Elder and Younger: Can we talk to each other?

Convener(s): Matilda Leyser

Participants: Annie Rigby, Lucy Wilkinson, Nicky Peto, Jen Lunn, William Hahn, Alyn Glyndaf, Angela Clerkin, Barry Robson, Murrida Hayes, Stella Duffy. 

Summary of discussion, conclusions and/or recommendations:

Why this topic?

Even though right now I (Matilda) am neither an ‘elder’ or a ‘younger’ but a ‘somewhere-in-between-er’ this is an issue I have always felt passionate about. Elders – those who have gone before me – have had a huge role in my life both personally and professionally. Sometimes I have almost felt ashamed of these relationships because close intergenerational relationships/ friendships are not, in my experience, widespread – I’m meant to be close with those my own age not those above or below me on the age spectrum. I’ve felt that I was meant to rebel against my elders not respect them!

Our discussion that followed:

Annie described a project run by Quarantine theatre between older women and teenagers. Contrary to expectation the younger girls were not rebellious or bolshy but were rather in awe of the older women. The younger women were bound, constricted by their need to be cool, and the elder women were much freer to play and take risks.

This prompted a discussion about cross generational theatre. I talked about a dance piece I was in at The QEH on the South Bank with a cast ranging from 7 to 70. Because of the age diversity, despite being a professional production, it was seen as a community piece. The only context in which people of different ages can appear on the same stage without getting this label is in ‘Oliver’ in the West End.

Many companies get together at college – so they are formed of people of the same age. How can we create more opportunities for people of different ages to collaborate?

Jen described her difficult experience of directing a man much older than herself in King Lear – used to a different kind of theatre practice and demanding a certain kind of treatment. There was fear present on both sides about working with someone of a different age. 

How to develop a culture in which people of all ages are willing to keep learning, as opposed to the attitude of: ‘I’ve done my training as an actor and that’s that’. 

Differentiating between two different issues that stem from this topic:

  • Creating cross generational work.
  • Furthering the dialogue between artist of different ages and generations e.g. mentoring schemes.

Annie described a project in which there were two groups of people – one of 7 yr olds, one of 34 yr olds.

They were both asked: What are you allowed to do at 7 that you are not allowed to do at 34? And vice versa.

Also the elder group were asked: what would you worry about if you were 7?, and the 7 year olds asked what they would worry about at 34.

The different perspectives revealed were funny, touching and sometimes surprising – the two groups found the others perception of them often hilarious!

We talked about the moment, as a child, when you realize that adults don’t know everything and that your parents are just people like everyone else, and that you have a secret life all of your own that they can’t know.

Are changes and difficulties between people of different ages less to do with age itself than the cultural changes that have taken place between one generation and another?

Jen described working in cultures that have very defined ideas about different age roles. She had a hard time working with a Nigerian group in which the elders used the work as an opportunity to enforce certain values, a soap box for their disciplinarian attitudes towards youth. Annie described a similar experience but also cultures in which age and art are tied in together in an affirming way: different dances being ascribed to different ages as a mark of that stage in the life cycle.

We talked then about how our culture, in contrast to the Nigerian one described, did not venerate the elderly but revered youthfulness, at the same time as also judging and policing the young.

We talked about how to find ways of bringing people of different ages together in a working environment and again talked about ‘Oliver’/ West End shows as the only obvious model on a professional level. In this context there was a question however as to whether the children involved in that really felt part of the community/ creative process as they are hired very much as a child and not as an actor or individual.

I spoke about how experience age as a kind of ‘hidden label’. It is everywhere – used as a label so frequently and in so many contexts that it becomes invisible. We don’t see it’s labeling effect as it is so universally visible.

Discussed age discrimination: the assumptions that people of a certain age all have the same needs.

Annie said to read: ‘Memories of my Melancholy Whore’ by Gabriel Garcia Marquez – a love story between a very old man and a young girl and we touched on how this is such a huge taboo.

I mentioned the film ‘Harold and Maud’, a love story also between an old woman and a young man.

Stella expressed her fears about a project in the future in which she will have to direct two actors who are older than herself and have more experience than her. She talked about her fears both around not feeling she has anything to teach them but also that what she does have to teach them – i.e. her working practice – may be unacceptable to them. There is a fascination and a fear about working in different ways and about traditional theatre practices.

I talked about working with Corinne Redgrave at The Globe and how his presence in the company had a very positive, stabilizing and powerful effect – e.g. we took naps after lunch!

It was mentioned how the rep system used to automatically mean that younger and elder artists rubbed shoulders.

We talked about age as a form of self-image/ self-labeling.

Annie described how when her grandfather died she felt as though she had moved up a generation and now she had to buy a suit and grow up!

Stella described having the generation above her die off, so that she and her cousins/ siblings are now ‘the top’ of the line and how scary that feels and strange.

Angela described an experience of working in a workshop in which she had to play the role of the ‘older woman’. She talked about how this was bestowed on her so that she found herself playing the part of ‘the difficult older actress’. She was meant to play a mother and the director (younger than her) wanted to age the mother upwards so that she was housebound, de-sexualized, arthritic etc. and she felt so outraged at having her power taken away like this that she found herself turning into the ‘diva’ that she had seen in women older than her whom she had worked alongside before.

We talked about how, as a small woman, you could only play roles either as a young woman, or as a granny, but nothing in between!

We discussed what age you feel inside – older or younger than your biological age? 6, 26, 57? Or a mixture of two? Are you a cross generational piece inside?!