Tuesday, 13 December 2011

Ages and Stages in Boston!

Boston Public Library

Duck Tour

Boston Common
By Michelle Rickett 
I attended the annual Gerontology Society of America conference in Boston this November and, along with Mim Bernard, presented a paper about the Ages and Stages project.

The sheer size of the conference (over 3,500 people) and the diversity of subject matter initially seemed daunting, but I soon found that it was a friendly, welcoming atmosphere and a well organised programme.The conference was in a great location (the Hynes Convention Centre) in central Boston. I had a 10 minute walk through two malls and passed various coffee shops to reach the conference venue; I (mostly) showed restraint in not shopping on the way there or back!

I really enjoyed being at a conference with so many papers and symposia focused on the social aspects of ageing. One highlight was the ‘Changing Age’ symposium, which explored how education might be used to change societal views on ageing, and included thought provoking papers by Harry Moody on the ‘risk society’ and Jennie Keith on cross-cultural views on changing age. I also enjoyed the sessions on narrative gerontology (which focused on the stories people tell about their ageing) and was fascinated to hear blues singer, Toni Lynn Washington, talk about her experiences in the music industry over almost 60 years. I was also delighted to bring home a signed copy of one of Toni's CDs with me!
Mim and I presented as part of a symposium about the arts and ageing, alongside other NDA funded projects focused on music, art and creativity. The atmosphere in our session was very warm and supportive, and it was great to share our research with other academics with similar interests.
We also managed to take some time to see Boston, which looked particularly beautiful in the cold, bright November sun. We took the 'duck tour', explored the Back Bay area, and visited Boston's stunning public library.

Tuesday, 6 December 2011

David Amigoni's visit to the University of Regensburg

Last week I attended the excellent international conference ‘The Cultural Politics of Ageing in the Nineteenth Century’ at the University of Regensburg, Germany (24-26 November), organised by Prof. Anne-Julia Zwierlein and Dr Katharina Boehm (Department of English and American Studies), and funded by the DFG. While my involvement in ‘Ages and Stages’ has been one of the most exciting and satisfying things that I’ve experienced in my research life of the last two years, for others there seemed to be a nagging question of my fit. Conversations would go like this: ‘so, you’re a professor of Victorian literature? so what are you doing working on a project about the representation of ageing in twentieth-century theatre?’ I suppose this has conditioned me to begin talking about my involvement by saying things such as ‘well, I’m a Victorian literature expert, BUT …’  In fact, and jokes aside, a significant portion of the Vic’s documentary output, on which our project largely focuses, was rooted in the nineteenth-century history of the Potteries community; thus, having a knowledge of the nineteenth century has always seemed to me to be a help, rather than lumber I have to clear away before I can get down to business. This conference was, consequently, an excellent opportunity for me to test out the thesis that so much of what we understand, today, about the meaning of age and provision for older persons, has its origins in the nineteenth-century representations, and a history of urban expansion, which concentrated older people, making them visible to representation as never before; and which also drove the need for institutional solutions, such as workhouses (post-1834), almshouses, and (after 1908) pensions.

 This is, in fact, the thesis of Karen Chase’s ground breaking interdisciplinary work on The Victorians and Old Age (Oxford University Press, 2009), which examines across the century and in detail the interaction between social and cultural history, and strategies of representation employed by nineteenth century novelists and social investigators. Karen Chase (University of Virginia) was a speaker at the conference, showing us how she was extending her important work in this field by exploring representations of later life sexuality (as opposed to sensuality), through a beautifully nuanced reading of Elizabeth Gaskell’s Cranford (which is likely to become the canonical of text of a Victorian literature of ageing).  Teresa Mangum (University of Iowa) is another leading Victorianist who has made important critical interventions on the representation of age over the years: her paper , on age and the cultural phenomenon of the late nineteenth-century ‘New Woman’ illustrated two trends: first, an intergenerational emphasis on the representations of gendered ageing embedded in wish-fulfilment narratives about ‘elixirs’ of permanent youth. Indeed, intergenerational representations of ageing, and successful ageing, were prevalent in unexpected places (as revealed in Jochen Petzold’s [Regensburg] paper on The Girl’s Own Paper of the 1880s). Secondly, Teresa Mangum’s paper illustrated an increasing interest in recovering a late Victorian ‘science’ of ageing that was emerging from discussions of heredity, evolution and cellular science. Anne-Julia Zwierlein’s paper on ageing and the science of vitalism was another illustration of this trend, while Lynn Botelho’s (Indiana University of Pennsylvania) paper addressed the way in which a nascent, if non-professional, medical gerontology can be traced to the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.

