On Valuing Age, On Appreciating Wisdom

I find my thoughts drifting these days to my almost three year old niece and the fact that any day now she will become an older sister. She’s decided on her name for the impending baby. I imagine is as excited as an almost three year old can be about such a thing, understanding it about as much as an almost three year old can.

I keep thinking, “Man kid. You have no idea how much everything is going to change.”

Then: “You are about to feel so grown up.”

When my thoughts drift this way, I think about how much my identity as an older sibling has meant to me, shaped me, and shifted who and how I am. My earliest memories start around the time my own sister was born – at that “almost three” age. So for as long as I’ve had a remembrance of myself, it’s included the sense that I was older and more experience than at least one person in my little world.

It had a profound effect.

It meant that even when I was a “little kid”, I was still the “big girl” in the family. It meant that I always saw myself in the light of being the first to pioneer new frontiers. It meant that I linked being older with being wiser, stronger and more powerful. Getting bigger meant I would be that much more the holder of experience that I could pass along. It became a deep value of mine, the acquisition of such wisdom, and it’s become a huge part of who I am and what I want out of my life. So I’ve always reveled in  “grown up-ness” and deeply appreciated what each increasing year has given me. And I still look forward to getting older with excitement and anticipation.

Of course,  there are plenty who would tell me I’m a young pup. Which, of course, I am in many respects. While many days I feel like I’ve done a lot and lived a fair amount, there are certainly times when I see myself in context of those that are ahead of me and feel young and inexperienced indeed.  But unless you have just been born NOW! or are Jiroemon Kimura you always have someone younger and someone older than you. And that means that you always have the ability to view your identity in the context of being more youthful than someone ahead of you, or further along than someone behind you.

The arts in general (and the performing arts in particular) aren’t always the best contexts for celebrating experience. While we pay some token homage to great masters, anecdotally it feels to me like we tend to reward the promise in a young savant painter, the grace and beauty of a youthful dancer, and the charisma of the impish new actor far more than we do the earned and learned skill of decades long practitioners in these same mediums.

And really, that’s too bad.

I think fetishizing the early work of artists is damaging to art as a whole. Not that such young work can’t be beautiful and moving but it’s often much simpler and straight ahead than the stuff we make later on. In art as in life life, we generally learn that things that seemed so black and white once upon a time are much more complex and mysterious. Things that we held positions on in unilateral unyielding ways we start to see shades of gray in. Things we never ever believe we were capable of, both good and bad, we suddenly realize we have completed. Our creations cannot help but reflect our deeper and more multifaceted views of the world.

So though I can appreciate the promise in the early works of a budding artist, it’s usually in their mid and later stuff that I think you really discover the complexity and depth of what a creator has to offer. It’s in the complexity that you see what these makers are really made of. It’s these kinds of works that may not be so easily digestible that challenge me to be a deeper and better art viewer. It’s in the stuff that reflects all the life that others gained that I see the kind of artists I want to be. I believe we should be treating this like gold.

And I try to remember this when I sometimes fantasize about my early creation, try to caution myself from forgetting its value. I try and stop idealizing an approach and attitude that lacked the decade of making I now have and remember how easy it is to forget what was tough, rough and messy.

I’ve had the luxury of re-working shows that I started creating 3, 5, 7 years ago. And with each of them I have had a moment in rehearsal where I think:

“I am so so much better at this than we used to be. We are all so so much better now than we were before.”

Not everyone gets that chance and sometimes a slow building of skill and experience can seem to have always been there. Which is why it’s so important to remember not just what you have learned but that you have learned, that value of age and experience.

The arts are a punishing field. If you’ve lasted a while, you must know something that others who haven’t stuck it out don’t. But there aren’t enough voices out there that tell you that.

Recently, I’ve seen a number of companies with variations on apprentice/young professional programs. I’m often struck when I see them in action by the distance between the actors with years of well earned experience and where these fresh faced folks currently are. I jokingly say that I keep seeing babies on stage. Sweet, wonderful, babies. But babies nonetheless.

These lovely eagerlings are the promise of artistic potential, but they are often not the delivery of that craft. At least not yet.

And that’s a great thing, so long as the attitude of our community is that as an early career artist, the work ahead of you should be what you have to look forward to. It’s a wonderful place to be so long as you know you will be rewarded as your depth and skill and knowledge increases from here. It’s a lovely path to look ahead to when it means that someday you can turn back to the road traveled thus far with pride and not a sense of burden.

It’s important to remember.

I don’t want to be part of a profession where people don’t need to wish they were babies again. I want to be part of medium that rewards me because I want to keep growing up.

– A

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