News Release

Are we mining memories or exploiting older people? New research demands a rethink of Applied Theatre 

Peer-Reviewed Publication

University of Surrey

Imagine your grandmother's life story distilled into a performance, applause washing over her as strangers dissect her past. Sounds heart-warming, doesn't it? Not so fast, warns a new study from the University of Surrey.  

The study found that Applied Theatre practices, particularly reminiscence theatre, could encourage ageism. This happens when we only see older adults as sources of stories from the past and forget to listen to their current thoughts, opinions, and hopes for the future. 

Reminiscence theatre is a form of interactive drama in which older adults share memories and experiences through dialogue, storytelling, and creative activities. 

The study, led by Dr Georgia Bowers from the Guildford School of Acting, has shown that unconscious biases and assumptions can lead practitioners to unknowingly reinforce negative stereotypes about older adults. This can be particularly evident in reminiscence theatre, where focusing on extracting memories risks neglecting participants' present experiences and agency. 

Dr Georgia Bowers, Lecturer and Programme Leader of Applied and Contemporary Theatre BA (Hons) at the Guildford School of Acting and lead author of the study, said: 

"It's crucial to acknowledge that ageism exists within even well-intentioned practices like applied theatre. While reminiscence theatre offers valuable benefits, it can become problematic if we don't prioritise co-creation, shared power, and a focus on participants' present responses to their memories." 

The research proposes a new Anti-Ageism Praxis (AAP) framework to address these concerns. AAP emphasises: 

  • Co-creation and shared power: Participants actively collaborate in shaping the project and final performative outcomes, ensuring that they are not only used for their recollections. 

  • Focus on present responses: Exploring how participants feel about their memories in relation to the present moment leads to focusing on the here and now and not solely on what has been. 

  • Challenging stereotypes: AAP prioritises showcasing older adults' diverse experiences and perspectives, fostering understanding and dismantling ageist assumptions. 

Dr Bowers continued: 

"This research opens important conversations about ethical practice in applied theatre. The proposed AAP framework offers a valuable guide for practitioners to ensure older adults are central to the work and their voices are truly heard."  

The research demonstrates the University of Surrey's contribution towards the United Nations' Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Particularly: SDG 3 (Good Health and Well-being) and SDG 10 (Reduce Inequalities). 

 

The full study has been published in A Journal of the Performing Arts. 

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Notes to editors 

  • Dr Georgia Bowers is available for interviews upon request.   

  • For more information, please contact the University of Surrey's press office via  mediarelations@surrey.ac.uk  


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