Originally written for The Stage.
When attempting to improve engagement with theatre, focus often falls on the young. It is of course vital for the survival and reinvigoration of the art form that new generations come into our theatres, both as artists and audiences, and are inspired to keep coming back. But what are theatres doing at the other end of the scale?
Over the last few years, the problems raised by an ageing population have been firmly on the political agenda, raising questions about how this growing group of older people can be catered for in society. In a report commissioned for Parliament in 2010, it was found that over 10 million people in the UK were over 65 years old, a figure that was expected to have nearly doubled by the middle of the century.
This age shift is reflected in cultural attendance. According to the latest statistical release from the Department for Culture, Media and Sport, there has been a significant increase in arts engagement among adults aged 65 and over since 2005/06, but adults aged 75 and over still have lower engagement rates than other age groups – arguably due to barriers that limit their access.
In recognition of this demographic movement, the Arts Council has now begun implementing strategic measures to boost engagement among older people, in line with its promise of “great art for everyone”. Last year, it launched a £1 million grant jointly funded with the Baring Foundation, intended to widen access to the arts for older people in residential care.
One of the successful recipients of funds from this initiative was The Courtyard Centre for the Arts in Hereford, which in recent years has been firmly committed to working with older people and those with dementia. Penny Allen, the Arts and Older People project manager at The Courtyard, explains that their programme involves a mixture of long and short term projects, ranging from a poetry project for people with dementia to a regular over 60s choir. The arts centre is also committed to becoming a “dementia friendly” venue and is the first organisation of its type to join the Dementia Action Alliance.
“Art has the power to reach people who may no longer be able to communicate as they once did,” says Allen. “By making arts accessible to all older people, be it in our venue, or in community venues or even residential settings, we are helping improve the quality of people’s lives and that is a powerful, wonderful thing.”
Inspired by the work being done at the Courtyard, Farnham Maltings in Surrey is taking similar steps to make its building welcoming for people with dementia, as well as offering events such as relaxed cinema screenings and tea dances aimed at older audiences. Director Gavin Stride insists that “if we are serious about audience development then we need to respond to the changing shape of our communities”. He hopes that in time “it will be an everyday occurrence to have elders and those with dementia accessing and contributing to our building and programme”.
Annabel Turpin, chief executive of ARC in Stockton, similarly sees the venue’s work with older people as part of its aim to connect with the whole community. “That’s the key thing,” Turpin stresses, “we want to connect people.” ARC’s Silver programme now regularly welcomes around 160 older people, who get involved with everything from ukulele lessons to iPad workshops. Crucially, the programme has been shaped in response to what its participants want.
The Albany in South London has equally built its Meet Me at the Albany programme around the older people it hopes to reach, as well as in collaboration with its resident artists, such as participatory arts company Entelechy. Activities in the programme range from poetry to circus skills, interspersed with board games and refreshments. Artistic director Gavin Barlow hopes that the work they are doing can pose “a real challenge to the way we think of things like social care for the elderly”, as well as creating a long-term programme that involves true artistic risk.
Both ARC and The Albany are involved in a new collaboration with Entelechy and Freedom Studios in Bradford, culminating in a joint touring show. Home Sweet Home, written by Emma Adams, draws on the experiences of over 200 older people from Bradford, London and Stockton, and explores the transition that many experience from home to care home. It demonstrates just one way in which this participatory work intersects creatively with the work of professional artists.
As well as connecting artists and participants, many of those working with older people emphasise the importance of intergenerational engagement. West Yorkshire Playhouse’s Heydays programme, which has been running for 24 years, is currently the largest regularly run project of its kind. Community development officer Nicky Taylor says that the work they do with older people “feeds back into the fabric of Playhouse, ensuring it’s a diverse, multi-generational creative space where people feel valued”.
Intergenerational work has also been an integral component of the work done by London Bubble Theatre Company, based in South London. Elders are often central to the process of gathering and shaping material for London Bubble’s intergenerational shows, working closely with participants of all ages. More recently, the Creative Homes project has taken London Bubble’s workshops to those who might not otherwise be able to attend, running groups in local sheltered housing schemes.
Creative Homes, like many of these projects, is still at a relatively early stage in its development. What it does, however, is pave the way for others. Taylor at the West Yorkshire Playhouse has the message that “you can make real and significant change in your venues with only a few small steps”. Barlow, meanwhile, claims that Meet Me at the Albany has demonstrated “massive potential” for work of this kind.
For all of these projects, the aim is ultimately about opening out the arts to the whole community – young and old. As London Bubble’s creative director Jonathan Petherbridge puts it, “Our aim is to open up the joys of theatre making to all-comers. We want to weave it into the every day – a creative action, like whistling and doodling.”
Photo: West Yorkshire Playhouse.