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Devoted & Disgruntled 12: What Shall We Do About Theatre and the Performing Arts Now?

When I was 40, I was naughty, soon I shall be 50

Rebecca Manson Jones - 16 January 2017

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When I was 40,
I was naughty,
Soon I shall be 50…..

I called this session at D&D yesterday for a few reasons.

Back in 2009, a few women who I looked up to called a session about harnessing the power of the beyond 50s, and in my early 40s as I was, my heart sank a bit.

I thought “Oh God, not another women’s ghetto! I don’t want to be there, - and - I don’t want this to be my thought. Why am I reacting like this?” I’d just landed my dream job so the idea that there might be a downside - another set of barriers to define, create and get over was just not where I wanted to be. I wanted to be operating in a world where it wasn’t age or gender or the intersections (and any others you add to those) that would stop these women getting their work done/on and prized for what it is.

And then over the 2 days, I got to thinking that it might be useful to hear what they had to say and why they felt they needed to call this session (and btw iwas my assumption that this was a group called by women for women correct?). So I went along and I listened. And of course, when you listen and hear and look, you learn. It remains one of the most interesting sessions I’ve ever been to. Be prepared to be surprised.

So one reason for calling this session is that I’m no longer looking up at age 50 from a base camp. Now I’m nearly at the summit of middle age – this year I shall hit what I hope is the at least the mid point of my life (I have no desire to be here for a long time, I want to have a productive, creative, fun and good for the world time). Back then I thought I was at a kind of summit and these women were not allowing themselves to join me there. But the fact of them, had helped me get there. I wanted them to know that too.

This year, I wanted to offer the space to people to contemplate for an hour or so what a creative life means when life, the world, your psyche and your soma are saying – things are different now and maybe that’s ok, things are different now, your story of yourself may be changing.

There are personal more local reasons for me to ask this too: there was a rude awakening from the dream job and I’m still in the process of reinvention, there is the knockout Olympics of the menopause obstacle race to get through, there is in my case an absence of children and therefore grandchildren.

So that was my preamble and of course, what happens is something else:

We talked about how easy/difficult it might be to try and change direction within the arts in middle age. There is a massive story we tell ourselves about it being a young person’s game. We want “dynamic, flexible, people who fit in, emerging work, emerging artists ….” a lot of the time that’s code for young and cheap, whilst we forget that most of the population is now aged over 50. Some people first come to arts when they are in their 50s. Are they emerging?

There are thousands of women making, administrating and producing in arts but when you try and make a move at 50 or get back in, it does seem that societal norms of overlooking the over 50s start to kick in. But now at 50 many of us have young/teenage children, we need to keep working, we need to keep learning and taking on new challenges. As artists, we’re still creative and we have experience but we still may need ways in to finding opportunities – R&D isn’t necessarily any more affordable or quicker just because you’re older. Arguably, all new work is emerging.

We heard from mostly women in their 50s and some under 40 and some men aged 50 - 70 joined us. It was a very supportive, honest and generous conversation.

Some positive suggestions:

• TALK ABOUT IT – I’d admitted to worrying at this a bit in artistic isolation (which can hit any artist at any age – like any artist at any age, talking it out is always better).

• A DANCE A DAY/week – embracing the over 50s community arts opportunities – we are also members of the community – it’s allowed. It’s also brilliant. And freeing apparently (I haven’t tried this) not to be the oldest person in the yoga class, not to be the only one without a buggy or a bump.

• CONFRONTING AGE – our 70 year old has a list of projects to complete. They could take up to 10 years, some may happen, some may not but it’s good to know. With the exception of my Dad who at 86 has just completed a circumnavigation (not sailing himself - on a big train and boat and plane – but nevertheless a big feat of tenacity and creative vision) everyone else I share genes with, and my in-laws, all died young. So yes I may be around at #DandD42 or not. Better get on with it then.

• ACKNOWLEDGE AGE - for women this includes dealing with menopause in all its interesting glory – different for everyone, from hardcore months of irregular and painful bleeding, flushes, skin changes, vaginal dryness, irritability, (I’ve had days when I’m convinced that everyone hates me - & yet be having a good time), crying, migraines or worse migraines and lots of other stuff, lack of energy, memory loss. And not knowing that what is happening is the menopause as weird as that might sound. (see talking about it) Some people say they’re fine through it all – lucky you!
• The men were talking about hips and knees, hearing, back pain.
• Oh and the grey hair – how much it matters and the invisibility it brings with it – in meetings, in queues, on trains, in families. How that is different between the genders. Frankly, I can’t be arsed to be dyeing my hair all the time unless it’s for fun. This is what 49 looks like - in my case. Can we/I be comfortable with that? (I’m always told it’s fashionable right now – but this isn’t a fashion statement, this is my story like my clicky knee and the scar from falling off a horse at 14).

