November 19, 2011

USA: SENIOR POWER… A Play for an Older Actress

BERKELEY, California / The Berkeley Daily Planet / Opinion / November 18, 2011


COLUMNS
By Helen Rippier Wheeler


This week I saw and heard Bill Cain’s play, How to Write a New Book for the Bible, world premiered at the Berkeley Rep. In short, “A man moves in with his mother when she can no longer care for herself… Their reunion heals old wounds, opening a heartfelt and humorous new chapter in their relationship … this timeless tale celebrates a mother’s love and a son’s devotion.”

Beforehand, I thought this might be the same play that had been part of South Coast Repertory’s 2010 NewSCRipts staged reading series subtitled A Play for an Older Actress. There is but one brief reference in the forty-three page playbill to “a play for an older actress.” The playwright responds “It just is” when asked to “… talk a little bit about why you included the subtitle A Play for an Older Actress

Cain, a Jesuit priest, wrote the story of the play as a book, still-unpublished, which he then adapted into this autobiographical play about his family. Linda Gehringer, who plays Mary (what else?), his mother, is superb. I have no idea of her age nor even her vintage.

Linda Gehringer plays Bill Cain's mother, Mary
Courtesy: The Sacramento Bee

The audience, mostly older people, laughed a lot. I try but can’t find humor in most portrayals of old people’s antics, especially old women.

The Berkeley Rep volunteer ushers are old women who make a lot of sense while being helpful. (I recall one old man some time back – he too was spry and helpful.)    ****

Sharon Gless (Photo courtesy: BBC, London) is on the London stage as a mature woman who decides to try to find love after decades in the wilderness. Gless is the sixty-eight year old actor who co-starred in 1980’s Cagney and Lacey TV cop show. Jane Prowse adapted and directed Jane Juska’s best-selling 2003 A Round-Heeled Woman: My Late-Life Adventures in Sex and Romance, which chronicled the real-life adventures resulting from a personal ad in the New York Review of Books: “Before I turn 67 - next March - I would like to have a lot of sex with a man I like. If you want to talk first, Trollope works for me.” Juska received 63 replies, from men aged 32-84. Along her courageous journey, she fell in love, had her heart broken, suffered rejection and humiliation, had a lot of laughs and her first orgasm with a man after thirty years.

Gless considers the Juska role "a gift" for an actor her age. "… in Britain there are roles for Judi Dench (born 1934), Maggie Smith (born 1934), Helen Mirren (born 1945) and Julie Walters (born 1950), who are all still highly sexualized in their work. The British are much more accepting of older women having libidos and being sexual." [BBC News, Oct. 16, 2011 ]

Claire Bloom at sixty-five, wrote, in her 1996 Leaving a Doll’s House memoir, “There comes a time in every actress’s career when her chronological age defines her public identity, thus limiting her ability to attract new offers; consequently, she desperately tries to cling to her youth. I’ve heard it said that, in the current film world, this dynamic has changed, but my impression is that, some notable female initiatives apart, there are as many insecure actresses today as before. Unlike men, the roles for women alter radically after fifty. Gone then are the lovers, the suitors. Now, in stead succession, come the mothers, aunts, spinsters, and only with the lucky ones who stay to the bitter end, the grandmothers, the crones. A painful transition for any woman.”

A crone is, according to several dictionaries, an ugly, withered old woman. As a stock character in folklore and fairy tale, she is usually disagreeable, malicious or sinister in manner, often with magical or supernatural associations that can make her either helpful or obstructing. Although marginalized by her exclusion from the reproductive cycle, her proximity to death is said to place her in contact with occultwisdom. Eh gad. ****

Ageism and sexism are closely linked. The Screen Actors Guild (SAG) claims to encourage positive images of women and older persons in film and television in order to end stereotypes and to educate the industry about their representation, both in numbers and quality of representation. From 1981-85, Leslie Hoffman, first stuntwoman elected to the Hollywood Screen Actors Board, worked towards hiring more women, minorities, seniors, and disabled performers. She was blacklisted by the SAG Board and by Stuntmen Groups. In 2003, only 37% of all SAG television and film roles went to women. In 2010, a study carried out by the Annenberg School for Communication and the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in the Media found that male characters outnumber female characters by three to one in top-grossing American films.

