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Ages and Stages: The Place of Theatre in Representations and Recollections of Ageing
Ages and Stages is a collaborative research project, funded by the New Dynamics of Ageing programme. The project, running from October 2009 to July 2012, is being conducted by a multidisciplinary team of researchers at Keele University, in partnership with the New Vic Theatre, Newcastle-under-Lyme. The project is exploring representations of ageing and later life in the Vic Theatre’s social documentary productions (produced between 1964 and 1993), along with the contemporary recollections and involvement of older people within the theatre. This article will provide an overview of the project design and methods, and will also outline preliminary analysis of qualitative interviews with older people.

Project Design

Ages and Stages is based in North Staffordshire, an area with a long history of heavy industry (ceramics, coal and steel) that, over the past fifty years, has undergone considerable social and economic change and decline. These changes have had marked effects on the expectations and opportunities of the community’s older people; as in other communities, it is impossible to separate the ageing process from its social and cultural contexts, or to divorce the experience of older people from those of the community’s other generations. Local cultural institutions have both reflected and reconstructed these changes. In particular, between 1964 and 1993 the Victoria Theatre (now the New Vic Theatre) pioneered a distinctive form of social documentary under artistic director Peter Cheeseman (Elvgren, 1974; Rowell and Jackson, 1984). The theatre produced documentaries focused on local history or contemporary issues and disputes, drawing from both primary source material and interviews with local people, which were conducted by members of the company. The documentaries thus chart social, economic and political changes in North Staffordshire, reflect the community’s self-image at various points in recent history, and illustrate the roles and positions of different generations within the community. It is these documentaries, together with our own qualitative research and a new production and exhibition, which form the basis of the Ages and Stages project.

The project is designed around three inter-related research strands. Strand 1 (Representations) involves archival research at the Victoria Theatre Collection, the theatre’s dedicated archive, held by Staffordshire University. This strand explores historical representations and performances of ageing within the Vic’s documentaries, looking at issues such as: the representation (or absence) of older people within the documentaries and the performance of age on stage; the dialogic relationship between the archive and the documentaries: how the research became transformed into theatre, what became incorporated into the documentaries, what was left out or remained as traces; and the role of the archive in reflecting on and constructing the life course of the theatre itself.

Strand 2 (Recollections and Contemporary Representations) involves qualitative research with older people who have been involved with the theatre’s work. 80 narrative interviews are being conducted with people who are: i) employees and former employees of the Vic Theatre; ii) theatre volunteers; iii) longstanding audience members; and iv) people who were interviewed for one of the documentaries. The interviews examine the ways in which the theatre has impacted on individual life course narratives, by asking interviewees to ‘tell their stories’ (Jovchelovitch, 2007, Murray, 2007) about their recollections of, and current involvement with, the theatre. We are also conducting a series of group interviews with the same people which involves sharing data from the individual interviews and discussing the main themes in more detail. Alongside this, participant observation has been conducted with volunteers at the New Vic.

Data from Strands 1 and 2 will be brought together in Strand 3 (Performance) to create a ‘new’ social documentary performance and associated exhibition, which will take place at the New Vic Theatre in July 2012, and will also be toured around local schools and community centres. An intergenerational group of actors will be recruited for this Strand, including members of the New Vic Youth Theatre and some of the older people interviewed for Strand 2, and the group will work together with the research team to develop the new documentary. We will evaluate this production process, exploring how members of the group perceive each other, ageing, and their roles in, and perspectives on, ‘community’; and what involvement in such creative activity means for ‘ageing well’ and for promoting intergenerational understanding (Murray & Gray, 2008). Strand 3 will also explore arts-based ways of knowing and representing ageing in which research and performance is seen as an iterative, pedagogical and political process (Finley, 2005; Denzin, 2003).

By combining historical and contemporary analysis, literary and social perspectives, and research-led practice (in Strand 3), this project design aims to capture the dynamic ways in which ‘the time and the place of our ageing’ (Ray, 2007) has been understood and represented, and how this connects with the meanings older people now make of the experience of growing older, both individually and socially (Cole and Sierpina, 2006).

Preliminary Analysis of Strand 2 Interviews

We are currently conducting archival and qualitative research simultaneously, and will start developing our own production in summer 2011. Following preliminary analysis of the qualitative interviews using NVivo, we have drawn out four key themes which we will explore further as the project progresses.