Another scholar of the early modern period who was present at the gathering was Gordon McMullan (King’s College, London). Gordon presented his work on Shakespeare and the idea of ‘late style’, illustrating the way in which nineteenth-century constructions of an ‘ageing’ Shakespeare can shape (and misshape) assumptions about late life creativity. This is one of the topics that Gordon and I will return to in our AHRC-funded research network on late life creativity, which will launch at Keele in March 2012, and continue at King’s in May (watch this space for details of the supporting website). For my part, I was able to present a paper on the representation of ageing in Arnold Bennett’s post-Victorian The Old Wives’ Tale (1908), and its adaptation by Joyce and Peter Cheeseman for the Vic Theatre in 1971, richly illustrated from the Peter Cheeseman Archive. For me, this was a new, and localised, take on the idea of ‘neo-Victorian fiction’, and further evidence of the fact that nineteenth-century discourses on ageing figure as afterlives in our own lives.

With all of this going on, the conference organisers still generously and hospitably enabled us to experience something of the beautiful medieval city of Regensburg, a World Heritage site since 2006. The Christmas Market, experienced on a cold and dark Saturday evening, illuminated by real fires, more spit-roasting pork than you could conceive, and Christmas lights, was a special experience; as was the Sunday-morning guided tour of the Old Town before boarding the planes for home.  

David Amigoni

Thursday, 10 November 2011

Ages and Stages out and about

We were delighted to take part in the Arts & Health Showcase that took place in Stoke-on-Trent on 12th October. Over 100 delegates came along to the recently refurbished Mitchell Arts Centre in the city centre to a wonderful programme of workshops and discussions.

Michael Murray in opening the event identified three aims – to showcase examples of ongoing arts and health work in the region, to provide an opportunity to meet and network with fellow arts and health workers, and to consider opportunities and challenges for the future.

The day was filled with great conversation with other arts practitioners, academics and health professionals, a wide choice of workshops and a wonderful lunch. Members of the Ages and Stages team (led by Jill Rezzano and including Mim Bernard, Michelle Rickett and Michael Murray) delivered its own workshop exploring the possibilities of intergenerational learning through Drama.

 Using images from a New Vic Theatre production set on a hospital ward, we explored a variety of scenes all focusing on a single moment of human interaction. Having participants from such a wide variety of backgrounds, ages and experience shaped a rich range of responses and perspectives. The understanding of feelings within the scenes drew us together despite our own differences and equally gave the discussion variety and texture. The group entered into the workshop with great energy and generosity making it a great experience for us too.

The showcase ended with a panel discussion on future opportunities for arts and health workers in the region. After the success of this event there is already talk of further events in which the Ages & Stages team will be keen to be involved.

Jill Rezzano and Michael Murray

Monday, 17 October 2011


Welcome to the Ages and Stages blog!

We're in the final phase of our project, and will be starting to create our own theatre documentary and exhibition very soon. In preparation for this, we've been holding a series of workshops on Mondays at the New Vic Theatre. Around 15 people take part in the workshops each week, including audience members, volunteers and former employees of the Vic. Using a variety of drama techniques, we've been exploring the different ways that we've all been involved with the theatre and the role it has played in our lives.

We'll be using this blog to share our experiences, and a number of us (both researchers and participants) will be writing posts over the coming weeks.

Michelle Rickett (Research Associate)