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Andrew Barry: Theatre should teach us how to grow old creatively

Manchester Royal Exchange Theatre’s Elder Company rehearsing Moments That Changed Our World. Above, left to right: performers Brenda Hickey, Glyn Treharpne and Jacquie Long with assistant producer Brogan Campbell (second left). Manchester Royal Exchange Theatre’s Elders Company rehearsing Moments That Changed Our World. Above, left to right: performers Brenda Hickey, Glyn Treharpne and Jacquie Long with assistant producer Brogan Campbell (second left).
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Artistic vitality is not just something for the young. Royal Exchange Elders Company director Andrew Barry says theatre should do more to involve and support older people to tell new, liberating stories about ageing

As the Elders Company actors finish day four of rehearsals for their new show, one of the performers, Christine, turns to me and says: “This is what you don’t get from line dancing.”

When I ask her what she means, Christine elaborates: “The debate, the critical thinking, seeing the world in new ways.” The power of theatre is not just about inspiring the young.

It is time we change the narrative around ageing and theatre is perfectly placed to do it. Too often the media portrays getting older in terms of loss and burden.

It’s true we’re an ageing society: the proportion of the population in the UK aged 65 and over is steadily growing compared to a consistently falling proportion of children. The Office for National Statistics predicts that by 2046, the proportion of people aged 65 and over will comprise nearly a quarter of the population.

We have to tell different stories about ageing and the freedom to be something other than ‘old’

With age can come huge challenges, but the message that you are on the scrapheap with nothing to offer must be challenged. We have to tell different stories about ageing and the freedom to be something other than ‘old’. Being on stage can be incredibly powerful and liberating.

I lead the Elders Company at Manchester’s Royal Exchange Theatre and we are making a show called Moments That Changed Our World. This will be performed in the Studio at the Royal Exchange and will go on a short community tour of venues with older people who might not usually visit our theatre.

The older performers of the Elders Company aren’t trained professionals, but they are artists. I run the room as I would any professional rehearsal room and everyone is focused on the art we are making.

The commitment from the Royal Exchange and the professionals who work with the company means the Elders really push themselves creatively in extraordinary ways.

I’m writing after a rehearsal in which we explored the “moment” of Brenda, one of the company members. Brenda didn’t want to turn 60, she didn’t want to be a stereotypical pensioner. When she realised she could invent a new, creative way to grow older, she revealed the true artistic version of herself that had been hidden for so long.

Our desire not to age is so entrenched, we’re even sniffy about the language of ‘old’ and ‘elders’. Ageing is natural and I don’t believe being old or older should carry such negative connotations, which imply no one wants to get there.

Maybe we just need to re-imagine what old age is and this is exactly what we are doing in the Elders Company. By offering a professional space for older people to be playful and make art, together we are discovering new ways to age creatively.

There have been other benefits too, including for us as an organisation. In her production of [Thornton Wilder’s 1938 play] Our Town, the Royal Exchange’s artistic director Sarah Frankcom wanted to reflect the city we live in. And as such, she was keen to involve the Elders Company in the show.

This was a big step for some of our elders, some of whom were performing for the first time. But the journey they had been on with us meant they were prepared to rise to the challenges of being involved in a professional production. They felt ‘at home’ in our building, in the rehearsal room and on our stage.

Other professional artists relish the opportunity to work with the older creatives. As a leading artistic organisation, the Royal Exchange is well placed to introduce the elders to some of our industry’s leading movement directors, voice coaches, puppeteers and actors.

Director Andrew Barry with performer Brenda Hickey

The Elders Company has worked with writer and performer Testament, director Bryony Shanahan, actor Julie Hesmondhalgh and voice coach Hazel Holder. This helps professionalise the company and offers members new learning experiences, but at the same time it also has an inspiring effect on the professional artists who work with them.

Professional artists are ageing too, and the Elders offer everyone a model for how we might creatively age. They have certainly prompted me to consider how, when and if I might want to retire. Perhaps the language of retirement is unhelpful – it makes us feel like we are stepping back, leaving, when actually this could be a time to learn, engage and flourish.

The Elders are constantly challenging themselves. We often talk in our rehearsals and company sessions about stepping out of our comfort zones. They appear to do this effortlessly, but I know it isn’t always easy for them. Being part of this company has inspired me to challenge myself creatively and work outside of my comfort zone, which is a great place for an artist to be.

It’s also inspiring to see older professional actors pioneering new work. This includes shows being produced by Visible, a collective of older professional artists determined to celebrate and explore ageing through storytelling. Then there was Lost Without Words at the National Theatre, created by Improbable, which presented older actors improvising rather than memorising lines, and Caryl Churchill’s acclaimed (and rather brilliant) production Escaped Alone, which put four women centre stage who are “all at least 70”.

The World Health Organization has launched a global movement, “age-friendly”, to support organisations, groups and individuals working to make their communities good places in which to grow older. A few years ago, I relocated to Manchester, which is an age-friendly city. In my role leading the Elders Company, I have learnt much about Manchester’s engagement with the movement. The city has built on its 2003 Valuing Older People programme and then the Manchester Ageing Strategy, and plans to become the UK’s first age-friendly city region.

This is an excellent way to join up thinking around ageing, and I’m sure we’ll see more cities and regions joining the likes of Manchester, Leeds and Stoke to become age-friendly. We are all growing older, so it isn’t just about shaping an age-friendly city for now, but one for all our futures.

What’s striking about Manchester’s age-friendly strategy is that cultural engagement is placed alongside infrastructure, health and social care. This makes sense when you consider that Age UK’s recent Index of Wellbeing in Later Life placed cultural and creative participation as the number one indicator of well-being, above physical activity and financial considerations such as owning a home.

There is often much focus in our industry on young people – emerging talent, young writers, young directors and young actors – and this is all to the good. The arts have a huge role to play in making sure we start well in life. But creativity has lifelong value and can support us to age well, too.

Moments That Changed Our World opens today (February 23) at the Studio, Royal Exchange Theatre, Manchester, and runs until February 25

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