Reaching middle age and beyond has long been a topic for popular commentary on the human condition, from the commonplace that “Growing old isn’t bad when you consider the alternative” to Bette Davis’s famous observation that “Old age ain’t no place for sissies!” 1812 Productions’ producing artistic director and co-founder Jennifer Childs is joining in the conversation on the realities of midlife with I Will Not Go Gently, an original world-premiere comedy that she wrote and performs.
Directed by Harriet Power, the universal theme is examined through the fictional story of Sierra Mist, an aging rock star from the ‘80s, planning a comeback tour 30 years after her chart-topping debut. With a period-style soundtrack by Childs (lyrics) and Barrymore Award-winning sound designer and composer Christopher Colucci (score), the play with music is a funny life-affirming response to Dylan Thomas’s rebellious poem of 1951, “Do not go gentle into that good night/Old age should burn and rave at close of day/Rage, rage against the dying of the light.”
In a 90-minute solo performance, Childs takes on the roles of the former rock icon and a coterie of her family, friends, and fans, all now over the age of 40. On an afternoon before a preview performance, Childs and Power spoke with me about the real effects of aging on women, in a culture that values youth and its particular type of beauty.
Deb: What’s so funny about getting older?
Jen: I feel like I come up against what I expected my life to be and what it is, and that’s kind of funny. It’s not slip-on-a-banana-peel funny, sometimes it’s more of an “ouch!” But I use the character I created for this play to help me see the humor in my own life, now that I’m middle-aged. It’s humbling that I need reading glasses, and that sometimes my bones ache, and it just seems funny to me to be at that place!
Harriet: It’s a really delightful club to be in, though we don’t want to be a member! There’s a sense of sisterhood with women over 40 who laugh about it. Maturity brings effervescence.
Jen: There’s also a freedom. I’m not as concerned about what people think of me now. It’s not that I don’t care, it’s just not as important as it was before, and it’s very liberating to be able to do my own comedy the way I want to do it, and to feel free to be myself.
Why a rock star?
Jen: I was interested in writing about someone in the entertainment industry because it’s a business that’s not interested in women over 40. Writing about an actor felt too close to home, but music puts me exactly where I was at each point in my life. In hitting middle age, I thought a lot about the music I related to through the years; I could remember where I was, what I was doing, and who I was with when I heard the song that had been playing at any given time. I realized that Liz Phair is the artist who sound-tracked my life, so that’s the style I went for in the play. I also wanted a character that ages publicly, while most of us age privately, so a rock star was the right fit.
Harriet: The lead character, Sierra Mist, is so funny! The rock world gives permission for its stars to have huge egos, and so she’s a perfect representation of the ego in all of us who don’t normally allow it to be seen. Most of us feel the need, or the pressure, to calm down and to be more controlled as we get older, but she doesn’t have to. And with all of us, as Jen said, music dates our lives. I had an old turntable that stacked five records, which I listened to each night as a college freshman, and every morning I would remember the last song that was playing when I fell asleep. Music does for us what no other medium does—it says to us, “I know you, and you’re not alone.” Even with Alzheimer’s patients, doctors and researchers have found that singing is in the deep brain. They might not remember anything else, but they remember song lyrics.
Is it more difficult for baby-boomers to age because of having created the youth movement of the ‘60s, and the warning “Don’t trust anyone over 30?”
Harriet: I’ve never heard that question before–it’s a poignant one. There’s strength in numbers, and the baby-boomers have the numbers! Some of my closest friends, still, are the people I met when I was seventeen or eighteen, and the spirit of the ‘60s persists in us. In that respect, I think it’s easier for us than it was for my mother’s generation, when looks and youth were everything for a woman. We broke the rules and we’re making the rules as we go; we were trailblazers, and we feel that we still are, that we don’t have to adhere to the old standards.
Jen: That’s an interesting question. In the show, Sierra Mist is just about 50, so she’s not really a baby-boomer, she’s Gen X, as am I. But we had a talkback after our first preview, in which a 70-year-old man and a younger man, who looked like he was in his twenties, both raised their hands and said they related to the show and its theme of aging.
Harriet: Yes, that was remarkable! But it’s a fact that we all have in common. We’re all getting older every day, we’re born to age and to die—that’s the reality of life.
Jen: When I got married, I woke up the next day and I felt that I wanted to live longer. I had the same feeling when my daughter was born. I suddenly had more to live for, and so it wasn’t just the fear of aging and death that I was experiencing, but the joy of living. I think those are also universal feelings that apply to all generations and genders.
With that said, do you think aging is harder for women, or just different than it is for men (e.g., they deal with balding, erectile dysfunction, and ‘manopause’)?
Jen: I’m not a man so I can’t say, but I think it’s different, and I think it’s crueler for women. There’s still, in the public eye, more acceptance of men looking older, while women continue to be judged by their physical appearance. When you pass by a copy of the National Enquirer, you don’t see photos of Jack Nicholson’s cellulite! They don’t try to embarrass men for what they look like, they only do it to women.
Harriet: I’m going to leave this to your good taste as to whether or not you want to include it, but I always say that “Menopause made me know for certain that God is not female!” (and I didn’t have a particularly difficult one). Women are paid less for doing the same jobs as men. If we’re passionate and intense, we’re seen as difficult, whereas those traits in men are not seen as grounds for criticism, they’re praised.
