Despite our ageing population, there are few opportunities for retirees to engage with the performing arts in Aotearoa. Sam Brooks looks at two initiatives clawing that back.
Stepping into the foyer of the Takapuna’s Bruce Mason Centre early last month, I quickly realised I was, box office staff aside, the youngest person in the room. Around me was a crowd of people comfortably into retirement age, all there for Morning Melodies, a monthly concert series held at the pensioner-friendly time of 11am on a Monday morning.
Within the next decade, rooms like that foyer will be more and more common. According to Stats NZ, currently one in six people in New Zealand are over 65. By 2028, that proportion will have increased to one in five. We are an ageing population, but the nation isn’t really catching up with that fact, including when it comes to having access to the performing arts – whether physically, financially or simply being explicitly welcomed to participate. Despite the perception that performing arts like ballet and classical are aimed at a more mature demographic, older New Zealanders – especially those without opera-going budgets – are not being properly catered to.
Morning Melodies is one of the few events across the country that is aimed specifically at retirees: it’s extremely cheap ($7 for one show, $54 for the annual season pass), welcoming and hospitable (free tea and coffee) and promises a rollicking good time (the gigs for the rest of the year include two brass bands, singer Jackie Clarke, and two military-adjacent bands). Now in its 22nd season, the Auckland Live-backed series is a North Shore fixture, and audiences turn out in the hundreds for it.
Pat Crombie has been coming to Morning Melodies with a group from her retirement village since she moved in nearly seven years ago. Although she enjoys the music, especially the brass bands, it’s the social aspect that keeps her coming back. “We all know each other, it’s only a small village,” she says. “The bus only holds 11 of us, so the driver often comes along!”
While the village offers other outings, Crombie prefers the musical events – which includes a trip to Wicked at SkyCity later this month. These outings are an important part of Crombie’s social life. “We do have a lot of laughs,” she says. “It sounds a bit old, but we are old! It’s the fun of being away together and seeing some different things.”
For older New Zealanders, access to the performing arts isn’t just about entertainment. It can also help stave off loneliness and keep people engaged with their own community. Hilary Norris has worked as an actor, voice coach and drama teacher for decades, and is currently part of Wellington’s Voice Arts which works with various under-served communities, including the over-65s. “Price, accessibility and timing really puts older people off actually going to see or become involved emotionally with artworks of all sorts,” she says. “What we do gives them access to all that.” In her work with older age groups, Norris uses theatre techniques like improvisation to encourage participation and play.
“They feel free to express themselves, to have a play, and have their memories and experiences valued,” she explains. “We spend a lot of time talking about their lives and then turning them into little theatre pieces, short scenes. They really love sharing and making that stuff.”
The value of the workshops, according to Norris, is building confidence and allowing participants to tap into “the silly side of themselves” in a safe space alongside their peers. “It’s a really powerful tool – it’s amazing how they relax and tap into the emotional side of themselves, and share stuff they haven’t shared with other people.”
There’s also “a hell of a lot of laughter, and that can be missing in older people’s lives”, she adds. “They realise there’s things they had not thought about for years that suddenly all pops out and everybody else can relate to because they’re all in the same age group.”
Those who take part in the workshops often end up making new friendships and organising further meet-ups, says Norris. “I’m giving them a tool to find that other side of themselves, and I love seeing them open up and join in the laughter and fun.”
Norris also sees value in giving older people a window into her own theatrical world. Seeing theatre regularly, or even occasionally, can be an expensive hobby, prohibitive even for people on a full-time wage, let alone those who are living on super. Only a handful of the people she teaches have ever been to the theatre before, Norris says. For the rest, it’s a whole new world.
“It’s not just about performing, it’s about opening the world I inhabit to them, so they can see the joy of it,” she says.
At Morning Melodies, the doors to the auditorium open half an hour before the show starts, giving those with limited mobility plenty of time to get settled and for audience members to get to know their seatmates. This morning’s act is the Base Auckland Brass, better known as the Royal New Zealand Air Force Base Auckland Band, performing a range of familiar hits from movies and musical theatre. The highlight? A spirited rendition of Dolly Parton’s ‘9 to 5’, sung by Karen Davy – proving once again that it’s a song that can get literally any generation on their feet.
When I walk out into the foyer, I see hundreds of smiles. Everybody’s had a good time, and many of them already have tickets for the next show in a month’s time. But it shouldn’t take a month; this community – and ones like it across the country – should have access to shows like Morning Melodies far more regularly.
While I’m waiting for my ride, I overhear a group of women chatting enthusiastically – fitted out in their Sunday cardigans and best brooches, white porcelain coffee cups clutched by fastidiously clean nails. Events like these aren’t even really about the performance, although that’s part of the draw. It’s about being around people who are like you, and not feeling like you’re the odd one out but the one who is being catered to.
One of them says, beaming, “It just makes you feel a day younger, doesn’t it?”