The little old lady is a stock character. CraigsList: “Need Older Actress to Play a Little Old Lady (Los Angeles). An older actress is needed to play a Little Old Lady out walking her dog for a commercial we are shooting on Tuesday (November 15th.) Approximate Call Time is 6:30 AM and you will be done by 11 AM. Please email headshot(s) and resumé.”

A “casting notice for an Older Non Union Actress For Off-Broadway Show at Play Dead Productions in New York NY- Part Time Job. The show was created by Todd Robbins (Carnival Knowledge) and Teller (of Penn & Teller)… not a typical play, but a theatrical thrill ride -- here and now in an ‘abandoned’ theater -- … We are looking for: A 50 actress to play ghost of Italian peasant con woman- no dialogue -- dance or movement background preferred but not required-- nudity required, non union Salary: This is a paid role.”

Of Prince Charles’ art exhibit, the London Evening Standard newspaper’s art critic wrote, “Small and persnickety watercolor currently on view at the Royal Academy. Any old lady can dabble away in watercolors on a wet Sunday afternoon.” The Berkeley Voice newspaper reported that “There’s no credible evidence that landlords sit around and figure out how to evict little old ladies.” (Which, as it happens, may indeed be the case.)

Consider the media image of old people in some funny ha ha cartoons. “Gaijins [foreigners] can’t believe that little old ladies are waiting to clean the urinal while they’re using it!” captioned the cartoon of an embarrassed male and a bored, waiting on him, babushka-type elder woman. (Mainichi Daily News.) “And do you have large print microform books?” an old, albeit quaint, bespectacled woman leaning on a cane queried an astonished man (an American Library Association periodical). Political cartoonists who earn a living while assertively recognizing and acknowledging the potential damage of ageist and sexist cartoons are rare. BulBul is the only one I can think of.

TV is our Number One socializer. Media portrayals are not meaningless entertainment but an index to what it means to be old [and female] in our society, including the available options and the dimensions of the role. Viewers perceive TV as representative of reality. Sex/gender roles, occupational roles, and age roles are of great importance.

The TV sitcom, Golden Girls, was hailed as a media breakthrough by some, while others were reminded of the old saying that the most oppressed people are those who do not recognize their oppression. Belittling humor was the Girls’ mainstay. Gray Panthers of San Francisco, Minneapolis and several other cities protested. There were some pluses, however—the characters had a sense of humor, shared housing, were sexual beings, and the mother of one of the “girls” lived with them.

Bette Davis (1908-1989) in her later years appeared in a black and white TV program drama that I can’t find in any of her filmographies. I recognized the backdrop –Tiemann Place, a block long locale in Upper Westside Manhattan, International House vicinity. Davis played a woman who had lived in an apartment house for years, but she must vacate. The building was undergoing changes, or she had no income. She tried to sell her possessions and gradually gives them away, to emerge from her building into New York winter with two shopping bags. To a non-life on the street.

Martha Boesing's deeply moving play, Song of the Magpie, is a one act, hour-long monolog about a sixty-nine year-old woman who goes out to experience the world as a homeless person. It follows her journey for a week, and then morphs into a street person speaking about what it is like actually to be old, homeless, and living in the San Francisco Tenderloin, portraying the dangers, hardships and unexpected humanity found there. The play was performed at the Faithful Fools Street Ministry in San Francisco in March 2006. Seventy-five year old Oakland resident Boesing has written 40+ produced plays, led workshops, and directed plays for theaters throughout the country. 

The mass media that influence the popular image of old people include newspapers (editorials, columns, reviews, political cartoons;) radio and TV (commercials, PBS, cable; news, editorials;) motion pictures; books (fiction and nonfiction, adult and children’s); greeting cards; advertisements, commercials, paid announcements. In your role as consumer, voter, tax payer, local resident, reader, subscriber… when was your last Letter to an Editor, with cc to advertisers, sponsors, ad agencies, networks, stations?  ****

NEWS
New poverty figures from the U.S. Census Bureau show a large increase in the number of poor Americans, specifically older adults. Using a new formula that factors in health care costs, the agency found that the number of Americans aged 65+ in poverty nearly doubled to 15.9%, or 1 in 6 individuals.