Jen: The scrutiny of women is definitely more severe, and the same qualities that are considered positive in men are condemned in women. Maybe one day there can be a female version of Bernie Sanders, who can say what she thinks, who doesn’t have to be young and have perfectly groomed hair, but I don’t see it yet.
Raising issues similar to those in your show, local artist Ellensue Gross did a series of portraits of women over 50 when they first get out of bed, without make-up or styled hair (and for which long-time supporter and 1812 Board Member June Wolfson posed). What do you see when you look in the mirror in the morning?
Jen: It changes. Some days I’m really pleased with what I see and I think, “Not bad!” Some days it’s more like, “When did my Mom get here?” With some people, you wouldn’t recognize them from childhood pictures, but when I see old photos of myself I think I kind of look the same as when I was two. Yet I definitely recognize every wrinkle, and sometimes I’m surprised when I catch a glimpse of myself unexpectedly and notice that I’ve aged, like when I’m walking by a store and see my reflection in the window. I’ve always been one of those people who said, “I’ll never dye my hair or get plastic surgery” and I haven’t, but I’m not loving those wrinkles around my lips! I’m trying, but I’m not there yet.
Harriet: I love what you said Jen, but I’ve never said it aloud. I kind of like my face, and that’s something you don’t tell people. But there are those accidental moments of seeing yourself in a store window, when you are shocked, so you blame the lighting and the angle—anything but your age and the way you really look! And I think that’s where Jen’s comedy lives, in the absurdity of the shock. She allows us not to suffer from it, but to see the humor in it.
Is beauty truly in the eye of the beholder, or do socio-cultural standards always dominate our personal vision and dictate how we see?
Jen: I go back to Ellensue’s paintings. When I saw them for the first time, I thought they were some of the most beautiful portraits I’d ever seen. I also felt like I knew the women in them, even though I didn’t, other than June. But it was because they were so real and so honest that I felt a connection to the people she painted.
Harriet: In a macro way, the socio-cultural always wins, but step away from that and “the eye of the beholder” is the truth we live by; we respond very powerfully to other types of beauty.
Jen: And that’s especially true as you age. My daughter, who is twelve, sees images that are held up as the standards of beauty and says, “I’m not this,” “I’ll never be that”—the things that our culture says she should aspire to, that are not the norm for most people. But as you get older, you recognize that for what it is; that’s a benefit of aging.
Harriet: There are more and more older models now, role models in every field, whose beauty emanates.
Is there a discrepancy between the number you are and the number you feel inside? In the words of Satchell Paige, “How old would you be if you didn’t know how old you were?”
Jen: Yes, especially since 47 feels like an odd number; it’s not a benchmark like 50. I think of it in relation to the people I’m with, and I generally think everybody’s my own age, even when they’re in their twenties!
Harriet: I’m half Russian, my father was born there, and I think the Russian peasant genes dominate in my family because we all look younger than we are and I’m always high energy. I’m also a full-time professor at Villanova, and am suddenly no longer the new kid on the block, I’m now the most senior faculty member. How did that happen? I remain full of energy but am more aware that I don’t have forever. I’m in that liminal place where I feel like 20, but I know I’m not.
What does it mean to you to ‘age gracefully’? How is that different from ‘not going gently’?
Jen: I think it’s about embracing the age you are, so that it’s not just physical, it’s emotional. It’s about dancing with each phase you’re in, as opposed to fighting it. With “not going gently” there’s a little bit of fighting and wrestling with it, not just dancing.
Harriet: I love these questions! They’re not the same. I feel able to love more deeply and freely without an agenda, to play more easily without worry. A sense of “let’s go!” is right there because the fact of aging–in that there’s less time left–gives you the attitude that you should just go for it! It is important to dive into new things. For the first time, I’m writing a musical, with a terrific collaborator. So aging gracefully and not gently is about trying new stuff and playing.
Jen: It’s easier to age gracefully when you’re doing what you love.
Harriet: The word “grateful” comes up in the play. Gratitude for all that you have makes it easier to age gracefully.
Jen: “Aging gratefully!”
What is the best thing about middle age that you would like the audience to come away with from the play?
Jen: Richard Rohr wrote a book called Falling Upward. He says that the first half of life is about making a vessel, and the second half is about filling it. I feel like I’m now at the juiciest part of my life, and I have a sense of personal power. I’m owning what I am, instead of trying to be what other people would like.
Harriet: There are so many funny and inspiring elements in this show; I’d like to be sitting next to you when you hear Sierra’s last song! Be yourself and go for it. This play says, “You may sometimes be afraid, but just do it.” There’s enormous joy in that. And we don’t get that message very often. You can add, “The director says this play is absolutely a don’t miss!”
Thank you, Jen and Harriet, for a thought-provoking discussion about an inescapable topic! I look forward to seeing the show.
I Will Not Go Gently plays through Sunday, May 15, 2016, at 1812 Productions, performing at Plays & Players Theatre – 1714 Delancey Street, Philadelphia, PA. For tickets, call the box office at (215) 592-9560, or purchase them online.