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Age, Privilege, And The Things I Say When I’m Not Thinking

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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.

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.

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.

 

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Interesting take on things. I always assumed that the older age population in certain theaters was more due to the fact that those theaters tend to be expensive and that older folks have more time to attend the theater. Certainly, my parents see shows much more frequently now then they did before they retired.

It's an important point. Older audience members have likely been patronizing theaters for decades-- and when I think about my parents, whom I suspect are not so atypical of their generation of theater goers, they often have a far more expansive (and often edgier) notion of theater than people my age. (Indeed, not only did my parents expose me to Sondheim, but also to Mamet, Pinter, Stoppard, and Barker.)

However, I have to wonder, how much of this issue of both not reaching certain parts of the theatre going community an awareness of a long-standing problem with theater in general and how much of it is an awareness of how pop-culture has become so fractured that specific films and movies are targeted to very specific but fanatical demographic groups and that much contemporary theatre has been following suit.

Thank you, Stephen, for this essay. I would, however, like to offer a word of caution from my 62-year-old perch. Personally, I am uninterested in having my age cohort become another "interest group" begging to have their needs/wants/issues represented on the American stage. Others, of course, may be. But I go to the theatre to enjoy good stories told with high-quality language. I don't care whose stories they are; there are enough of them to go around for me. I like to believe that honest stories told sympathetically and intelligently can strike home with any generation or any ethnic or gender group you care to name. Please, let's let playwrights write the characters they want to write, without undue pressure to write plays containing the appropriate AA/EOE mix. Let's hope they do that well, and then let's hope I can keep making it into the theatre to see them. If older people are represented on the stage, great. If not, I hope I can maintain a heart and a mind open enough to see and hear the stories presented, and take what truth I can from them.

BTW - I thought your tweet was humorous. I'd like to see more young people in the theatres myself. Their perspectives and tastes are interesting when you can get a chance to engage them.

A terrific article: thank you. I'm forwarding it to a friend who runs the local equivalent of the Heyday Players.

Perhaps because I lost my father a couple of years ago, perhaps because I have turned 60, but I look up to find that I am working on two scripts currently that deal with aging and the ramifications of that inevitability in a culture that hasn't quite figured out how to deal with it. I hadn't consciously realized their commonality until reading this.

Too, it's refreshing to read something that doesn't blame us Boomers for all that's wrong with the world. Thanks again.

What a great article, Stephen. Well said. Perhaps because of my age, when I review I tend to note how older characters are depicted in theater, and to my (pleasant) surprise, there have actually been some terrific older parts on DC stages lately. The Velocity of Autumn, 4000 Miles, After the Revolution, and Bell come to mind, and some companies such as Theater J really excel. One of the things I love about theater is that it opens people to conversations and recognitions across all sorts of "identifiers" and "classifiers"--gender, ethnicity, sexuality, etc.--and sometimes age is in the mix too, which can be terrific. Your thoughtful piece keeps that possibility in focus. So thanks!

Thanks so much for a thoughtful foray into aging and theatre. To me, age is simply time written on the body and mind and the accumulation of experiences. It isn't about other people. It's about us. Engaging older adults as vital audience members, as theatre makers, as eager learners about performance and representation is as important and nuanced as engaging young audiences (from myriad cultural and economic backgrounds). The network of senior theaters in this country has grown 10 fold in the last 20 years, revealing a hunger for a theatre community among older adults. But there is so far to go - do actor training programs make older students welcome? Do theaters go to long term care communities as part of community engagement? How are we imagining theatre in an age when memory loss will become a relatively common experience for families? The experience of staging a play inside a care community with Sojourn Theatre in 2011 brought so many of these issues into the bright light of day. www.thepenelopeproject.com

Stephen, thanks for the article. Great observations. I used to be the same way, joke about how I was the youngest person at a play reading or opera or most theatre events, but it quickly turned into me getting on Twitter or Facebook and digitally screaming, "Hey guys! Where are you at?!". It became less funny that I was the youngest and became more asinine that my generation wasn't there.

But, back to your point, I agree and think older generations need a voice in new plays. Not just a sect of community theatre doing plays written 40 - 50 years ago, but actively present within premiere plays. We are so effected by the previous generations and we are already treading on the generation behind us, that I'm a bit tired of seeing new plays with 20-somethings analyzing the world that was made for them but having no representative from the group they are rallying against. I applaud you for having plays with older characters, showcasing your awareness of what's going on around you.

I think some theaters simply don't recognize the older generation in their community and simply don't figure them into programming. Not in a discriminatory fashion, but one of innocent short sighted self-preservation. But it would be good for new play development houses to gauge the older community, see who would be interested in acting or helping out. Starting with workshops and seeing where it goes. No one has stories or eye-opening perspectives like those from older generations. They have everything on us.

Thanks for the read and bringing up the subject!