The National Council on Aging reports that the 12-member Congressional Supercommittee, formed to find a way to reduce the deficit, is working toward a Nov. 23 deadline to finalize its proposal. Advocates for seniors remain concerned that an agreement may not strike the appropriate balance between spending cuts and revenues, may shift unaffordable costs onto Medicare beneficiaries, and/or may cut safety net programs, harming low-income seniors. Prospects for a deal do not look good.

Seniors with low incomes are more likely to develop heart failure than those with higher incomes, even if they have Medicare coverage and are college-educated, an American Heart Association study finds. Researchers examined records of 5,153 Medicare-eligible seniors living independently without heart failure in the early 1990s. Thirteen years later, 18 percent of the seniors with a high level of education and high income had developed heart failure. Similarly, 17 percent of the older adults with low education but high income developed heart failure. On the other hand, 23 percent of seniors with low income developed heart failure regardless of their education. Patients with low education and low income were at the greatest risk, with 29 percent developing heart failure. Low-income patients may not be able to afford out-of-pocket costs associated with their Medicare coverage. Income also affects people's access to healthy foods and safe, affordable places to exercise. The researchers concluded that older people need low-cost ways to stay healthy and eat right.

The University Health Network (UHN) reports that Whole-body-vibration, a popular exercise that uses a vibrating platform, sometimes advertised as being able to boost bone, is not an effective therapy for the prevention of bone loss and density. A one-year-study on healthy postmenopausal women has shown that it has no such effect. The study entitled, Effects of 12 Months of Whole-Body Vibration (WBV) on Bone Density and Structure in Postmenopausal Women: A Randomized Controlled Trial, is published in the November 15, 2011 issue of the Annals of Internal Medicine.

The Public Policy & Aging Report (PPAR) explores policy issues generated by the aging of American society. Each thematic issue is designed to stimulate debate, highlight emerging concerns and propose alternative policy solutions. The Summer 2011 issue, cosponsored by Services and Advocacy for GLBT Elders (SAGE) is titled “Integrating LGBT Older Adults into Aging Policy & Practice.” It isestimated that one in two Americans living with HIV will be age 50+ by 2015.

Aging and health issues facing lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender baby boomers have been largely ignored by services, policies and research. These seniors face higher rates of disability, physical and mental distress and a lack of access to services, according to the first study on aging and health in these communities. The study, released Nov. 16, 2011 and led by Karen Fredriksen-Goldsen and colleagues at the University of Washington’s School of Social Work, indicates that prevention and intervention strategies must be developed to address the unique needs of these seniors, whose numbers are expected to double to more than 4 million by 2030.

Elderly patients are less likely than middle-aged patients to receive pain medications in U.S. hospital emergency departments, even when they have severe pain. Researchers analyzed data collected from U.S. emergency departments between 2003 and 2009. Among patients with a primary complaint of pain, an analgesic (such as morphine, oxycodone or ibuprofen) was given to 49 percent of patients age 75+, and 68 percent of patients aged 35 to 54. An opioid (such as morphine or oxycodone) was given to about 35 percent of elderly patients and 49 percent of middle-aged patients. Age-related differences in the use of pain medications remained even after the researchers adjusted for factors such as sex, race/ethnicity and pain severity. Elderly patients were nearly 20 percent less likely to receive an analgesic and 15 percent less likely to receive an opioid than middle-aged patients. Even among those with severe pain, elderly patients were less likely to receive pain medications than middle-aged patients (67 percent versus 79 percent, respectively). The study was published online and in the Annals of Emergency Medicine. Each year in the United States, patients age 65+ make more than 20 million visits to hospital emergency departments; nearly half of those visits are pain-related. [Nov. 16, 2011 HealthDay News]

The author, Helen Rippier Wheeler (Women and Aging)
 holds a doctorate in education and masters' degrees in library science and social science (human development). Her numerous publications include Womanhood Media: Current Resources About Women and Getting Published in Women’s Studies: An International, Interdisciplinary Professional Development Guide. She is a feminist, a founding member of the Aging and Ageism Caucus of the National Women's Studies Association, and vice president of the Berkeley Commission on Aging.
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