An age-diverse cast reflects temporal vertigo in old people

A drawing of temporal vertigo. A cross section of an onion. Every layer represents one era of a person's life, starting as a baby in the centre, working out to "Pretty old. Granny. Friend. 83" as the outside layer. Test: Every old person is an onion. "I am large. I contain multitudes." (Walt Whitman. You knew that.)
Every old person is like an onion: many layers of time and life co-exist under one skin.

An age-diverse cast for characters in their 90s

Why use actors in their 40s, 50s, 70s and 80s for characters in their 90s? Because age-diversity underlines the phenomenon of time vertigo in older people, that’s why.

One question about time and age has caused us months of debate, and a kind of mental (not temporal) vertigo. Here it is. (By the way, as far as I can deduce, “temporal vertigo” means “vertigo relating to time.” As in, your sense of time is challenged by so many anomalies that it makes your head spin.)

The characters in my new play, The Secret Lives of Extremely Old People, are all over 90. So what age should the actors be?

We did consider actors in their 90s, but not for long. Those we know — and they certainly exist — would perform marvellously in their roles. But asking nonagenarians to perform 21 times in three weeks would demand too much stamina.

The director, Robin Payne, ran two workshops. One purpose of these workshops was to scrutinise the dynamics of a mid-career cast and of a younger cast.

In the end, Robin made a radical decision: she deliberately chose a mixed-age cast. Actors in their 40s, 50s, 70s and 80s each play a character at least 90 years old. Add the crew and we have a company that spans age groups from every decade, the youngest 19 and the oldest 83.

You know about the benefits of an age-diverse workplace. For my new play, The Secret Lives of Extremely Old People, we’re seeing similar benefits in an age-diverse cast and crew.

Why diversify the ages of cast and crew?

  1. Respect. The actors won’t be “acting” old. They will somehow be themselves as well as their characters. This approach fits my determination that these “extremely old” characters are treated with respect throughout. We’ll laugh with them but not at them.
  2. Identification. The characters will not be “othered” in my play. They are us, our future selves, whether we are 48 or 83. You know them because in a sense, you are them.
  3. Intergenerational learning. As we hoped, the younger members are benefiting from their elders’ professional and personal experience. And the older members are benefiting from the younger cast members’ ideas and energy. This reciprocity is not a rationalisation or a nice frill. It’s the manifestation of one of our core beliefs.
  4. Temporal vertigo. This is a psychological feature that Lynne Segal associates particularly with old age. A company of actors of various age groups can resonate with this interesting feature of extremely old people. (And all of us.)

Temporal vertigo is a bit complicated so I will insert a new sub-heading.

Layers of time in old people: enough to make your head spin

“To be old is very interesting in all sorts of ways. One way is what I call ‘time-travelling’ or ‘temporal vertigo’. You are also all the ages you have been. You fall asleep and you can dream you are still 17 – even if everybody treats you as 110!”

Lynne Segal, Out of Time: The Pleasures and the Perils of Ageing.

But even in this one book, temporal vertigo has a wide range of connotations. Below, I’ve listed them (and added some of my own.)

  1. Medical progress. 70 now is not what it was like for our parents or grandparents. Our personal experience of old age is out of whack.
  2. Subjective experience. We old people don’t feel old! Our inner experience doesn’t match what we see in the mirror.
  3. Variation in our subjective experience. Sometimes we do feel younger than our years, sometimes older. Sometimes we feel about 5 years old. Or 15. Or 55. Or 105.
  4. Social change. Attitudes towards old people are not the same as they were when we were young. So we’re all mixed up, holding several attitudes simultaneously.
  5. Mixed up memories. Our minds do not store memories of different stages of life in files neatly arranged in chronological order. In our minds we can switch from decade to decade in a split second.
  6. External factors. Aging isn’t just a personal thing. It’s accelerated by social and economic factors, both local, national and global. So what we see and think about our own aging doesn’t match that of other populations and sectors in our own society.
  7. Multiple ages. Biological age is different from chronological age. So what age are we then?
  8. Unique cohorts. Being 90 is very different for each cohort, because they lived through worlds at particular age. At 83 I am very different from a 93 year old, because they lived through the Great Depression and were too young to fight in WW2.

It’s no wonder that our experience of aging messes with our sense of time. Or rather, vice versa: our messed up sense of time makes the experience of aging pretty confusing.

It’s not only the old who contain multitudes, but sheer arithmetic ensures that temporal vertigo in old people is more noticeable.

Back to the onion

Now the large layered onion needs no explanation. The onion is me, and a tiny sample of my inner multitudes, cohabiting in temporal vertigo. You are an onion too, perhaps not so large as me at 83.

Please notice that I’m still sprouting, still green at the top.

Nor do I need to explain why this well-known quote hovers above the onion:

“I am large, I contain multitudes.”

Walt Whitman, Song of Myself 51

That line is borrowed and expanded by Bob Dylan in “I Contain Multitudes“, a song released in 2020 when he was 80.

“I sleep with life and death in the same bed… I contain multitudes.”

True? True for you? Cat got your tongue?

Ursula, that snooty feline art critic, disdains my installation with its highly intellectual implications.

A black cat with her tongue poking out near a watch, an old onion and a broken Time Timer. Represents time vertigo in older people.
Ursula sticks her tongue out at an art installation representing temporal vertigo in old people
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13 thoughts on “An age-diverse cast reflects temporal vertigo in old people

  1. Plenty to think about there, Rachel. When is the play to be performed.

    1. Rachel McAlpine says:

      It’s on at Circa from 25 November to 17 December. I hope you can come!

  2. Most interesting!

    1. Rachel McAlpine says:

      A bit too interesting, I fear.

  3. judibwriting says:

    So true, this onion view of holding time. My younger daughter, who is neuro-atypical, has always said she is at times 7, 17, or 70. It was this observation that got her accepted into a support program 15 years ago because she scored too high on her intelligence tests to fit into the proper box at the time. She said her brain was like a spider web- the world fell into her and sometimes fell right through the spaces in the web and sometimes the slightest vibration would send ripples through her whole body. She is now 37 going on 87 when uncanny wisdom shines through her unique perspective on the world. My biological age and chronological age have been out of synch since my MS symptoms began to escalate in my 30’s. I love the vision of this play and the reality of having a mixed age cast. Sending huge support for this endeavor through cyberspace.

    1. Rachel McAlpine says:

      It’s great to get your perspective on this conundrum. Your daughter sounds remarkable. I’m fascinated by the way she describes her inner experience of the world. It’s rare to be so aware of how one’s brain is functioning, even more rare to be able to explain it to others. And so vividly. Most of my life, I assumed that everyone processed things exactly like I did. And that’s never true.

  4. Rebecca Budd says:

    A wonderful approach, Rachel – diversity brings out new perspectives.

    1. Rachel McAlpine says:

      Exactly 🙂

  5. Do we get to see a video of the production? I would love to see this 83 year old actor and all the young whipper snappers in action. Hope all goes brilliantly – break a leg!

  6. Rachel McAlpine says:

    Thank you, Peter.I doubt there will be a video: that’s a whole other production. But I can share any snippets.

  7. “We did consider actors in their 90s, but not for long. Those we know — and they certainly exist — would perform marvellously in their roles. But asking nonagenarians to perform 21 times in three weeks would demand too much stamina.”
    Stamina – never thought of that aspect of a longer running performance schedule before…That implies that if the performance schedule were less intense, actors in their 90s could (and should be encouraged to) be the ones filling the roles.
    Such a fascinating and ground breaking endeavor you’ve taken on, Rachel.

    1. Rachel McAlpine says:

      Cameo roles on video are planned 🙂