as a way of presenting research findings count? They may well do for Humanities colleagues but perhaps less so for Social Scientists – especially if one is being submitted under certain units of assessment. And, does it matter?
  • Fads and Fashions. As a concluding caution, there is also the risk that what we have done may simply be seen as ‘flavour of the month’ and, in some ways, not ‘real research’. However, the key for us as a team has been to remain true to the beliefs and values that brought us together, and which has included a commitment to rigorous and sound research alongside creative practice with, and for, the older and younger people we work with.

‘Ages and Stages: The Place of Theatre in Representations and Recollections of Ageing’ was a partnership between Keele University and the New Vic Theatre in Stoke-on-Trent. Funded under the national New Dynamics of Ageing programme, the main project ran for three years, beginning in 2009. The team have since secured a year’s ‘follow-on’ funding from the Arts and Humanities Research Council for a programme of knowledge translation activities.

The ‘Ages and Stages’ website has details of the project and of the follow-on work, as well as an extract from ‘Our Age, Our Stage’. See: www.keele.ac.uk/agesandstages

A free ‘Ages and Stages’ resource pack (containing a souvenir brochure; DVD and script of ‘Our Age, Our Stage’; project information sheets; and a policy brief) is available from Tracey Harrison, Project Administrator by emailing t.l.harrison@keele.ac.uk

 

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