A short while ago, I was in the audience for a play and noticed that I was distinctly younger than many of those around me. It didn’t come as a surprise. This was a theater with a historically older audience base.
Being the wit I am, I pulled out my phone and tweeted something akin to “I’m singlehandedly lowering the average age of the audience by a decade.”
It got a few laughs, a couple questions about what theater I was in, and then went where pithy tweets go to die.
I immediately felt bad about it.
I felt worse when the pair of elderly women next to me began poring over the dramaturgy notes, discussing what kind of show they were in for, and talking about previous plays they’ve seen. I felt worse still when one of the women’s hearing-impaired devices began screeching because of interference from her hearing aid, and she was asked to turn it off by the usher. Even though we were in the second row, she had to spend the next hour and a half hearing only every third word. With a mother who relies on hearing aids, I know how frustrating this can be.
But I didn’t need that woman to make me feel bad. Because I should have known better.
I was raised by members of a much older generation. Both of my parents worked and I spent a lot of time with my grandparents and my great-aunt. The result, other than what my wife tells me is a taste in furniture that resembles that of an older generation, is that I grew up with the elderly a fixed part of my life. I was comfortable from a young age talking with them, and have grown up with a sharp awareness of how they’re treated.
I’ve recently noticed how that’s carried over into my work. Many of my plays feature at least one character past retirement years struggling with issues specific to that age group.
A few years ago I was invited to write for Round House Theatre’s Heyday Players—a group of adults over 50 years old (many substantially over) who are eager to participate in theater and who take a variety of theater-related classes at Round House’s Education Center. Each year they stage readings of original 10-minute plays, bringing the performances to hospices and retirement homes to perform for other seniors who have few opportunities to experience theater.
That first year I participated—writing one of the half-dozen plays the group performed—I was a little intimidated. I’d written for students, but never seniors. I wasn’t sure what they were looking for and I didn’t want to disappoint. I was asked to keep the action of the play minimal (this was staged, and many performers’ mobility was limited), keep in mind there would be very little looking up from the script, and stay away from the dark topics of death and dying. These were people who dealt with that enough on a daily basis.
The result was a decent play for them and a fantastic experience for me. I’ve written four plays for the Heyday Players since, and each time I’ve found them to be an incredibly enthusiastic and engaged group who really care about the work they’re doing. For those who see a lot of theater in the DC area, you’d probably recognize a lot of the Heyday Players. Many of them volunteer as ushers.
A while back, a fellow theater artist who has considerable experience working with seniors told me that it’s a lot like working with inner-city middle school students. They’re members of an underserved population, they know it, and they’re not afraid to speak out about it.
That comment really clicked for me. Because in theater we talk about underserved populations a lot. We talk about underrepresentation on stage, in the audience, in the staff, and in the artists creating work. But when’s the last time you heard someone say “There aren’t enough older characters on stage” or ask, “Are we reaching the elderly members of our community with our work?”
That’s not to say that no theaters anywhere take this age group into consideration. And cartoonist Mark Krause has been asking some provocative questions about how age affects playwrights in his 10,000 P strip. But, in general, when the conversation turns to people of post-retirement years, it’s usually about how they’re hogging the resources, how they’re controlling the funding, or how their tastes are dictating the seasons.
We picture the funders who hold the purse strings of major theaters and we envision mink stoles and snow-white hair. If none of them are around to hear, sometimes we call them “blue-hairs.”
So many of our conversations create a dichotomy between old and young and make it synonymous with the privileged and the underprivileged. Maybe it’s because so many classic plays are peopled with stock characters, like those seen in Commedia dell’arte plays. In Commedia, when you glimpse the bent back and long beard of Pantalone, you know he’s the one the young lovers are going to have to defeat in order to gain their happiness.
The reality is that the vast majority of seniors—even the ones you see in theater audiences—are living on very fixed incomes. In this way, they have quite a bit in common with recent college graduates.
They are also the ones who are the least physically and financially able to participate in the arts community. And yet they still come to shows. They still volunteer as ushers for free tickets to plays they wouldn’t otherwise be able to afford.
All of this is to demonstrate why I should have known better when I tweeted that comment. It implied that an audience filled with people of retirement age was worth less than a younger audience. More pointedly, it intimated that the age of the audience was a commentary on the theater and the work they program—and that if their work was drawing an older crowd, it must be somehow lesser.
This post will, I hope, be a reminder to myself to think more carefully before speaking (or tweeting), and to think more deeply about age, about privilege, and about how those topics intersect. Or how they are grievously disconnected.
Because some day, if all goes well, I’ll have the failing eyesight, the bent back and the white hair. And I’ll have a continuing love of theater, which I look forward to taking an active part in for as long as I am able.