Generations Apart

The Observer recently reported the results of a European Social Survey that exposed the intergenerational split in our society – ‘half of us admitting we do not have a single friend over 70’. We inhabit a world of ‘generation specific’ spaces. It’s a situation that we are often tacitly complicit about in the arts. A huge body of exciting participatory practice with older people is currently breaking the surface encouraged in part by significant commitment from The Baring Foundation. The huge October gathering in Manchester Town Hall for the launch of their commissioned evidence review on the impact of arts on the lives of older people visibly demonstrated the size of this exciting and energetic sector despite the challenging times in which we are all operating. But is this age specificity compounding the problem? Is it helping us get those intergenerational bums side by side on the seats or into the rehearsal rooms?

Of course there are practical issues, as anyone who has tried to develop sustained work across generations will know. Just finding the times and places where people can come together can be a challenge. Then there’s the negotiating of school and  college commitments with hospital appointments and looking after the younger grandchildren. But structurally are we compounding the myth? Apparently in Briton most of us think that old age starts at 59. That’s probably news to many over sixty who read things more like Juliette Drouet, Victor Hugo’s lover, who eloquently spoke of carrying  “the disguise of old age”.

In the participatory sector we continue to reinforce this parallel landscape of youth and older people’s arts with an occasional popping across the lines for ‘intergenerational’ engagement. Maybe, as The Arts Council’s Creative Case suggests, we should stop obsessing about categorization and simply put the practice of making good, inclusive art back at the centre of all that we do. That’s what could be interesting about current practice at south London’s Bubble Theatre. Bubble has been quietly pioneering a cross-generational practice that challenges this contemporary trend. In a territory that has been historically littered with well intentioned hit and run interventions Bubble are mapping out a long-term, sustained practice. It’s a theatre distinctly of the community within which it operates, giving new meaning to the term ‘immersive practice’.  Years of deep-rooted local engagement have blurred the boundaries between theatre and community. Children from Rotherhithe, where the company is based, have literally grown up with a theatre at the end of their street. They and their families, friends and neighbours have become integral to the creative process.

Bubble Director Jonathan Petherbridge talks of the communicative and emotional power that this practice creates. There is a distinct edge when you put a nine-year old and a sixty-year old in a devising space together: ‘People in that room feel the power of when we get something right and that energy directly translates to an audience. People start looking at things with different age lenses. Multiple viewpoints provoke new ways of thinking and feeling’.

The company’s latest show, BLACKBIRDS, is the story of one London street during the 1940-41 blitz that experienced some of the capital’s heaviest bombing raids. Bubble supported children and young people to listen and collect the wartime stories of their elders and excitingly many of the older contributors followed the young theatre makers back into the rehearsal room. Watching the large performance company of eight to eighty-year olds you begin to glimpse a creative reimagining of roles and relationships.

It’s a community making theatre. Great art? That’s a huge accolade. But they are well on the way.  Well worth watching this space.

David Slater. http://davidaslater.wordpress.com

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