For Valerie Lipscomb, an English professor at the University of South Florida Sarasota-Manatee, age is about attitude. And no, she’s not talking about, “you’re only as old as you feel.”
“Does anyone say to a 20-year-old, ‘You’re only as old as you feel?’” asks Lipscomb, who is 51. She is the co-editor of the book “Staging Age: The Performance of Age in Theatre, Dance, and Film,” which was published last year and is receiving international attention.
In May, she was invited to speak on “Age on Stage: Performance and Possibility” at the Arts, Media, and Culture Symposium on Performance and Performativity at Maastricht University, The Netherlands.
“Staging Age” is about how movie, dance and stage performances portray age. The magic of the theater can translate into a new understanding of what it means to be older.
The youngest boomers are turning 47 and now solidly into middle age. The oldest, born in 1946, are 65 this year, old enough for Medicare. An immense generation of the elderly is just ahead.
If any group is feeling twinges about age, it’s the baby boomers.
Grandbabies are now arriving and some boomers are asking Facebook friends about younger-sounding substitutes for the names “grandma” and “grandpa.” Lipscomb says one of her friends about to be a grandfather considered the name “Dude,” like the Jeff Bridges character in “The Big Lebowski.”
But we’re all of a “certain age,” says Lipscomb, whether young, old or in-between. The notion that we’re all in this together -- and just at different points along the lifetime spectrum -- puts a different slant on age, she says.
In a sense, people are actors, too, when it comes their age. The performing arts can be the staging ground that inspires new ways of thinking. Generations have more in common than is typically realized, says Lipscomb.
For instance, many people want to appear to be a different age than what they actually are. The boomers get Botox injections and plastic surgery to appear younger. On the other end of the age spectrum, tweeners wear eye shadow and lots of makeup to appear older.
“The fact that we all do this is what generations have in common,” says Lipscomb.
Younger drivers with quicker reflexes may characterize elderly drivers as “another old person driving in the left lane with the turn signal on.”
But when young people believe they have nothing in common with age stereotypes, Lipscomb asks if they’ve ever been called whippersnappers or been told they’re wet behind the ears.
It’s the equivalent of being “too old” for the job, and also shows most everyone is met with judgments about “acting one’s age.”
Lipscomb and her co-editor, Leni Marshall at the University of Wisconsin-Stout, sought contributors from as far away as Ireland to show how age is portrayed in the performing arts.
The stories told in the book about movies, theater and dance reflect some conflicting attitudes. Hollywood can be youth-obsessed, demanding young actors or at least youthful appearances, and reinforcing stereotypes about age.
Some older actors do still get the girl, though. In cop-action movies, aging heroes such as Clint Eastwood in “In the Line of Fire” often are in retirement, or about to retire, but have romances with much-younger women.
At least in cop movies, “retirement then becomes an attractive option only if it promises romance with an age-inappropriate young woman,” says Lipscomb. “Otherwise, the films basically assert that it is better to die than to retire. Isn’t that awful?”
According to “Staging Age,” Hollywood’s youth cult started early, as far back as 1918. In that year, a silent picture named “Old Wives for New” by director Cecil B. DeMille made its debut, depicting a frumpy and slovenly “old” wife. She had “let herself go,” exasperating her husband and prompting him to seek a new companion.
On the flip side, there are roles that have been transformative for the actors who discovered new views about aging. These are the inspirations that viewers can draw from in their own “performances” of age, said Lipscomb.
An example is Phylicia Rashad, best known as the mom in “The Cosby Show.” She played Aunt Ester, a 285-year-old woman in the stage play “Gem of the Ocean.”
To prepare for the Aunt Ester role, she said, “I began to watch elderly women more carefully, and I fell in love with what I saw … I began to feel like, if this is what it means, growing older, bring it on.”
Her part as Aunt Ester was “the most beautiful woman I have ever been.”
Portrayals of characters such as Willy Loman in “Death of a Salesman” show how the range of life experience makes it possible for someone to feel both old and young. In the play, Loman is in his 60s, but also reliving memories from his 40s.
Dustin Hoffman played the part of the aging Loman in a Broadway production in the 1980s. Without changing physical appearance, Hoffman portrayed both the “older” Willy and the “younger” Willy that was based on memory.
Lipscomb says the boomers may be able to lead the pack in new attitudes about age. Boomers were famous for establishing their identity as young people, and are as likely to be concerned about identity in old age.
She expects the performing arts could help with that.
“We need a different way to think about age -- age is a performance and we really do act our age,” said Lipscomb. “No where is that more obvious than on stage.”
Susan Hemmingway, Herald health correspondent, can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.