We live in a time in which we daily face the dictates of the ‘cult of youth’, focused on perpetual rejuvenation and always seductive youthfulness. This is also reflected on the theatre stages throughout Europe. On the other hand modern society is rightly called the society of the ‘elderly’. Our theatres are filled with viewers most often over sixty years old. Due to the complexity of this issue alone, which is surely predominant in the society in which we live, and about which we rarely or hardly ever speak, we decided upon the project “The Art of Ageing”. With this theatre project we wanted not only to question the ways in which we age but also, at this time, to highlight the importance of theatres as places where we can still pose some of the essential questions which we encounter every day.
About the author
Heidi Wiley is project manager of The Art of Ageing, a project that is supported by the European Commission. She is also General Secretary of the European Theatre Convention, Paris.
This article is based on ‘The Art of Ageing – Bringing the burning issue of global demographic change to Europe’s stages. A documentary by the European Theatre Convention’ and was adapted for Gerõn by Joost van Vliet.
The two-year international artistic project, which was initiated by the European Theatre Convention in cooperation with eight theatres, brings the burning issue of global demographic change to Europe’s stages.
The clock is ticking; Strawberry orphans; Fen fires and, finally, I’m afraid that we know each other now. Four new theatre plays, five new theatre productions. Multilingual, based on investigative artistic research and collaborative theatre-making in Europe, created in Germany, Slovakia, Croatia and Romania. They couldn’t be more different from each other, yet they all have one thing in common: they are reflections on and positions towards the ‘The Art of Ageing’.
When we first started to discuss the ideas in 2012 during the European Year of Active Ageing, our explicit desire was to add an artistic dimension to the public discourse and encourage a debate between artists, scientists, political and economic stakeholders as well as theatre audiences about the demographic challenges facing younger and older generations alike. Our aim was to develop new formats for European theatre suitable for exploring the vast topic from a sociological, historical, economic, physiological, philosophical and political perspective and through the creative art of theatre.
Which new artistic forms of expression and which skills do we need in order to join forces, learn from each other within Europe’s public theatre sector and together tackle the challenging realities of our ageing society? Which stories can be told in today’s theatres to reflect the effects of ageing in the twenty-first century?
During the artistic European journey we embarked on as part of our efforts to foster engagement with an ageing audience, we looked for new ways to encourage people from all generations to actively take part in society. The plays tell the stories of how people age in Europe, how their lives and conditions for growing older are intertwined as part of our global economic and shared European political system.
The clock is ticking
This play explores the political implications of Active Ageing. The play is performed by The Romanian National theatre of Timisoara and The German State Theatre of Karlsruhe. The Romanian dramatist Peca Stefan conducted research in both countries to create his virtuoso comedy featuring four actors, two Germans and two Romanians. What was life like for older people in the past? What will happen in a society when the majority of the population is elderly? And when will the dream of eternal youth come true for the lucky few with the help of modern medicine? There are two contradictory forces currently at work in Europe: its young population continues to shrink and thus lose political sway, while the growing elderly population pursues its own interests and takes measures to ensure the preservation of its standard of living. All these questions are extremely serious, but they are treated in a playful manner. The playwright uses the stage as a platform for intergenerational dialogue, no set texts were written and as a result every performance becomes a premiere. The clock is ticking invites the public to serve as voters, regardless of age, to decide as a group the best way to spend the 60 minutes of the play’s running time.
Strawberry Orphans, a journey to a lost generation
Strawberry Orphans is performed by the German State Theatre of Braunschweig and the Romanian National Theatre of Craiova and deals with the generation of children in Eastern Europe whose parents have left the country in order to find employment in countries like Spain, Italy, Greece or Germany. These parents are known as ‘strawberryists’ in Romania, regardless of whether they left to help with harvests or perform another kind of seasonal labour, or whether they work as health care aides for the elderly or infirm. Whenever the parents work abroad, it is the children who are left behind, often with their grandparents. Here is a fragment of a dialogue:
I don’t feel like singing, I don’t feel like anything, anymore.
The biggest wish would be them to find work and them to be in the country, to come in the evening to their children. That would be the biggest wish.