The interviews have suggested the important role theatre can play in times of transition in later life – particularly in relation to retirement and widowhood. Many of the theatre volunteers we have interviewed are widowed women who either started volunteering or became more involved with the theatre after becoming widowed. Widows have talked about the theatre as a ‘lifeline’ and have mentioned the ‘camaraderie’, ‘security’ and sense of ‘home’ it provides. Volunteering can provide a new kind of beginning, enabling widows to negotiate their shifting identities, giving them confidence to pursue their interests on their own, while also developing and broadening social networks.

Retirement also marks a critical change in many people’s involvement in the theatre. The theatre really comes alive for some long standing audience members following retirement, when they increasingly participate in its social and cultural life. Interviewees have talked about becoming ‘entangled’ or ‘caught up’ in the life of the theatre, as they pursue and develop what has often been a lifelong interest in theatre and the arts. This can also produce a sense of continuity in people’s lives – continuing to be ‘active’ and continuing self-worth and value.

The Vic documentaries focused strongly on change in North Staffordshire and within the lives of individuals and families, particularly relating to important local industries such as the Potteries, steelworks, and coal mines. One of our next tasks is to explore how ‘transition’ and change have been represented and experienced historically, through analysis of the documentary materials, and to compare this with contemporary representations of transition in our interviews.

Sociality and Intimacy

Interviewees have signalled the importance of the ‘social occasion’ of going to the theatre, which is particularly valued by those who live alone or are widowed, and can enable people to maintain or develop social networks. Importantly, the theatre is also seen as a place where people feel ‘comfortable’ or ‘safe’ to visit on their own. The sense of intimacy produced by theatre in the round has been frequently mentioned, and interviewees have talked about their feeling of ‘becoming part of’ or ‘involved’ with what is happening on stage. The Vic has also been described as ‘homely’ or ‘like coming home’ and this sense of belonging, reflected in the intimate staging of the round, has led us to explore the idea of the New Vic as a space of ‘public intimacy’.

Former employees have also used the metaphors of ‘home’ and ‘family’ when talking about their experiences at the theatre in the 1960s, 70s, and 80s. Through further analysis, we now aim to trace the connections and changes in these discourses through time and across the four subgroups of interviewees. We suggest that home and family have provided an enduring structure of feeling (Williams, 1958, 1961) within this theatre.

Excitement, Broadening Horizons

Alongside references to the ‘comfort’, ‘security’ and intimate ‘homeliness’ of the New Vic Theatre, older people also value the excitement it provides. They are particularly drawn to what they see as innovative or risky productions, which they associate with the opportunities offered by theatre in the round. We have conducted preliminary metaphor analysis of the interviews, which reveals continual interplay between metaphors related to ‘home’ and ‘family’ and a different set of associations around ‘entering new worlds’ and ‘broadening horizons’.

Making Theatre in Later Life

A minority of interviewees are currently involved in theatre work, either in a professional or amateur capacity. However, more commonly, we found that older people had withdrawn from active participation in theatre work; not only professionals who had moved on or retired, but also people who had been involved in amateur theatre work when they were younger. A variety of reasons were given for this, including age-related concerns about the ‘appropriateness’ of continued involvement, and anxiety about physical and cognitive capacities (e.g. the ability to remember lines or the physical stamina associated with theatre work). However, former employees often felt that, though they were no longer actively involved in the theatre, their experiences at the Vic had a long-lasting influence on their approach to their professional and personal lives, and to their ageing. Using data from the group interviews, we will now further analyse both the reasons older people might withdraw from active participation in theatre work, and the ways in which earlier professional work in the theatre can be formative for later life.

What Next?

Our research has suggested that, while older people are highly visible in the New Vic Theatre, they tend to become less active as makers of theatre as they become more active as audience members and volunteers. As we start work on Strand 3 of the project, we will be exploring the potential role older people can play as active participants within the creative life of the theatre, as members of an intergenerational group of actors. In doing this, we will try to draw upon the qualities of homeliness, intimacy and security that this theatre provides, in order to provide a positive environment for ‘broadening horizons’ for both the older and younger participants.

Research Team

Principal Investigator: Prof Miriam Bernard
Co-Investigator: Prof David Amigoni
Co-Investigator: Dr Lucy Munro
Co-Investigator: Prof Michael Murray
Co-Investigator: Ms Jill Rezzano (New Vic Theatre)
Research Associate: Dr Michelle Rickett
PhD Student: Ms Ruth Basten
Project Administrator: Ms Tracey Harrison

Website: www.keele.ac.uk/agesandstages


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