Last weekend was the 2015 Live Age Festival, run by Mim Bernard and Jackie Reynolds alongside a multitude of community partners, including AgeUK North Staffs, the New Vic Theatre and Stoke-on-Trent Council. The Festival ran for three days, and brought together people from around the Potteries and North Staffordshire for workshops, talks, music, film, song, poetry and drama.
That the Festival fits into a network of ongoing projects relating to experiences of age and ageing was made clear by the Symposium, held on Friday afternoon at the Mitchell Arts Centre. Chaired by Mim and David Amigoni, who collaborated on the Keele-led multi-research council project ‘Ages and Stages’, the Symposium hosted talks about three very different ways of engaging with the ageing population.
The first speaker was Lorna Warren from Sheffield University, who presented on her project ‘Look at Me! Images of Women and Ageing’. The project seeks to challenge conventional representations of older women in the popular press. Warren observed that, in a media culture that equates attractiveness with youth, older women are often the butt of jokes, represented as unattractive or simply hidden from view. ‘Look at Me!’ seeks to redress this issue by creating a series of visual images that offered alternative ways of presenting ageing. The participants self-defined as older women, and participated in a series of workshops and events that asked them to evaluate representations of women in the press.
These participants suggested that they preferred untouched images of older women who were active and characterful, rather than the more common presentation of this group as being passive, dependent or fake in some way. The photos produced by this project sought to speak to that activity and sense of fun that the participants had felt were often missing from depictions of their social group. These photos were then projected onto the sides of buildings across Sheffield, and passers-by asked for their opinions. The responses were overwhelmingly positive and recognised a need for a shift in media cultures around ageing. The project did not only seek to change popular opinions of older women; it also sought to impact positively on the lives of individual participants. Warren recorded that one participant said that the project had helped her move away from feeling like a ‘prisoner of numbers’ to embracing all of her life and experiences.
The second set of speakers came from the West Yorkshire Playhouse, Leeds, and demonstrated on a practical level how such feelings of empowerment in the older community can be developed and encouraged through participation with arts organisations. The Playhouse’s theatre group, Heydays, is central to its extensive outreach programme, has over 300 members and is now in its 25th year. Nicky Taylor, Community Development Manager at the Playhouse, outlined some of the ways that Heydays has sought to help the local older community. A current project, for instance, seeks to engage people living with dementia with the theatre, including some former Heydays members, by looking at how the theatre experience might be made more inclusive. The theatre visits care homes and residences to put on singing and memory workshops before the play, so that people living with dementia dementia can be involved in the theatre-going experience.
Two Heydays members, Peter and Maggie, reflected on their own Heydays experiences, and both proved how important such initiatives are. Peter has been performing with Heydays for nearly 2 decades, including 179 performances of the community theatre piece ‘Distraction burglary’. He has also seen his own plays performed and runs workshops on storytelling, creative writing and drama. Maggie, on the other hand, discovered a new career in retirement through Heydays; she began work as a radio broadcaster at Radio Yorkshire, and now has an interviewing job at a magazine for which she interviews numerous celebrities and famous figures. Nicky neatly summarised Peter and Maggie’s inspirational stories when she concluded that as we age we have more and more stories to tell, but fewer opportunities to share them, and Heydays provides one much-needed way of providing space for older people to explore their creativity.
Finally, former Stoke North MP Joan Walley concluded the session by summarising why such initiatives as the Live Age Festival are so important for cities like Stoke. She pointed out that Stoke, like much of the UK, is an ageing city, and that older people have an important part to play in the wider community. She suggested that it is vital that spaces exist in which older members of the community are empowered, and where they can share their knowledge and experiences. She reflected on the ways that her own love of the area is grounded in knowledge passed down from her ancestors: where birds’ nests can be found; the best place for picking bilberries; how to make a Yorkshire pudding. Her emphasis on the ways that we can get to know our homes better through interaction with older members of our communities resonated throughout this Festival, and carries important messages for continuing to think about how we can include the rapidly-increasing elderly population in ongoing work, research and social activities.
The event concluded with cream tea and a jazz band – Mel’s Angels – in the foyer of the Mitchell Arts Centre, and demonstrated why the issues raised in the Symposium are of so much importance. Listening to the band, sat drinking tea, surrounded by conversations that were alternately nostalgic and uplifting, revealed precisely why it continues to be important to provide opportunities for the older population to engage with the younger, and to include them in ongoing conversations about the preservation and development of the local and nation society.