And mine would be, but I have to think also of them, to die at last.
For me it would be better, I’m 81 years old and I can’t walk anymore. I don’t want to see anymore how the children struggle.
And if they find work, I’d like to die right away, maybe I would die with my heart at peace, ‘cause they wouldn’t suffer anymore. Maybe I wouldn’t know, if I died. But what shall I do?
My husband, there are 21 years since he died. And I stayed behind, to take care of all…..
Projects like Strawberry orphans are necessary, because they remind us not to become used to a tough situation, even if it has been going on for such a long time that we barely notice it anymore. Habit leads to negligence, forgetfulness and indifference. The theatre must take on a social role as well, like any of the arts, which is the main importance of thisperformance.
This play probes the history of two European nations, Georgia and Germany, that couldn’t be more different. The starting point is this history along with the real-life issues dominant in each country, both on the political level and in how they affect the lives of ordinary citizens. The main focus is on two female protagonists who grew up in very different societies. Now senior citizens, their paths cross as the esteemed jurist from the West becomes dependent on a home health care aide, who in her past life was a well-known musician in the East. During rehearsals in Germany and Slovakia, a team of Slovakian and German actors and theatre makers considered both the real history of the two countries as well as the fictional biographies of the two characters to create a moving, bilingual theatrical event.
I’m afraid that we know each other now
This play raises the question: is it even possible to live without a history? To exist exclusively in the here and now? Both of these things – remembering and forgetting – seem to serve some essential human need. “Remembering everything is like a disease. You must forget in order to live”, says one of the characters in the play. What does this mean for the art of ageing? What are the limits of language? How can you live a meaningful life? Director Miriam Horwitz, who worked in close collaboration with the playwright Ivor Martinić states: “We took a very theoretical approach to finding the topic that best described ageing and our view thereof: memory. Remembering is part and parcel of our identity: it shapes us, writing a history that allows us to situate ourselves in the world and at the same time lets us redesign our future based on memory.”
How art can stimulate the public debate
In order to increase the impact of our project, we organized ‘Art of ageing – the European Theatre and Science festival’ in Timisoara, Romania. We were frequently asked why we had decided to bring theatre and science together in one project. There are three reasons for this: In the first place, the creative research project was developed to contribute in an artistic way to the discussion about demographic change in Europe. We presented the results of our research in a special setting and all new productions were performed in one theatre. What is more, the plays were put within a broader social framework via contributions of invited experts scientists and experts in the field. Secondly this was an opportunity for interdisciplinary exchange and dialogue with experts and artists about the role of the theatre in our culture and society. Finally, the festival offered new insights to come to a new innovative form of theatre in which educational and social programs were developed in collaboration with an intergenerational audience. The festival inspired us to develop new methods, especially based on interactive and participative concepts.
Stuart Kandell, American pioneer of the Creative Ageing Movement and founder of Stagebridge, the nation’s oldest senior theatre in California, states: “it is not to them, but to us”, by which he emphasizes that it is important that the attitude of older people changes. Art is being called upon ‘to pose questions’ about ageing, even if science cannot provide the answers. Art can influence the public opinion about age and ageing. Kandell is an advocate of intergenerational communication by means of the theatre. This fits in with Erikson’s ‘generativity’: a concern for establishing and guiding the next generation. There is a need in society to offer young adults role models. We also see that older adults need inspiration. Storytelling is a perfect instrument to bring these two together. We see, for instance, that many schools are desperate for programs that help reduce violence and create stronger family and community bonds. The Stagebridge storytelling project brings elder storytellers and professional older adult teaching artists into classrooms to mentor atrisk elementary school children through storytelling, oral history and performance. By bridging the arts institutions and community, we serve everyone’s needs and it is truly a “winwin-win” for all.
Theatre against segmentation
Based on our experiences and shared insights, it is possible to conclude that it is time for a change of mind in our society. We need to develop new theatre productions which address intergenerational themes to build bridges between the generations. We need a better understanding of each other, this is urgent in our segmented and competitive society. And art is one way to meet this challenge. Because the theatre is a place to build a society, inclusive and together. A place to experience the art of ageing.