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Playful Seniors in Fields: Let’s Grow Old Together in Real Life and on Stage

The members of storytelling troupe of Rock YeNai. Photo provided by ROCK YeNai Co, Ltd.
TEXT CHEN Huai-Hsuan
ethnodramacommunity theaterplayful seniors

Real Life Scenario: Anthropologist Help Us Realize that We Don’t Know How to Grow Old

The advancement of medical technology has increased mankind’s life expectancy and perpetuated longevity as a norm. Alongside with social and demographic changes, “aging” has gradually become a global trend and been focused by countries around the world. In modern societies, on the one hand, aging is understood as a part of life cycle to be explored, including the social roles aged population play. On the other hand, the physical and psychological changes and needs of aging are also be studied from medical and social science angle. Besides, the development of social welfare, medical care systems and policies are drawing more and more attention as well. These are all recent outcomes of the topic of population aging.

What’s more, as baby boomers grow old, the process of aging, and the implied needs and meanings have become an unavoidable issue when different generations of the society are concerning about the future. For example, in recent years, adult development researcher Edward KELLY has been promoting the concept of The Third Act. The Third Act reorganizes the stages in life and defines the second half of life as a stage of social engagement and giving back during the stable period. As the percentage of aged population increases over time in modern society, a new wave of cultural movement is born out of the needs of aging population with a purpose to create the values of “old age” and for the elderlies to fulfill themselves.

Taiwan also gradually makes the transition from an aged society to a super-aged society. It is estimated that by 2025, the number of aged people will exceed 20% of the total pollution, which means that our society has never been this old before, neither has it aged at such a fast pace. However, when it comes to the reconsideration and redefinition of “aging” and the discussion about the possibilities of “aged life,” our society is still conservative, anxious and uncomfortable.

One of the main reasons of the aversion to the topic has to do with the presumed cultural norm, which sees caring for the elderly as an integral part of filial duty. Also, in the social and cultural context of Taiwan, deathbed related topics are often seen as a “jinx” or a heavy taboo. This has become the invisible hurdle hindering the cross-age or cross-generation discussion about later years.

Culturally families have been expected to be the main caretaker for aging parents. As this function now gradually weakens, “aging” is not only a state of getting older, but also an “issue” which the society has to face and address. Especially when the government sets up long-term care resources and enforces policies in response to various challenges presented by “oldness,” this further reflects the impact of the interacting social changes like urbanization and low birth rate on “comfortable aging.”

However, as our society relies on problem-solving-driven decisions and actions to respond to the aging issue, gradually the public discourse and press coverage which focus on the situations of elderly people see the aged as a whole and separate them from other “communities,” which compose the society. Even though the extension of the aging phase has led to diversified patterns of aging and a high level of heterogeneity, how elders explore the cultural values of aging in the society is still shaped by how the society construct, picture and face the impact of “aging.” How people define, understand and adapt to the state of aging is manifested by the constant construction of the position and values of “aging” in the society, as well as the adaptation of one’s survival strategies.

In this context, anthropology, the study of the context of complicated human conditions, offers a critical perspective to help us to understand the constantly changing cultural implications of aging. When perceived through the lens of anthropology, “aging” is not only the physical and bodily development, showing maturity and transformation, but also a process of practice and adaptation for social and cultural community relations, resource allocation and social networks. The exploration of being old helps us to gain insight into how we have come this far and a society’s notion of a person (meaning a society’s perception and imagination of a person).

Therefore, I think before we start the search for innovative solutions to aging issues, we should go back to explore the essence of humanity and reflect on the value of a human being and its connection with the society. This will serve as a start for us to see the diversified meanings of seniority culture. Both theatre and anthropology focus on human beings and both respond to the phenomenon and issues of humanity, exploring for a potential way out.

This essay combs through the current theater models and plays in which aging is presented and performed with methodology of field study. I think when it comes to the aging issue, the applied theater has provided a new perspective in which the social and cultural context is viewed as the fabric of mankind, and thus treats aging as a kind of “field” constantly changing and evolving, encouraging people to think about themselves and the culture involved in the field. In this process, we can probe into the context that shapes the culture of old age, trying to create cross-age dialogue through cultural holism perspective. This will be the key to the understanding of the cultural implication of old age.