• ACCEPT CREATIVITY CAN BE A CHORE AND A JOY – some great reinforcement. Like any other job, being creative at any age involves getting out of bed and going to work but sometimes the moral courage of putting yourself out there into a world which isn’t always saying YES to your work in the way you imagined it might be by now, is tough.

• So we’re resilient right? We’re also tireder, probably less fit. We have more and other commitments of all kinds.

• As older/mature practitioners, we’re often clearer about how we do what we do, about creating the circumstances we need to get stuff MADE – if not ON.
o We also know it can go wrong.
o We also know and understand why the talent pipeline is fed with the young.
o So we remind ourselves of Matisse winning a new comers prize with his cut outs in his 80s and Ibsen’s best work written in his 50s (he needed the money, had to keep working), that Louise Bourgeois came to prominence in her 70s.
• All of this requires and invites a different personal COURAGE to get started and keep going from when you’re younger.

• MATURE ARTISTS DO F*CK UP – CAN THEY BE FORGIVEN AND ALLOWED BACK IN
The structures we work in make it very difficult for anyone whose star has fallen to rise again (even if it was/wasn’t their fault).

• WITH AGE COMES NOT GIVING A SH*T
More courage may be needed and this can be countered with the fact that often there is less worry about whether other people need to think it’s a good idea. It’s my idea, so I’m going to do it/start it.

• WORKING INTERGENERATIONALLY
With age comes other older people
Which can be brilliant but sometimes it can make it harder to be in contact with wider audiences and the audiences/makers you want to reach and be part of. One solution can be to work in projects which cross generations. The space of the middle age gives the opportunity to share experience and craft with younger people and learn and listen and prep by interacting with older people.

• DO WHAT WE CAN DO
A series of conversations as improv. recorded over 20 years starting when the interlocutors were in their 50s. Physicality may be slowing down but the mind and repartee can still be sharp. The pleasure of a 40 year friendship or collaboration celebrated and documented.

• DEADLINES – we talked without irony about deadlines and for the first time I wondered about the etymology of that word

• PROJECTS WHICH TAKE YEARS, KEEP ON WITH THEM…. There is a heroism that comes with older age, making the work even if it’s not clear if there’ll be a community to receive it – again this goes against the dominant narrative of how and why we must make work in the UK today. Building on the evolution of the long-running project.

• ARTISTIC CAREERS/ LIVES ARE NOT ALWAYS STRAIGHT LINE – An analogy was made with how Human Rights Activism deploys non-linear thinking – I would hazard a guess that most of us in the conversation were non-linear thinkers - however the structures that exist societally and within which our industry sits are linear …. And we also get stuck in our favoured patterns of problem-solving even if the problems we are facing are different. Eg: I’m dealing with working in a new state of evolving mourning for friends and family members, with half an eye always on the fact that my circumnavigating Dad also came back with a medical condition that almost got him chucked off the boat. The next generation of my family all now earn more than I do (how the f*ck did that happen?) etc etc…. I need to teach myself some new tricks!
Before I’d connected these things, I wrote to Matt Hancock to tell him how our careers are not linear (I doubt he’s read it –It might be time to do it again and copy in Darren Henley)
• The Castle Builder - Nevertheless there’s a compulsion to keep making… keep producing, keep creating. Putting things out in the world, even if the world isn’t sure about them, even if you’re not sure about them.
https://www.facebook.com/events/730091357156048/
• Create the circumstances to enable selves to put the work into the world, change the story if need be.

Towards the end of the session we were joined by some new people and conversation became a conversation about maturer life from the perspective of some of the white males in the room. All of whom are grandparents. The generosity of their sharing of their love of their grandchildren and their new status – kicked a rock out of the way for me to look at something properly. These guys were my D&D surprise. I feel lucky to have met them.

Nobody used the word Nifty in the session (thank you)– we don’t need to be nifty, we need to be 50+ naughty and curious and creative but maybe in different non-linear ways.

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