The cultural pressures on older women to stay slim and youthful-looking if they are still to be deemed worthy of interest is nowhere more pervasive than in the acting profession. The prevalent cultural bias towards youth discriminates more against older female actors than older males, who continue to play leading and even romantic roles, their lined wrinkled faces re-defined as ‘craggy’, or ‘lived-in’ rather than ‘wrinkled’. This bias combined with the paucity of roles for older women means that older women actors find their careers dropping off even more than their male counterparts. For some, taking control by producing their own work, often in the form of auto/biographical one-woman shows, can reap huge rewards of empowerment and creativity. At the time of this research (2016), there were no training opportunities tailored for older women actors that fulfil this need.
- How do we create performance outlets with and for professional female actors that also act as training grounds for new skills, particularly those that are entrepreneurial?
- What themes are relevant for this cohort of women to build on for such performance work?
- How do we improve auto/biographical or documentary theatre making practices when thinking about ethical representation from real-life?
This enquiry emerged from RQ1: How do we create workshops that will both invigorate and harness the skills of older actors? which, as part of its evaluation, concluded that training opportunities are needed for older actors but perhaps they would have more value if they included performance-making processes and a performance outcome.
We believe professional older actors have a vast store of life experience and talents that is often under-used. This research inquiry sought to harness this unique store in a project concerned with capacity building for older female actors as well as visibility and identity in older age.
This cohort of women – the baby boomer generation – have been both platformed and marginalised on the basis of their appearance, often mediated by their choice of clothing. The Wardrobe Project therefore sought to achieve the following:
- to create a safe space for a group of older female actors to share their feelings about ageing through the medium of clothing – a kind of consciousness raising.
- to unveil and strengthen the skills, experience and resources of older female actors by training them to be researchers and co-creators of a new documentary theatre work on clothing, the body, and age, to be performed in theatre and non-theatre spaces
The project offered a space to the actors to explore their shifting identities over time, as reflected by their evolving clothing choices and by their changing body. This as a precursor to collecting similar stories from older women in the community about how they have expressed their identity over different periods of their lives via clothing.
The Wardrobe Project took place over 6 weeks from the beginning of April to mid-May 2016, culminating in a showing at Graeae Studios, Hoxton.
We worked from the Fireroom and Courtroom at Toynbee Studios, Aldgate for the initial training stages, eventually moving to Graeae’s Bradbury Studios for the final two weeks development and rehearsal.
Overview of the process and photos are in the two right columns >>
- all participants were extremely positive in how the process was structured, with most commenting anecdotally and in writing about how it increased their knowledge as theatre-makers
- all women gained a lot personally as well as professionally from it being a women-only project, suggesting that it created a safe space for both learning and sharing
- all women were interested in working further like this in the future, and in a second stage of the project’s development
- the most challenging aspect of the project was trying to develop payment / cost models whereby, if these actors aren’t paying for the training components, should they therefore be paid as actors? – this was dealt with through part non-payment for training week and full payment for acting weeks
- more time on the script development and less on the training was mentioned by 15% of actors
- with most of the actors between 55 and 65 years old, and a very small percent between 65 and 85, it was identified that there are many significant life changes between these 30 years and that perhaps it should be a shorter time span
- ViSiBLE should continue to hone in on models just like this, for all of its shows because they provide training grounds for actors living longer, and seeds of unique storytelling forms
- ViSiBLE should develop archives whereby learnings from processes like these are clearly evaluated and mapped – and that these are available for the industry at large, to be informed about working with actors living longer
- ViSiBLE need to work with partners to better analyse appropriate cost structures for actors’ fees for new models such as these
Selected participant feedback
“The training week was marvellous – interesting, exhilarating and fun. So, very worthwhile.”
“Everyone was given free rein/permission to share which is very empowering.”
“I think it would work well in many venues – be interesting to explore other venues than theatres, i.e.: go to where the audience is rather than them come to it.”
Specific question feedback
Was the intensive training week a worthwhile experience? Why? How could it have better equipped you for the interview and rehearsal process?
- Yes – I found it very useful in equipping me for the interview. I found it very useful in building relationships within the company, sharing of views, differences. The different workshops all helped with the big picture of what the project was all about. The different elements of each workshop, a separate part of the jigsaw towards the interview process.
- Wouldn’t describe it as intensive. But it was extremely enjoyable and stimulating.
- The training week was marvellous – interesting, exhilarating and fun. So, very worthwhile. Sure it equipped me well for the interview.
- I think the training was a great introduction to the project and never not interesting! In retrospect it could have been shorter and more time spent on script development and rehearsal. For me it was good to refresh skills I already had as I have done verbatim work before.
- The training week was informative. I feel it prepared me for the interview.
The Wardrobe Project overview
The Wardrobe Project is the first in Visible’s experimentation with more meaningful theatre-making frameworks for professional actors, the women undergoing cutting-edge research and training as a precursor to interviewing a spectrum of women in their 60s and 70s with a diverese range of attitudes to clothing and their ‘older’ age.
Actors (from left to right) Di Sherlock, Shenagh Govan, Yvonne Gidden, Denise Stephenson, Sue Kelvin, Norma Cohen, Gilian Cally and Ruth Posner worked in concert with Director Rachel Grunwald and Playwright Sonja Linden to prepare for their interviews of women in the community and collaboratively develop this new piece of theatre.
The project opened with an intensive research stage, led by Professor Julia Twigg of the University of Kent, on her work at the intersections ageing and sociology, particularly on the body, clothing and age. It also included research on documentary and verbatim theatre, and the ethics of representation, led by Claire French and Sonja Linden collectively. The actors were also trained in interview approaches and techniques by former BBC producer Chris Mohr, before they entered fieldwork as the interviewers.
After the interviews, the actors returned to collate their findings with writer Sonja Linden, who created a performance script from transcriptions of their interviews. This research and development phase was followed by a two week script development period, culminating in a showing at Graeae Studios.
Below are quotes from interviews that made their way into The Wardrobe Project.
People read us by our clothes, they make assumptions about us based on our clothes, about what class we belong to, about our whole gender personality. So clothes are important to me because I think about how I’m going I’m going to be read. ….and I don’t want to be cast as a stereotyped older person.
This whole thing about being an older woman, it comes as a shock, you know? For example I was on the bus the other day and this mother came on with a baby and an older daughter, and three little boys who sat near me. And after a while I said “Oh, there’s a seat free next to me, would your sister like to come and sit here”. Whereupon they called to her at the back of the bus, and said, “Would you like to come and sit beside the old lady?” I’m thinking, who’s the old lady? I’m not the old lady. My self-image doesn’t correspond to that. People are surprised when I ask for a senior ticket. There’s this expression ‘black don’t crack’. Black women’s faces don’t age as much as white women’s.
I love colour, and I love design and so clothes are both. I think it’s because I am an artist, I trained at the Royal College. And now I’ve stopped working and I’m really just enjoying life, clothes are a part of that. I’ve just come back from a cruise to New Zealand and I wore these shorts around the boat, you know. And kitten high heels which everybody was astonished at. And like I to wear very, very high, thin stiletto shoes, and everybody says don’t they hurt? And I say yes, and they look at me and I say ‘But you take a Nurofen.’
Initially I was dressing to become a woman in other people’s eyes, though I suppose I was creating a kind of fantasy person. I gradually developed the ‘look’ I wanted. Essentially I went through an adolescent phase at first, dressing too young, skirts were a bit too short. I started experimenting with female clothes long before I transitioned. When I was living in Amsterdam I went to transbars and cross-dressed. I’ve had to study how women dress I was experimenting with clothes to see who I was. I didn’t know who I was clothes-wise and I was looking for that person.
Something happened when I was in my 50s, something that hurt me very deeply, but that made me think very differently about clothes. I went to an event with my husband, and a friend of my husband’s, said to him: what is she doing, dressed like that? She looks awful, nothing fits her, I wouldn’t come out with her looking like that, can’t you do something about it? I wouldn’t have allowed my wife to come in dressed like that. It was a very cruel thing to say. and I thought, right, never again do I not spend any money on clothes for myself. It was because my mother had never done it, you know, you pick up these things, don’t you, from your mother. So it made me, definitely, think differently about clothes, you know, the iron in my soul, as it were. I’ve never forgotten it.
End of extracts © Sonja Linden