CHEN Huai-Hsuan (left) and the member of ROCK YeNai in the Playful Seniors: the Field Research Seminar of Senior Theatre. Photo by HSU Ping

Before we start the search for innovative solutions to aging issues, we should go back to explore the essence of humanity and reflect on the value of a human being and its connection with the society.

Old Age Explored on Stage: Enter into the Field of the Contemporary Lives of the Old and Integrate the Values and Meanings of Old Age through Performance

Anthropologists often refer to the time and space in which their subjects occupy as the “field.” From the development and context of Western and Eastern theaters, we can see that theater, as a space which brings people together, supports diversified interpretations and possibilities for the manifestation, convergence and creation of social meanings of the past, present and future. In other words, theater and field study have a lot in common in terms of the focus on the collection and portrayal of a community’s daily lives and social scenes.

In 1978, theater director Stuart KANDELL, who had theater-in-education background organized an improvisational acting program for older adults at a senior center in Oakland, California. The materials for performance came from the stories collected from the seniors, and the elders were invited to take part in the tour. Improvisational acting as a way for social integration kickstarted the development of Senior Theater in the US. Therefore, Stuart KANDELL is recognized as the forerunner addressing aging issues.

On the other hand, Pam SCHWEIZER, the director in Age Exchange Reminiscence Centre, recruited professional young actors to tap into the oral history narratives of elders and complied them into theater performances. Reminiscence Theater, a theater featured mainly aged actors, was then established in 1993 and continued to be relevant till this day.1 Since 2012, Keely University in the UK collaborated with the New Vic Theatre which specialized in documentary theater and launched “Ages and Stages” Project. The project collected residents’ memories of social, economic, political changes to the local community. Efforts of the project also covered the representation of living history of aged population and interviews with aged theater practitioners. Based on these fieldwork materials, theater practitioners and interviewed elders co-performed Our Age, Our Stage, a documentary theater working to present what aging, intergenerational relations and theater meant to the local aged population. The project also extended to embody research results of theater performance and the cultural dynamics of aging.2

In terms of the development of contemporary theater in Taiwan, organizations featuring senior members with official troupe setup fall under the category of community theater. Among them, the Uhan Shii Theater Group, one of the better-known troupes of this kind is now in recess. Their past performances featured oral history. MDF Troupe, a Tainan based group founded in 1992, is still active. MDF Troupe is the first theater group constituted by senior performers aged between 45 to 80. The aged performers created social connections through sharing their own stories on stage, and the significance and values of one’s life and feelings were expressed through the staging of their memories and the local history.

In addition, professional troupes have been working with social organizations, university teachers and students from applied drama departments, and members from development center for applied theaters in forms like initiatives and community field investigation projects. These efforts are critical drivers which transformed senior citizens from audience to main actors on the stage.

The examples include the collaborative project of the Godot Theater Company and Shin Kong Life Foundation, called History Alive. Running for over a decade now, the project was introduced to Taiwan by the foundation from Elders Share the Arts (ESTA) in the U.S.A. Leveraging the art form of life theater, elders represent life stories and values through oral history, helping children to gain new insight into the values and acquire new impression of “being old.” The Holy War of Lingnan produced by the professor HSU Rey-Fang and the aged residents of Lingnan community, Tainan, and Think Feel Move theater company’s project in Toad Hill, Gongguan both guided local elders to share their memories through community theater. “So Young, Drama, Yang-Kui- Drama Education × Seeded Interpreter” led by the professor CHEN Yun-Wen trained local elders as main performers for Yang-Kui Literature Museum, Xinhua, Tainan. The elders later became the main actors for museum theater art communities and the main cast for the Tavocan Theater in the following year.

