If a 30-something wrote, acted, or directed a play, people wouldn’t find this particularly special based on their age. So why should it be different if it were a 90-year-old?
This is an example of exceptionalism. Viewing older people as exceptional for doing things that younger people do underlies a prejudice that aging brings a deficit in capabilities. This is very damaging as it shifts the focus from the activity to age. Exceptionalism also increases the generational divide and misses the opportunity to promote a more positive view of aging.
Vrenia Ivonoffski, Artistic Director of The Estelle Craig ACT II STUDIO and Program Manager at The Chang School and her students have been working for nearly 30 years to expose ageist attitudes like exceptionalism and promote a more positive view of aging. And they’ve used theatre to do so.
“Even the most self-aware and accomplished older person begins to internalize ageist attitudes. It’s etched into our mind that there is a threshold when you hit 65, after which, we somehow are less,” says Vrenia.
Negative stereotypes of millennials versus boomers in the media and online often perpetuate this negative view.
“There’s a widespread image that your value to society diminishes and that you’re just filling in time until you die. And you see all these images of older people doing recreational activities, including travelling, doing crafts, and playing gentle sports. Where are the images of the elderly who are contributing to society – actively working, mentoring younger professionals, or volunteering in significant ways?”
Vrenia added that the prevailing views of aging tend to centre around a whole lot of “D” words: deficit, disability, decline, dependency, dementia.
Something that Vrenia particularly takes exception to is the notion that older people are wise and that this is thrown about like a compensation for getting older. “This is exceptionalism again. Age and wisdom do not go hand in hand. A lot of people who are wise in old age were wise at a young age – age is not the determining factor.”
It’s All About Perspective
What older people do have is long life experience and perspective, says Vrenia. And she feels strongly that there is great value in that. Older people can draw on a much bigger picture when looking at current events, for example. They have lived through tough times like recessions and have experience in how to manage those times.
“With COVID, older people tend to adopt the attitude that you have to be sensible and protect yourself and everyone else,” she says. “But because of their long life view, they understand deeply the struggle younger people are having with the restrictions.” She adds, “If there was ever a steadying mantra that comes with long life it is, ‘And this too shall pass.’”
So, what does long life perspective have to do with theatre? A lot as it turns out.
Vrenia says that among those who are 50-plus enrolled in The Estelle Craig ACT II STUDIO courses, offered by The Chang School, there are many from the helping professions: social workers, nurses, teachers as well as lawyers, business people, and artists. Many are still employed. “It’s very different than working with 20-year-olds,” says Vrenia, adding that the long life perspective that her students bring helps them understand the characters they’re trying to portray in a much deeper, more meaningful way.
For Vrenia and the students, these courses and the studio’s activities are not a hobby but a serious pursuit of theatre skills taught by top theatre professionals. “My first two faculty hires were from the Shaw and Stratford festivals. I wanted people to know we weren’t fooling around.”
The Chang School’s dozen faculty members teaching ACT II STUDIO courses are very stimulated working with older adults. “With age you learn to get over yourself and you’re not afraid to take risks,” said Vrenia. “In terms of the work, older people bring so much more to the table.” The studio is a hub of activity in its acting, playwriting and directing programs. At least a third of the students have continued their learning there for over 15 years. “Interestingly, having to now do our work on Zoom has given rise to a burst of creativity. Our people were very early adopters. Zoom can’t keep up with what they want to do creatively. I’m sure that’s a blow to the stereotype!”
Theatre Meets the Real World
ACT II STUDIO has received several commissions from social science researchers to translate their work to the stage. The studio has worked with the Toronto-Sunnybrook Regional Cancer Centre (for plays on living with metastatic breast cancer, couples coping with prostate cancer treatment, and breast cancer survivorship), York University and the Sunnybrook Nursing Research Unit (living with dementia), and the City of Toronto (ageism).
Most of the plays have toured North America for years and have as their ultimate objective to alleviate unnecessary suffering. Students were actively involved in helping to develop the plays, and these research-based dramas are considered to be among the best on these topics. There are over 50 students currently involved in touring the studio’s collection of shows.
Far from the frivolity and fanfare that’s often associated with entertainment, Vrenia and her students use theatre as an agent for change with the added valuable resource of perspective that comes with age and long life experience.