Edinburgh Festival: Here come the OAPs

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Media captionArts Editor Will Gompertz has discovered an emerging new wave of performing artists at this year's Edinburgh festival

Don't get angry; get even. If society is down on you: give it a kick. Take to the streets and stand-up for yourself.

That's the sort of sentiment I was picking up this week when I spent some time among a marginalised, disenfranchised and fed-up sector of society that has been in the news a lot. It wasn't dull.

There was the moment when a wiry dude with an American accent jabbed a finger in my face before running some bony knuckles down my cheek. And another when a rough-looking bloke: dead-eyed and threatening, approached me and started demanding answers with an audible sneer in his voice. On Thursday I was grabbed and bodily manoeuvred around a hotel lobby.

In future, I will think twice before hanging out with senior citizens.

'Mind over matter'

The OAP (Old Age Performer) count at the Edinburgh Fringe was high: actors, dancers and comedians of a "certain age" all strutting their stuff, many for the first time.

Their elderly actions providing living proof that Oscar Wilde was onto something when he said along the line of: "the tragedy of old age is not feeling old, but feeling young".

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Image caption Still Life Dreaming is put on by a theatre company that aims to give a 'voice to the unheard'

And nobody was feeling younger than stand-up Lynn Ruth Miller, my finger-jabbing, cheek-stroking tormentor from America, who decided to become a comic aged 71. She is now 78, as thin as Angelina Jolie and about as frail. She has the energy of a child and the mouth of a sailor. The vigour is remarkable, as are the profanities. Which is her point.

She doesn't feel tragic; she's too hacked-off for that. Audiences expect young comics to swear; it's part of the whole stand-up shtick.

But when a septuagenarian female comedian uses bad language they wince. It doesn't sound "right" coming from a mouth of an old lady (Joan Rivers also gets complaints. And negative observations about her bad language). This is the issue that Lynn Ruth Miler is addressing: why shouldn't she be treated the same as everyone else?

And be judged as a developing pro by the same criteria as younger comics in a similar position. Not that eccentric old dear who is having a go a stand-up. It's okay for a 30 year-old to chuck in the day job and try making it as a comic, but if a retiree attempts to do the same, the response is patronising: "hey guys, check out the freak show".

There is no doubt that it is much harder for an up and coming OAP joker to be taken seriously. Lynn Ruth is of the Mark Twain School: "age is an issue of mind over matter. If you don't mind, it doesn't matter". But people do mind.

Maybe less so if your OAP career choice is acting. The cast of a new production called Still Life Dreaming took up acting only after they had retired. The show they are performing in is produced by Spare Tyre, a theatre company that specialises in giving a "voice to the unheard", which in itself tells you something about how difficult mature performers find it to get a gig. They've chosen a good story to tell.

The play is about a group of people who participated in human experiment shortly after World War II. Many decades later the same test was conducted on the same people, re-uniting old friends and communities in the process.

The experiment was called the Lothian Birth Cohort, a state-sponsored intelligence test, which was carried out in 1947.

Almost all 11 year-old school children in Scotland took part. Skip forward to 2004 when over one thousand of the original participants had been tracked down and asked to re-sit the test. The play reveals some of the results and explores the subject of cognitive aging. Which is interesting.

But the human stories are better. The tales that emerged from the individuals who had taken the test back in 1947 are now re-told by the OAP actors in a verbatim style. There are plenty of reminiscences of course, but also the thought that you cannot be old if you still have your dreams.

'Get stuck in'

With Diana Payne-Myers there is no fudging the facts: she is old. But she's got more life in her than most. I've been a secret admirer ever since I saw her dance in a DV8 production several years ago.

She wasn't exactly a child then, but now at 83, she is definitely at the more mature end of the pro performer market. That said; she happily zinged me about a hotel lobby until I begged her to stop. And that was just a few minutes before she was going into a full dress rehearsal for a new dance piece called A Conversation with Carmel.

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Image caption Youngsters look out...

It's a family drama set to dance, dealing with issues of inter-generational differences and family politics: The Royal Family meets Strictly. It also examines how old people are perceived in contemporary British culture.

In many cultures around the world "The Elders" are at the top of the "respect" tree. Not in Britain. Here the obsession is with youth: the fresh and the new. Slow consideration, gentle wisdom and judgement based on experience are not considered "cool" attributes.

The point all the performers are making is that it is time to re-evaluate old age. The facts back them up. In percentage terms, the fastest growing part of the population in the UK is the over 85 year-olds. In the mid-1980s there were about 690,000 of them.

That figure had more than doubled by 2010 to 1.4 million. By 2035 it is predicted that figure will have leapt again to 3.6 million; representing 5% of the population. By which time nearly a quarter of all people living in the UK will be 65 years old or over.

The "new old" are not a bunch of hunched-backed crocks waiting to for death to do them (and us) a favour; but a vivacious, intelligent and interesting range of people with much to offer in many areas of life; not least the arts.

Mary Wesley didn't get going as a published author until she was in her 70s and thought "60 should be a time to start something new, not put your feet up".

Lynn Ruth Miller and the other new performers of a pensionable age in Edinburgh, subscribe to that view.

They are not freaks; they are not exceptional. In the 21st century many 65 year-olds will only be two-thirds of the way through their life. Lots of them will be free of responsibility and up for a challenge: a good time to mix experience with ambition and to get stuck into a new career.

So, youngsters look out; your granny is gong to be fighting you for that open mic spot.