Last night I caught ‘Imagine’ on BBC iPlayer. It was about The Company of Elders, a dance troupe who rehearse and regularly perform at Sadler’s Wells. The unusual thing about the troupe is their age – ranging from 62 to 85 years of age, and totalling over 2000 years between the 25 of them – they challenge the norm of youth, beauty and flexibility that proliferates dance. The documentary was extraordinary, and I was particularly struck by the notion of experience – the way that a full life and a body etched with experience made the movements performed by the company so much richer and more resonant.
I had the privilege to work with a group of people over fifty in a recent participatory arts programme initiated by Newark and Sherwood District Council. The idea of the programme was simple: to redress the balance between provision for younger and older people. Children and young people have been hot on the poitical agenda for quite some time, and there’s evidence around every corner of high quality, rich and inspiring arts activity for young people. In Newark and Sherwood, the Arts Team realised that what they offered to older people was not a patch on what they were offering elsewhere, and decided to do something about it. TWP were contracted to deliver a strand of the programme called ‘writing for theatre’, and we brought on board the estimable Noel Greig and Philip Osment to lead our group on a journey through playwriting.
The project’s success was beyond the wildest dreams of the Arts Team, and was and incredible eye-opener for me. It was astonishing just how much energy and vitality the participants brought to the group, and to their work, and their willingness to be creative, try new things and experiment was at odds with silly proverbs about old dogs and grandmas. But those proverbs concentrate on teaching, and the most heartening outcome of the project was the group’s determination to keep meeting and developing under their own steam when the programme ended. The group meet monthly at Newark Palace Theatre, and they are a testament to the empowering effects that a creative challenge can have.
Sadly, much of this exciting work remains invisible, and there’s a leap of gargantuan proportion between high quality, engaging arts provision (with all its associated physical and mental health benefits) and older people having access to development opportunities that take them seriously as writers, artists and performers. It’s not just a lack of opportunities to get involved and undertake a development journey that afflicts the over-fifties, it’s also an insignificant presence on stage in the way of characters, as Sir Ian McKellan points out in an article in The Stage.
With a rapidly ageing population, that in the main is benefiting from improved health and well-being and enjoying active retirement, the balance will soon tip, and no doubt the original generation will make their voices heard once again. A question for development organisations like us is how to embrace age, experience and wisdom without getting caught up in reminiscence and recollection: how do we open up the remarkable lens of experience to expose the here and now?