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Classical Theater Offers Perspectives on Aging

Stanford theater community performs at Poetics of Aging conference

An elderly King Lear has been stripped of his wealth and cast out by his daughters. Filthy, crazed, and alone, he is confronted by his daughter Cordelia. At first mistaking her for an angel, his pessimism and confusion eventually fade away as he comes to realize who she is, and what it means that he survived to be reunited with her.

“As he is able to connect with her, the illusions are ripped away,” says Tom Freeland, a lecturer in the Center for Teaching and Learning at Stanford who is portraying the fallen king in this scene. The part of Cordelia is played by Ariel Mazel-Gee, a double major in Drama and Comparative Studies in Race and Ethnicity.

“Together, they are able to come to the realization that they have the advantage over those who have imprisoned them,” says Freeland during a break from rehearsal. ”‘We are trapped in politics,’ he is telling her. ‘But we know who we are’,”

The five-minute sequence in which Lear comes to accept his fate conveys both the wisdom that comes with life’s harsh lessons as well as the ability to arrive at that knowledge through compassion and understanding. It is one of a dozen scenes to be performed by members of the Stanford community at the Poetics of Aging conference being held in San Francisco from November 16-19. “The scenes are to loosen up the conference, help people to go inside of themselves, give them a visceral experience,” says organizer Nader Shabahangi, who received his doctorate in German Studies at Stanford and who co-founded Bay Area residential care provider AgeSong.

“Life is play and theater can take the edge off our tendency to be too serious about life,” he says. “The lesson here is that age can seem like an awful thing,” says Rush Rehm, a professor of Drama and Classics at Stanford who is directing the performances as a continuation of his Stanford Summer Theater program. “But if we live through it, we may be able to come to a deeper understanding of how life works.”

Art Explores How Age Can be a Gateway to Self-Discovery

The four-day conference will be attended by a number of health care professionals – including hospice and geriatric caregivers, social workers and nurses – as well as educators and interested members of the public.

Shabahangi says that his background in the humanities has helped to provide him with an understanding of the depth of human awareness that comes with age. “It has also provided me with a much broader mindset and set of values that go beyond the material surface of measurable achievements like having and doing,” he says. “The very title of the conference – Poetics of Aging – speaks to the creative and humanistic aspects of being human, a perspective not often found in mainstream culture,” he adds.

The goal of the gathering, organizers say, is to look past the dominant narrative that portrays age as decline, and to consider the aging process instead as a means for reflection and for the discovery of the self. Through discussion and by experiencing core concepts through the arts and other activities, it is hoped that attendees will be able to apply this notion to care giving. “I hope to convey that these added years are a tremendous gift that we humans have been given, to give back to the world and to become all of who you are, something we often do not have time to explore or understand,” he says.

The conference, says Rehm, will consider age in the context of creativity, perceiving it not just as a biological concept, but also as a human one. “We believe that age has been given a bad rap in society, associated with loss or failure. We argue that this is not the full story, that age has much to do with the acquisition of wisdom,” he says.

The twelve performances – mostly drawn from classical theater – will correspond with the central theme of each day of the conference. The first will focus on the concept of age in politics and ask who frames the debate, and with what agenda. “While the great humanist tradition seeks to confront mortality, to deal with the reality that we are going to die, the rhetoric of modern politics instead wants to deny mortality and cloud aging with procedures that may add time to our lives, but nothing more,” says Rehm.

Opening the discussion will be the sequence from King Lear alongside several other performances including a scene from Shakespeare’s Henry IV Part II. A sequence from Suppliant Women by Euripides, which depicts an old man who has lost his daughter to suicide wishing for a second life without children, asks the question of whether the quantity of life can substitute for its quality.

A chorus from Sophocles’ Oedipus at Colonus reflects on how the decision of the Athenians to take in a blind and defamed Oedipus – cast out from his kingdom after the discovery of his patricide and incest – will in the future reward Athens, This section suggests that much of our meaning in life may arise from the manner and impact of our death.

These performances will be followed by a keynote address from Stanford professor of education and psychology John Krumboltz, who has argued that human behavior is shaped by sustained life experience and experimentation, and will ask how we can achieve happiness and satisfaction in this manner in the later stages of life. “Age can be awful, and sometimes it seems like it is better to not have been born at all,” says Rehm. “What these sequences show is that, if we live our old age –  if we perservere through its desperation and difficulty – we might come to a deeper understanding of what  life means.” Age, he says, offers us a unique perspective on life, one completely different from that of youth, which views life through the lens of ambition and achievement, rather than reflection.

A Common Experience to Guide the Conversation

Age also brings with it an altered set of personal capabilities, a notion that will be addressed on the second day of the conference with a performance by longtime SST company member Courtney Walsh of an excerpt from Samuel Beckett’s Happy Days. The character Winnie is forced to adapt her daily routine to her reduced capabilities as more and more of her body is buried in the ground.

A selection from Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking (performed by Anne Hallinan) on the third day of the gathering will address the issues of care giving through the real-life account of a woman who learned how to care for others as well as herself following the deaths of her husband and daughter.

“Theater does not have to tell the literal truth about aging, or be limited by real-world contexts,” says Rehm. “In providing a common experience through which we can consider ideas on a deeper level, I hope that these performances will inform the conversation throughout the conference.”

Redefining Care Giving to Promote Continued Life Experience

“What interests me about aging is that it allows us to learn and grow,” says Shabahangi. “I am especially interested in the idea of becoming or growing into elder-hood, becoming a person who can develop skills such as patience, going slow, being able to see the long-view, is compassionate and deeply caring,” he says. “Only aging and life experience can promote these so-called soft skills that are barely taught any longer.”

Much like Lear is able to console his daughter Cordelia with dignity and reflection, our elders possess an understanding of life shaped by experience and contemplation. “The wise elder is a mythological and real figure on who we count to make impartial decisions, give us wise counsel, listen to our grief, and be truly present with us in our time of need,” says Shabahangi.

The gathering will serve as an opportunity to help foster the integration of the arts into ethno-geriatric education and health care professional training, says Marita Grudzen. The educator, who is the Deputy Director of the Stanford Geriatric Education Center, helped to organize the conference after being contacted by Shabahangi. “Ageism has blinded us thus far to the potential for creativity and wisdom in our later years, and what this may offer to our families, our communities, and society at large were it fostered and celebrated,” she says. “With the increase of longevity, society needs to support modalities that awaken and connect us with sources of meaning and purpose in our later years.”