The performance of Think Feel Move. Photo by HSU Ping

Adopting theatrical performance as a perspective for social behavior and ritualistic relations analysis, anthropologist Victor TURNER proposed the concept of ethnodrama as a methodology based on artistic performance. It requires artists to transform the information from field research of certain groups into performance scripts, hence representing the real stories of the individuals under certain social circumstances. These works are not only the “performance of research,” but also featuring the theatricality3 with “audience awareness.”

Besides, researches from fields like social and cultural gerontology as well as humanities and arts indicate that performing oldness based on the true life experiences of elders as a process of artistic creation and meaning construction would help build self-identity, self-awareness and a sense of belongingness to the community. In the meanwhile, the process also demonstrates the implication of “potential development” for later years as a part of life progression. Therefore, in recent years, projects and activities featuring theatrical expression as a method for palliative care and non-medical treatment to ensure the physical and psychological health and social connection for the elderly has gradually emerged as a common model for long term care for elders. Taiwan Alzheimer Disease Association has incorporated drama therapy in their wellness and therapeutic programs. In 2016, Hondao Senior Citizen’s Welfare Foundation also adopted community theater as a part of community-based program which combined fitness improvement, reminiscent expression and self-empowerment.

Theater performance is appreciated, assessed and diversely interpreted by the society. This constructed a two-way cultural dynamic. Viewing and performing reflect the common or different socio-cultural context of the engaged parties. In the meantime, the engaged parties also create and influence the cultural implication of a theater during the exchange. Theater combines art forms and sensory experiences to reflect multi-layers of cultural scenarios by visualizing time and space. Therefore, applied drama and theater method have become a “platform” for artistic expression and interpretation, expanding the meaning of aged life in the process of revitalizing and approaching the concept of aging creatively. Different models of old aged explored on stage shed light on how drama and theater reflect sociality.

Through all the above-mentioned theater works and activities which focus on aging life as the subject, we can understand that fieldwork is not only a tool to excavate the past of aged adults. More importantly, it provides the solid basis of the application of drama and theater methodology, on which dramas are enabled to help build interpersonal and community networks, encourage the public to participate, and serve the function of curing and identity-building, fulfilling the social values of applied drama.

Aging Theater Operation: Staging Oldness Intervenes the Field of Taiwan Aging Society

I think the main characteristic of adopting drama and theater methodology as a tool for cultural field survey of aging is the creation of performing space between fiction and reality, in which the audience can unload and change their inherent social roles and participate in the process of creating characters. The one-of-a-kind inner order of each play also allows the taken-for-granted self-identity formed in one’s own world to be reflected and propagates diversified and rich understanding of the issues in question. On the other hand, the on and off of acting allows one to experience the power of imagination and switch between different perspectives on underlying social context.

Performance researcher Valerie Barnes LIPSCOMB studies on how modern theater perform aging. By alluding to the line “the play’s the thing” from Shakespeare’s renowned title Hamlet, she emphasizes theater methodology is a very inspiring and productive tool for the collection and production of materials of the aging fieldwork. Texts and stage performance allow the diversity and heterogeneity of aging to be materially presented. It is also a tool for thinking, challenging the social stereotype of aging.4

In addition to theater works based on fieldwork, we also start to see applied drama and theater gradually transform the process of fieldwork into organic and diversified engagement model. What’s more, common experiences and performing rituals which interpret the “field” demonstrates the strong focus on commoners’ lives and culture in people’s theater system.

The Beitou Patauw Theatre. Photo © C-LAB

For example, Beitou Patauw Theatre is a troupe formed by middle and old age volunteers, social workers and mothers. Over the years, they have been performing for audiences like hospital patients, doctors, nurses, students and teachers of elementary schools in remote areas, families of mental disorder patients and young people through the approach of playback theater, a form of people’s theater. This model is founded by Jonahtan FOX, consisting of psychodrama, rituals and oral history and developing into a kind of participatory theater, which tells stories and promotes social engagement and care with a simple and systematic formula of performance. The intersubjectivity of the interpersonal dialogues is a space of field engagement and observation created by theater. When live performance encounters people and their stories, audience and performers together construct the community identity and support groups.

Playback theater does not rely on existing texts and it emphasizes the improvisational interaction with audience on site and the real-time oral performance. Performers translate messages into body language to induce listening, understanding and healing, which manifests elders’ stories and creates the dynamic space of “filed” for the interpretation of meanings. More importantly, the performers would realize the connection between stories and their own experiences due to the heterogeneity of the audience and diversity of stories collected. Therefore, playback over times has gained its foothold in dramatherapy for elders and in community wellness programs for older people’s wellness and fitness.

In addition to staging fieldwork, in 2017, Over Diamond Art Studio presented Old Fairy Tales, a story set against the backdrop of an aging city. It is a participatory performance which presents a glimpse of the future picture of an aging society through immersive experimental theater. Instead of directly having elders performing on the stage, Over Diamond Art Studio allotted five corner spaces as stages which offered glimpses of elders’ lives and employed their own actors to perform five archetypal characters’ lives, staging the circumstances they were involved. Audience would roam between the spaces and interact with characters before they participated the theater forum as “community residents.” The forum guided them to discuss solutions for different aging scenarios and to jointly make decisions on how to allocate community resources to help.

In terms of the overall design of Old Fairy Tales, fieldwork serves as the basis on which the scriptwriter, director and actors constructed the characteristics of the community and created the five archetypal characters. What’s more, it goes further to offer social reality experience. As actors performed the situations of archetypal characters, facilitators also made the audience a part of the performance by encouraging them to be the members of the resident assembly. The later in-depth discussion decided how the plot unraveled. The audience engagement realized through the discussion at resident assembly led to a social performance of “imagined communities,” in which Old Fairy Tales also created a “field” of how participants jointly built local values about comfortable aging through emphasized issues, raised solutions and process of interaction.

Old Fairy Tales presented by Over Diamond Art Studio. Photo courtesy of Peiju CHEN, Over Diamond Art Studio
The storytelling troupe of ROCK YeNai. Photo by HSU Ping

ROCK YeNai Co, Ltd., which trains elders to engage with society through picture book storytelling, offers another kind of possibility of adding human capital values to senior citizens through the application of theater elements. ROCK YeNai has a specific goal of revitalizing aged human capital. They trains grandpas and grannies, making them form a storytelling squad and perform in public spaces like cafes. Facing different audience, they tell picture book stories featuring the heart-heavy theme of aging as a way to tap into elders’ potential for themselves and others.

The model requires grandpas and grandmas to translate picture books into their own performing languages. They would experience and confront all kinds of views of “oldness” through on-site feedback. The elders who play the role of a storyteller activate performing space through picture books. The interactive experience of storytelling also becomes a space for field observation. ROCK YeNai first activates performing space with applied drama and theater elements and then transforms the space into “field.” The act of storytelling itself emphasizes that “cultural clash” encountered in the field would offer a picture of our views on oldness and lead to reflection. It is obvious that drama and theater elements have become a tool for design thinking when it comes to the exploration of the “culture of being old.”

These cases show how diversified those engaged in the dialogues and purposes are and different ways of applying fieldwork as we see shifting perspectives from stage works to performance for dialogues. The “as if” element of theater creates body and space which situate between fiction and reality. Applied drama and theater development model as fieldwork bring people into and out of the roles so that they can see from a different perspective on how they have constructed the socio-cultural context and how it perceives oldness. Hence drama and theater as identity-shaping rituals not only imply symbolically “let’s grow old together,” but also encourage thinking-outside-of-the-box creativity and build up a platform which serves as the base for field relationships.

In other words, theater allows participants to play multiple roles, through which participants collaborate with their bodies and manifest how people of different positions converse and interact. By playing and performing they interpret and study all kinds of conversation experiences and create connections with others. This is how theater functions as a design tool. More importantly, the applied drama and theater give rise to rich meanings and discussions during the process of diversification, providing an approach of expanding fieldwork-produced knowledge and a way to change social stereotypical impression on being old. As improvisational interaction pertaining aging issues takes place in the theater, the convergence, conflicts and conversation can be contextualized in the performing space. Actors and audience collaboratively build their understanding of the socio-cultural structure of their environment, and experience “growing old together” between make-believe and reality. In this way, they acquire the opportunities to reflect on their agency when engaging with society.

