It was when playing in the last show that a realisation clicked into place; a new frame of reference for an old perspective, a self-imposed straightjacket miraculously falling away.
Take a typical amateur dramatic production – the cast spans perhaps 18 to 35, the band may be a bit older, and both groups with just the occasional (relatively) old ‘un. This time round, at 55 I was undoubtedly the oldest one there. I’m usually content to be 55, assuming I don’t really fit in a group that is mostly a generation apart. That doesn’t mean being aloof – or I hope it doesn’t. There’s no feeling of superiority by virtue of age, or anything like that – goodness, most of them, cast and band alike, are way better at what they do than I am at what I do (which if you didn’t know is play bass guitar). And I don’t really mean to emphasise age as much as I have done. The theatre set are, shall we say, quite an extrovert lot, and that also creates something of a gap between us. So this isn’t about where any of us sit on any linear scale, be that of age or ability or anything else; no, this feeling of not-really-fitting stems from an internal assumption that these differences – of age, of generation, of personality – are of necessity a divider. An intrinsic barrier, one that might be peered over from time to time, but never crossed.
I said this minor epiphany was down to the show, yet nearly everything about this latest show was just like every other show that has gone before; a cast drawn from the same pool of north London/ home counties talent, the usual suspects playing in the band. True, ‘Rent’ was an ambitious production for an amateur group, but then this is a group used to working at the top end of the amateur range, with production to professional standards. I’ve been part of similar productions before, yet come away feeling little different to how I started.
This time round, however, there was just one tiny difference. Usually, the band is dressed in black, hidden in the pit, essentially invisible, its presence known only by the sound. But this time, the band was to be an integral part of the show. Originally we were planned to be on stage, but space was limited so we did end up in the orchestra pit – but rather than wearing the usual black, we were to dress the part – a 1990’s New York would-be rock band. Such a trivial difference, yet I felt literally 10 years younger, or more to the point, I felt that division – be it of generation or anything else – narrow to the point almost of vanishing.
Now, just in case your imagination is running away with itself, let me put your mind at rest - I didn’t attempt anything that would embarrass audience or myself by looking as though I was trying too hard. No black leather waistcoat open over a bare chest! In reality my chosen garb was still decidedly conservative, certainly by rock band standards. But that isn’t the point – the important difference was not actual appearance, but the fact that, in a small way, we were playing the part of rock musicians. Hardly acting; the audience wouldn’t have noticed anything different. But it felt different.
The ‘costume’, such as it was, wasn’t so effective at the after-show party, I have to admit. No acting there, it was back to feeling like an old fart amongst a different generation. But in a way that drove the point home, a point that goes something like this:
These years where I now find myself are the between years. Between the fiery certainty of youth and the deep wisdom of old age; between career drive and the release of retirement; between parenthood and grandparenthood. Sometimes, in these between years, you feel as though you belong to neither side, but are wandering lost in a drawn-out transition. But it doesn’t have to be like that. Instead of belonging to neither world you can belong to both, having a foot in both camps. In one moment, enjoy the exuberance of youth, in the next, share the wisdom of the years; one moment be a brother, the next a father-figure.
I wish I didn’t keep quoting years and age. This isn’t only about age and ageing, although they provided the context for this post. No, this is about choices, about realising that there is a much wider spectrum of ways of being available to us, wider by far than the narrow confines of the persona we – or at any rate I – usually assume.
Sometimes all it takes for this penny to drop is a black T-shirt and a crumpled denim overshirt.