Once Upon A Time looks old age in the face. Ageing is a subject that director Agnieszka Blonska says we do not talk about or see on stage enough. The play tells the stories of three performers over the age of 65 with physical performance backgrounds. Blonska’s interest in the idea was sparked by the realisation of her step-father getting older and her own body changing with time. “When I turned 31 I noticed my first wrinkles. We all know that we are going to get older, but I suddenly realised how inevitable it is, and it’s not like I can press delete or erase and it will change.”
The performers include a 66-year old ballet dancer who retired aged 40, a 66-year old choreographer who has her own company working with old people, and a 67-year old trapeze artist and teacher who still performs. Blonska believes we have little respect for the older generations and that they do not have many platforms for their voices to be heard. “Even though our society is ageing, we talk about it in terms of economy and statistics. It’s all about numbers and masses, but there are no individual stories behind them.” Once Upon A Time aims to present those stories.
Blonska thinks that through individual stories we can access universal truths of ageing, time passing and mortality, and “find something that resonates for each of us”. This is why it’s vital to have the performers telling their own stories. “There is no other story or narrative that I created,” Blonska insists, “it’s all from them, that’s very important.”
Is the performing arts sector ageist? Blonska thinks attitudes are changing. She is especially hopeful about contemporary dance as it has a different approach to working and therefore has more scope for using older bodies. In contrast, ballet is a very strict form where dancers are generally considered too old for their discipline by the age of 40. But she believes the problem doesn’t just lie in the performing arts. “People seem to want to see pretty and young.” In an increasingly commercial world where we are bombarded with images of youthful, flawless skin, the older body is shown less and less. “It all comes down to what we see as the norm of beauty, both within the stage and society. What do we want to see?” Yet Blonska recognises that the sector could be said to be ageist as finding employment as a performer gets increasingly difficult with age.
Once Upon A Time is based on the performers’ own stories, but the play was originally inspired by Jean Amery’s book On Ageing: Revolt and Resignation, with some direct quotes from the text projected in the play. Blonska was drawn to it because of its intimately personal nature and its “in-depth description of the individual experience of time passing and ageing”. Amery discusses the ‘revolt and resignation’ involved in ageing, but in Once Upon A Time Blonska wants to focus on the joys of old age. Above all, the play is a celebration. “The book is very depressing but I don’t think our show is like this. It shows how amazing the older body is in a space and how much richness there is to the lives of the performers.”
The piece is balanced between words and movement. “It’s not about gimmicks and doing crazy things, it’s more about them being present in the space and expressing thoughts and feelings through their bodies.” Blonska has worked closely with movement director Dan Canham and all the movement has been devised with the performers too. “They are the true nature of the thing,” Blonska says, reiterating the importance of the performers. The production also uses visuals and music. While there is no set design as such, projections, designed by Mark Parry, are an important part of the show, showing text from Jean Amery but also some visual images. The music is by Jules Bushell.
The title, Once Upon A Time, suggests the stories we encounter in our childhood that help shape our perception of the world. Blonska directed another show in Poland that was based on a fairytale that is well-known in Polish culture. She struggled to find a similar text in English. Once Upon A Time is the beginning of a fairytale, the start of a new story. “But,” Blonska asks, “the question is what kind of story is that, how many stories can there be?” I ask whether the title suggests a new beginning in old age, in what most people see as an ending. But Blonska says no. “There is an end to this story, we all know what it is. Death.” Old age is not our happily ever after.
Blonska’s advice for young people going into the performing arts would be to question yourself and find your own voice. “Keep looking for your own voice and what it means for you to make theatre. Why do you bother? What do you want to talk about and how do you want to talk about it? It might sound really obvious but it’s really crucial to understand why you’re doing it, it’s not just about production after production.” Blonska doesn’t have a specific desired audience age for Once Upon A Time. “I always struggle answering the question of who would be the audience for this show, because it is for everybody.” Its subject is something we eventually have to face up to. “I wish we could embrace old age more as a society rather than pretending it’s not there until it hits us.”
Once Upon a Time is at Circomedia in Bristol from 25-27 September. For more information and tickets visit Circomedia’s website.