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Study by TCs Research Center for Arts and Culture Finds Aging Performers "Still Kicking"

"What good is sitting alone in your room?" Olympia Dukakis urges study participants to keep performing as long as they can.
What good is sitting alone in your room? Olympia Dukakis urges study participants to keep performing as long as they can.

At a recent gathering in midtown Manhattan, the actress Olympia Dukakis urged group of performers, most of them over age 65, to keep working as long as they’re able.  “Don’t wait for the telephone. Take hold of your life with both hands!”

Dukakis was part of a program on June 9 at Jazz at Lincoln Center that showcased a new study by TC’s Research Center for Arts and Culture, in which most in the audience had taken part. The study, “Still Kicking:  Aging Performing Artists in NYC and LA Metro Areas,” is based on interviews of actors, dancers, choreographers, musicians and singers in the New York and Los Angeles metropolitan areas, 65 and older, about their performing lives and the obstacles they face in continuing to work as they age.

Dukakis, who turns 80 this year, continues to act, direct and produce on film and stage, in addition to writing and teaching, in an industry which she said is predominantly aimed at a mostly-male audience in their 20s. “There’s nothing I can do about that,” she said. But she encouraged aging performers to continue to work as long as they want to and are able, at the “thing that gives us joy, pleasure, and community,” and to “find some way to do what you love.”

Joan Jeffri, co-principal investigator for the project and director of the Research Center of Arts and Culture, introduced Dukakis to warm, extended applause, as “a force of nature [who] broke the rules to make a place for herself in film, on stage, and in life.”

Jeffri’s co-principal investigator was Martin Y. Iguchi, professor and chair of the Department of Community Health Sciences at the School of Public Health, University of California in Los Angeles.

For the study, researchers from Teachers College and UCLA interviewed professional performers, ages 62 to 97, including 230 in New York City, and 52 in Los Angeles. Jeffri said the study provides a picture of aging artists as models for other Baby Boomers who are reaching retirement age in growing numbers but are far from ready to stop working. They are turning instead to freelancing, often building second careers before and after retirement. “The world is going to be freelancers,” Jeffri said, “but artists have been freelancers all their lives.”

The study, the first of its kind, sought to understand how aging performers are supported financially and in their communities, and how their professional and personal networks change over time. Researchers analyzed data from the interviews in the areas of retirement, life satisfaction, social networks, income, discrimination, education, health insurance, legacy planning, creative process, careers, identity and professionalism. The study follows a similar one, also done by RCAC, of aging visual artists.

Researchers at RCAC found that, despite the ageism in the business, the vast majority of older performers feel validated as artists and rank high in life satisfaction and self-esteem. Eighty-six percent of those interviewed in New York, and 92 percent in Los Angeles, would choose to be a performer again. Nor are they isolated: More than half of them communicate daily or weekly with other performers, and more than half still work and expect to continue into their 90s.

Unlike aging visual artists, aging performers have made significant preparations for their later years, in numbers that exceed those of the general population:  nearly all – 92 percent – have a will, compared with 23 percent of visual artists and 42 to 55 percent of the general population. Seventy-seven percent of New York artists, and 65 percent in Los Angeles, have a health proxy, and 67 percent of New York and 66 percent of Los Angeles artists have a power of attorney. “Performing artists are very, very savvy about their lives,” Jeffri told the group.

Also unlike visual artists, many performers belong to multiple unions. But the study notes that performers unions do not track their members well. It recommends that performers unions gather and provide better data on their aging members, and merge, if possible, into a larger union that could offer better health care and other benefits to performers who lack them.

Other benefits recommended largely by the performers themselves include group housing, places to network with their peers, more cultural activity in senior centers. Dukakis, in her address, said senior performers need places to mount shows. “Do you remember when [Actors] Equity had its own theater? Why don’t we do that again, and make a space for seniors?”

Paid work for aging performers is important, Jeffri said. “You know what’s happened to art education in the schools,” she said, referring to the decline in the number of arts programming in K-12 schools over that past decade. “We have older artists who could come into the schools and teach – and enough with the volunteers – let’s pay them,” Jeffri said to applause from the audience of about 60.

“I don’t really want to work out there for no money,” said John Sheridan, a dancer, director, choreographer and teacher in his 60s. Interviewed after the presentation, Sheridan said he is in good shape to perform. “No lifts, no slides – other than that, I’m fine.” He belongs to Dancers Over 40, a group which tries to help older dancers get work. “A lot of people still want to perform,” he said, “but it’s kind of like we don’t exist; people don’t think of you.” Casting agents and directors aren’t always after realism on the stage, he said. “If there’s a chorus or crowd scene, why do all the townspeople have to be 19?”

Sheridan said he participated in the study because it would be used to try to change working reality for aging performers. He grew more committed when he learned that the researchers were collaborating with performers unions to try to affect change. “It wasn’t somebody’s graduate thesis,” he said of the study. “When I heard there was somebody doing something about the business, I wanted to participate. Nobody’s done this with this kind of information. It’s very detailed research on the performing arts.”

At the close of the presentation, John Allegrante, professor of health education and deputy provost, announced that the Research Center for Arts and Culture will become part of the National Center for Creative Aging in Washington, D.C. in September. Jeffri, who founded RCAC at Columbia University in the 1980s, will move to Washington with the center, to continue her research into the issues faced by aging artists.

Jeffri’s research has “profound implications for our thinking about how we can support” aging artists, Allegrante said. “I am confident that the center will continue to grow into an even greater force.”

To view the entire study and an executive summary, go to

Published Friday, Jun. 17, 2011


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