Dr. Kathy Black, Professor of Aging Studies and Social Work, and Dr. Valerie Lipscomb, Associate Professor of English, recently published “The Promise of Documentary Theatre to Counter Ageism in Age-Friendly Communities” in the Journal of Aging Studies, detailing an innovative collaboration with Sarasota’s Florida Studio Theatre (FST). The project, Old Enough to Know Better, was created to spark public discussion about aging in our community, which has earned the Age-Friendly Community designation from the World Health Organization. Dr. Black is an expert in Gerontology who spearheaded the local Age-Friendly movement, and Dr. Lipscomb specializes in age and modern drama, so this community-engaged research combined their areas of emphasis.
The project revolved around FST Associate Artist Jason Cannon and his staff’s conducting interviews about aging in Sarasota with more than 100 residents age 50 or over, and then developing a documentary theatre script about their experiences and perspectives. The script used the actual interview material, framed to highlight stories of the everyday experience of aging and to focus on aspects that may be surprising, both to younger audiences and to the elders who thought their experiences were uncommon. During script development, drafts were presented as staged readings to those connected to the project: interviewees, academicians, theatre supporters, and leaders in local aging services. Theatre staff solicited feedback on the work-in-progress through informal talk-backs.
The project culminated in an initial 10-day production of Old Enough to Know Better, cast with eight professional actors and viewed by more than 800 people. The script was then trimmed down to an hour-long touring version using six professional actors, who performed for nearly 600 people residing in nine area locations, including retirement communities and senior centers. From conception to the end of the tour, the project lasted about two years.
Black and Lipscomb’s article concludes that academics can collaborate with professional artists in the community in order to promote residents’ positive appreciation of the ever-aging self. The unusual collaboration was designed to be research-informed drama, with creative control remaining in the hands of the professional artists, who were committed to creating theatre that is theoretically and academically sound. Therefore, Black and Lipscomb were involved regularly in the project, offering perspectives from gerontology findings on both local and national levels, as well as humanities-based age-studies theories.
Black and Lipscomb focused on how professors can forge productive partnerships with professional artists, who often shy away from collaborations with academic researchers. They found that key to collaborating with professional theatre artists is to acknowledge the importance of having an artist in charge, who ultimately is responsible for artistic vision and high aesthetic quality. In this case, Cannon has a wealth of experience in all aspects of theatre as well as familiarity with academic methodologies, thus earning respect from all stakeholders. The researchers trained him to understand the demographics and issues of the local aging population as well as foundational humanities-based age-studies theories.
Analyzing post-performance audience talkbacks, Black and Lipscomb show that the project facilitated insight and dialogue among the older audience members. Consequently, the article concludes that the play that FST developed holds promise to counter deeply ingrained negative self-beliefs about aging and foster greater acceptance about the experience of others. In addition, the play represents a unique community-based effort to enhance respect and social inclusion for elders, which is a major focus in the
Age-Friendly Community movement. Black and Lipscomb note that the project already serves as a model for other collaborations between academic researchers and professional artists.
Dr. Valerie Lipscomb’s USFSM page:
Dr. Kathy Black’s USFSM page: