Ages and stages


Miriam Bernard, Keele University


  • Lucy Munro, Keele University

  • David Amigoni, Keele University

  • Mike Murray, Keele University

  • Jill Rezzano, the New Vic Theatre

Partners and collaborators

  • New Vic Theatre, Newcastle-under-Lyme

  • the Victoria Theatre Archive, Staffordshire University

  • the Beth Johnson Foundation/Centre for Intergenerational Practice

  • Stoke-on-Trent Primary Care Trust


Miriam Bernard


Contemporary gerontology has highlighted the value of engaging older people in a variety of artistic activities, and the importance of the arts in constructing, perpetuating and challenging models and stereotypes of older people and the ageing process.

Simultaneously, literary and cultural scholars have been increasingly interested in representations of ageing and the artistic output of older people although, prior to the start of the project, there had been few UK studies that brought these areas of scholarly enquiry together. The theatre is a particularly fruitful context for such investigations since it has historically been a cultural arena in which older people are particularly active participants, as audience members, employees and volunteers.

The location for this project was the Potteries, North Staffordshire: an area with a long history of heavy industry (ceramics, coal and steel) that has undergone considerable social and economic change and decline. Local cultural institutions have both reflected and reconstructed these changes.

In particular, the award-winning New Victoria Theatre pioneered a distinctive form of ‘social documentary theatre’ under artistic director Peter Cheeseman. These documentaries chart social, economic and political changes in the Potteries, reflect the community’s self-image at various points in recent history, and illustrate the roles and positions of different generations within the community.

Aims and objectives

Through the lens of older people’s recollections and involvements in a particular place (The Potteries), linked with a particular artistic institution and its ground-breaking social documentary work (the New Victoria Theatre), and from the 1960s to the present day, we aimed to explore how people, place and theatre come together to co-construct, represent and reflect on ageing and old age within the continuing struggles of this unique industrial community.

Specifically the project asked:

  • How has age and ageing been constructed, represented and understood in the Victoria Theatre’s social documentaries from the 1960s to the present day?

  • How have local older people been involved in the Victoria Theatre as a cultural institution since its creation; what part has it played in constructing individual and community identities; and what role has it had in creating and preserving community memory?

  • What is the relationship between older people’s involvement in the theatre (as sources for the social documentaries; as volunteers; as ‘actors’; as audience members), and continuing social engagement in later life?

  • What are the practical and policy implications for involving the theatre, and the arts in general, in promoting active ageing and intergenerational understanding?


The project ran from October 2009 to July 2012. It employed a mixed method approach organised around three interrelated and complementary strands: Representation, Recollection and Performance.

Strand one explored historical representations of ageing through detailed literary and cultural analyses of materials held in the New Victoria Theatre Archive.

Strand two focused on recollections and contemporary representations of ageing through qualitative interview work with four groups of people who are now old and were:

  1. sources for the Vic's ground-breaking social documentaries

  2. volunteers with the theatre

  3. audience members throughout their lives

  4. actors and others who made their lives in the area and continue to be part of the local community.

Material drawn from strands one and two were then used in strand three to work with the Youth Theatre and older people to create a 'new' social documentary performance. The performance, together with an exhibition and a range of associated educational materials and outreach activities, was also evaluated.


Supported by an Advisory Group, this project was designed to have practical, cultural and scholarly outcomes and outputs addressed to different, and overlapping, audiences.

These outcomes included:

  • A new social documentary performance and associated exhibition designed to stimulate ongoing community and academic debate and discussion about the ‘new dynamics of ageing’.

  • A range of innovative materials and associated workshops for practitioners, primary and secondary school teachers, and other individuals and organisations wanting to engage in similar work.

  • Policy guidance/policy briefs and policy workshops targeted at those responsible for local, regional and national policy-making initiatives designed to improve the quality of older people’s lives and enhance community cohesion.

  • Contributions to both disciplinary and interdisciplinary knowledge in relation to theory, methodology and the substantive issues addressed by the research.

  • A major international, interdisciplinary conference on the theme of ‘Theatre, Ageing and Community Memory’, to take place towards the end of the final year.

  • The training of postgraduate and postdoctoral scholars in interdisciplinary and collaborative ageing research.

Policy implications

Key policy and/or practice implications of the research

The project was of interest and benefit to a range of individuals, groups and organisations. We anticipated that it woudl have potential policy and/or practice impacts on

  • older people

  • professionals working with older and younger people in various settings

  • policy-makers working at local, regional and national levels and in voluntary agencies

  • the academic community

Implications for older people

Older people in the Potteries, as well as those living in communities which have undergone similar social, industrial and economic changes over the last 40-50 years, were potentially be impacted by the project in the following ways:

  • Through the provision of detailed information about the meanings such cultural involvement has for older people’s identity and for their continuing social engagement in later life.

  • Through highlighting both the aids and the obstacles to participation and providing pointers for how ‘active ageing’ might be better supported and facilitated.

  • Through bringing local older and younger people together to potentially enhance understanding between the generations.

Implications for professionals

In similar ways, the project was also of benefit to a range of professionals who worked either with older or younger people in community arts, in educational settings, social care arenas and health promotion, and/or who might wish to explore the scope for intergenerational arts-based activities.

This included:

  • Indicators and recommendations for others wishing to pursue similar work in other communities.

  • Provision of a range of innovative materials and associated workshops for practitioners, primary and secondary school teachers, and other individuals and organisations wanting to engage in similar work.

  • Sound research evidence on which to base practice decisions.

Implications for policy-makers

The project yielded research evidence of use for policy makers working at local, regional and national levels, and in voluntary agencies.

This included:

  • Knowledge about the role that the arts and the involvement of older people has had and might have, in helping build cohesive communities and combating social exclusion.

  • Awareness raising of the issues involved in working with older and younger people in ways that promote, rather than inhibit, intergenerational understanding.

  • Feeding into/informing current local strategies aimed at the physical and cultural regeneration of the Potteries, and the development of ageing initiatives such as the city's 10-year plan for ‘Ageing Well Living Well’, its ‘Healthy City’ initiative and the county’s ‘Ageing with Opportunity’ strategy.

Implications for the academic community

Through its innovative interdisciplinary methodological approach combining archival, empirical and action research, the project was of interest to colleagues working in both the Humanities and the Social Sciences in that it could potentially

  • generate new knowledge about the ways in which representations and discourses of ageing are embedded within changing social and cultural circumstances

  • act as a model for future interdisciplinary studies and help towards the creation of a new generation of skilled interdisciplinary researchers in ageing

Key non-academic user groups that were targeted

User groups that were targeted included:

  • Older people in the Potteries

  • Professionals who work either with older and/or younger people in community arts, in educational settings, social care arenas and health promotion.

  • Charities and other voluntary organisations representing older and younger people.

  • Educators and trainers of community arts, educational, and health and social care professionals.