Conclusion: “Reflexive Theater Making” Builds Connections

“Performance” has become a common model for fitness and dementia alleviation programs or activities in institutions supporting senior citizens. Artistic expression is the result of refined thinking. It is also a process which conceptualizes stories in search for meanings. More figurative symbols lead to more room for dialogue. Participants also experience healing effect after combing through or reflect on their lives.

However, expressive arts are not limited to static works which demonstrate cultural identity and stories. In 2002, clinical psychologist Joanathan MORGAN adopted drawing body map as a technique of art therapy. In 2007, Canadian researchers like Denise GASTALDO, Lilian MAGALHÃES, Christine CARRASCO and Charity DAVY transformed this method into a tool for storytelling, combining oral history and artistic creation. This was used to comprehend old memories, living space and circumstances of Toronto immigrants.5 Therefore, expressive arts as a platform of dialogue has the potential to collect oral history materials, community perspectives and socio-cultural languages and to build social connections.

Especially in the face of the challenge of aging, the artistic creativeness, principles and diversified forms of performance of drama and theater break the line between audience and actors. They help us enter into life to create the energy and uniqueness of a space for the dialogue of aging issues.

The course “Building Connections: Empowering the Aged Life” at Yonghe community college. Photo courtesy of CHEN Huai-Hsuan

This article attempts to point out the potential and possibilities of drama and theater used as tools for fieldwork of old age social studies. When theater and anthropology converge, we find that theater approach is very inspiring and productive for the collection and production of ethnography materials. With background in drama and theater, my focus is on the relationship between performance and society when I entered into the discipline of anthropology. Alongside with my study of aging anthropology, in 2016 I worked with theater-in-education practitioner and trained anthropologist, CHEN Yun-Wen, to develop “Staging Oldness,” a workshop for caretakers of seniors. The workshop explored the diversified aspects of aging in the society and served as a tool to design empathy experience. I also taught “Comfortable Aging in Place” as a part of “Building Connections: Empowering the Aged Life” course at a community college. The class leveraged the attribute of immersive experimental theater to explore the revitalization of idle space in the community and how that has to do with aging in place. In this way, we could discover local participants’ expectations and needs for comfortable aging within one’s own community.

Through my own practice and my observation of the application of drama and theater for aging anthropology, I think the application of theater methodology has become a mean of field material collection. It is also a way to shed light on creative perspective. The playfulness and fun of applied drama and theater, improvisational interpretation, integrated creativity, and body experience can help us raise our awareness of the diversification of being old and the heterogeneity of needs. This has become a method for “design thinking” and “experience design” as a value-added strategy.

Departing from the angle of anthropology, to integrate real life and theatre through applied drama, and to make participants see or create a community of “growing old together” through the performing theater space based on “design thinking” would bring individuals back to their own socio-cultural experiences, review the sensory experience context of daily life and walk in other people’s shoes as well. They would discover and reflect on other people’s needs and desire, together building collective narratives through communication and interaction. Applied drama and theater methodology create a space for dialogue and “connections” not only for doctor-patient relationships, but also for an aged society.

TEXT CHEN Huai-Hsuan
ethnodramacommunity theaterplayful seniors
WANG Wan-Jung (2008). The Exploration of Age Exchange Center. Research in Arts Education, (16), 109-136.
Bernard, M., Amigoni, D., Basten, R., Munro, L., Murray, M., Reynolds, J., … & Rickett, M. (2018). The place of theatre in representations of ageing. The new dynamics of ageing, 2, 285.
Lipscomb, V. B. (2013). “The play’s the thing”: theatre as a scholarly meeting ground in age studies. International Journal of Ageing and Later Life, 7(2), 117-141.
Please see the website.
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