Age and ageing is a state of being, not a number... Writer and actor Carol Moore reflects on why she needed to write The Experience of Being, her new one-woman show touring Ireland this May.
It’s a bit of a surprise when you arrive at 60 and are suddenly told you are old. Not told formally; a letter doesn’t come in the post, but you know you have reached a watershed in your life because society has marked this moment as the beginning of a person’s decline. It is accepted as fact, as the norm. I felt I needed to challenge that myth by writing my one-woman play The Experience of Being.
Naturally, you don’t think about age when you are young. You are exploring who you are in the world and selfishly getting out there and enjoying the moment of each experience. For me, that was deciding that teaching wasn’t for me when I couldn’t get a permanent post. So, out of teaching college in 1979 and unemployed for a year, I went with my heart and decided on a freelance career as an actor.
I used to go to a male hairdresser who addressed me and every older woman in the salon as "young lady". Was I supposed to be flattered when I’m clearly not young and probably, actually, most definitely not a lady.
So why am I telling you this? What’s it got to do with ageing? Well, I quickly discovered that opportunities in the north relied almost entirely on getting work in Belfast’s two main producing theatres, the Lyric and the Arts Theatre. There was a plethora of young female talent around in the early ’80s, but we were all competing for the same few roles in any season. With no established independent theatre sector, how was one to make a living? The beginning of The Troubles saw numerous Troubles-related theatre and television dramas, so our male counterparts were never out of work. Not so for female actors.
In response, Charabanc Theatre Company burst onto the scene, an all-female company of young women (Eleanor Methven, Marie Jones, Brenda Winter-Palmer and Maureen Macauley and myself) who researched and wrote many plays, both historical and contemporary; all with nuanced female protagonists at its heart.
Roll on 40 years, and in September 2016 I turned 60. I had already been playing older characters in wigs from my 40’s onwards, and that trend continued for the next 20 years; Death of a Salesman and The Glass Menagerie being two examples of great roles in the American canon, and closer to home Pentecost by the wonderful northern playwright, Stewart Parker. Suddenly at 60, possessing the life experience to give those roles the gravitas they deserve, I am aware I am not seeing my age group reflected enough on the Irish stage. Once again, I felt a dearth of contemporary roles that were multifaceted, intelligent, vibrant, sexy and funny. Parts that I would give my eye teeth to play. Of course, there are exceptions, but they stand out and stand alone when they should be commonplace.
There is no stereotype of an older person, any more than there is of people in their 20’s or 30’s. It’s unthinkable to assume they are all alike.
Then there is the double whammy of a youth-driven culture supported by sections of the media and the cosmetics industry, one that is telling women like me we need to look younger to be visible, to continue to be relevant. If it wasn’t so, why do so many women lie about their age when men so easily segway into this third stage of life, without comment or discrimination? I am not saying ageism doesn’t affect men; of course it does. It happens when any person is defined not by their personality, individuality or beliefs but by their age. But there is an element of sexism around the ageing of women that is particularly discriminatory, and based solely on gender. The Experience of Being is a response to all of that.
I realised that I had never really considered the ageing process until I arrived at what we like to term this 'significant' birthday, because somehow it is supposed to signal ‘fragility’ at this stage of our lives. It is blatantly not true. There is no stereotype of an older person, anymore than there is of people in their 20’s or 30’s. It’s unthinkable to assume they are all alike. Yet ageism has crept into our psyche and into our vocabulary and we, (and I include myself here) we have normalised it, rather than challenging it. I used to go to a male hairdresser who addressed me and every older woman in the salon as "young lady". Was I supposed to be flattered when I’m clearly not young and probably, actually, most definitely not a lady. Why are we not comfortable about having a conversation about ageing? About the challenges we face, but also about the opportunities and freedom it offers.
It’s a bit of a surprise when you arrive at 60 and are suddenly told you are old.
As part of this project which has been supported through a Major Individual Artist Award by the Arts Council of Northern Ireland and the National Lottery, I have very much enjoyed interviewing a number of people aged between 60+ and 95 to see how different their experiences of the ageing process were. Of course, they are all unique; their health, mobility, independence and access to social activities are all very different, but where their experiences do converge is that they all have a sense of the future, of something to look forward to and a contentment that comes with ‘being’ in the moment of each new day.
This journey makes me want to shout out loud that the older person you sit beside on the bus or stand behind in the post office may have a life of experiences and adventures that you could only dream of, but we never think of asking them to share their memories with us and sometimes not even within our own families.
In my sixties, I am enjoying my own experience of ‘being’, because you never know how long you have until the journey ends.
The Experience of Being, written and performed by Carol Moore, premieres in the Baby Grand studio of the Grand Opera House, Belfast from 8-10th May, before embarking on a nationwide tour - more details here.