October 1 is International Day of Older Persons. In the first of a series, Joanne Lau talks to a really awesome old lady.
Ruth Posner is a former dancer and choreographer. She has taught physical theatre at the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art, the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art, and the Central School of Speech and Drama. Ruth, 85, has lived all over the world and gained an MA in Theatre Arts at Hunter College in New York. She is an actress and was in the BAFTA-nominated BBC sitcom Count Arthur Strong by Steven Delaney and Graham Linehan.
What is your name? Ruth Posner… though that wasn’t always the case. You could say my first acting role was at the age of 12 when I had to assume the fictional identity of a Polish Catholic girl named Irena Slabowska during the Second World War. This new name was my survival kit, really.
Where were you born? I was born in Warsaw, Poland, to a Jewish family. We were non-practicing and integrated into the Polish society. My Jewishness wasn’t something I covered up, but it just wasn’t relevant to my life. Unfortunately, that didn’t make any difference to Hitler and most of my family were eliminated. My father arranged for my aunt and I to escape beyond the ghetto walls where a false passport and identity were waiting. We were the only two who survived.
I didn’t talk about my experiences for a long time because I felt there had been so much suffering in the world, so many other atrocities. As the years have gone by, however, there’s been a return to extremist thought and there are even some who insist the Holocaust never happened. It makes me angry and I feel it important that, while my generation are witnesses and still alive, we have a responsibility to speak.
Where do you currently live? London. When we were first married, my husband was a chemist working in food technology. He later worked for UNICEF. His work took us all over the world.
We’ve lived in Israel, Holland, New Zealand, Denmark and New York –I always say New York is a country! I’ve lived in London for more than 25 years, the longest I’ve stayed in one place. The UK is the country that took me in after the war. To me, it’s my adopted motherland. Out of all of the places we have lived, London is the place I don’t feel like a foreigner.
What is/was your profession? Actress, and formerly a dancer, choreographer, and teacher. I wanted to be an actress when I was younger but because I had an accent – which, of course, is much more fashionable now – everybody told me it would be very difficult to get work. I was all alone in London and had to think – how am I going to make a living? I was not sporty but I did love movement and music, so someone suggested I try dance. I studied dance in London, but it was while I was living in Israel that I met an American dancer who used to dance with Martha Graham – the priestess of modern dance – and together we formed a little company. When I returned to London, contemporary dance was seen as a high art form but I loved and got into musicals. I danced in a few West End musicals, which was very exciting. I joined the London Contemporary Dance Company, where I stayed for 17 years. I was fascinated with movement and words and would choreograph dance to poetry. I also taught physical theatre at RADA, LAMDA, and the Central London School of Speech and Drama. I’ve never stopped learning!
As an actor, I have been very lucky. I had two plays written for me by Julia Pascal – just wonderful. They were a little bit of my stories, but fictionalised as well. I was also recently in the comedy Count Arthur Strong. I really enjoyed the experience – versatile actors, great comedy director and such funny writing! It was funny without being unnecessarily vulgar or mean about anyone.
What are you most proud of? I’m proud of the fact I am 85 and I’m still working and active. I don’t want to give it up until it gives me up completely, which I hope won’t be too soon! I’m working with a theatre company called the Visible. It’s for older actors and it’s called Visible because it is the opposite of INvisible. We have both men and women, but women especially when they get to a certain age become invisible. At Visible, we don’t want to be worshipped or admired. We don’t want to wear flashy clothes and regard ourselves as forever young. We are what we are but we still can contribute.
The company is based on storytelling and because the actors are all over 60, they all have stories to tell. Not all of the stories are focussed around British history either. We have members who have lived in different countries through all sorts of regimes and what they have to say is fascinating. Our writer, Sonja Linden, has created a dramatic collage of snippets of our stories to present in a theatrically interesting way. It’s very original.
What is your secret talent? I write a little bit, but I know I’m not a writer. I love reading and I appreciate good writing, which is how I know I’m not a writer! I use the page as a confessional. I think a true writer is someone who can sit down every day and write in a very disciplined way. Art for me is like religion. It’s something very important and I would not want to diminish it. Neither do I want to have false modesty. I just want to be realistic.
What is one thing most people don’t know about you? I can be quite forthright. One big advantage to old age is that you don’t think so much about how you are perceived. You can open your mouth and be far more honest in your opinions. I don’t think it’s a matter of being more wise or knowledgeable, it’s just I’m less afraid. When you’re young, you’re more conscious of being liked, being accepted, being loved, and you daren’t say certain things. Now I say, ‘To hell with it. That’s how I feel. I might be wrong, but I might as well say it!’ There’s a kind of relief! Not that I’m saying I don’t want to be liked, that’s only human. But, I have more courage. At the same time, I can also change my opinions if someone shows me another way of thinking. I am always learning from the younger generation. I may not always agree with them, but I learn from them because I’m curious. I think my curiosity will stay with me till my dying day.
Would you like to be a young woman in the 21st century? Yes, in some ways, and no in others. Yes, because being a woman now – the opportunities are vast. When you look at our society and look at the number of women who have succeeded in sectors in which they were excluded, we have achieved an awful lot. When I got married, the ethos was, ‘Now you have different responsibilities because you are married.’ The husband came first. Now, as a young woman, you can’t even imagine that! I knew there was something wrong, but you can’t fight that individually when you don’t have support from the outside. I thought that was how it was until we moved to New York at the time feminism started. It was very militant for a time and then it balanced itself a little. My husband worked for the UN and had female bosses. Fortunately for me, he understood and supported me. Actually, perhaps it was more fortunate for him or there would have been consequences! He is a very wise and intelligent man.
So, there are aspects that are wonderful to be a woman in the 21st century. On the other hand, young people have a different problem. My generation knew if we worked very hard, we could afford a house or a flat. It’s more difficult now, unless you’re at the very top, but freedom now definitely exists.
What is your favourite indulgence? I don’t pursue fashion and I don’t have to be in fashion. Tight trousers and short skirts, I can leave those! But I do like clothes. A nice dinner with some interesting friends and going to the theatre – those are the things I enjoy.
What is your favourite hobby or past time? Reading. I’ve just finished the new Haruki Murakami and I’m struggling with a book now by Niall Ferguson. Because my education was curtailed and stopped very young, I’ve always striven for knowledge. I’m not saying I would tackle something too challenging, but I do like to broaden my horizons.
What is your daily beauty regime? [laughs] This is going to sound so superficial, but one bit of vanity I have is eye makeup. I cannot face the world without it! A bit of liner, a bit of eye shadow… I think it’s from my dancing days because the makeup of a dancer is that you emphasize your eyes. I don’t care if I have lipstick on or creams – and I don’t spend a lot of money on cosmetics because I think it’s a con – but eye makeup, I love. It’s like putting on my clothes or having a shower – I’m putting on my eyes.
What advice would you give your 30-year old-self? I would say to pursue something you really love and are interested in, whatever it might be. Pursue it and then work at it and don’t give up. Because nothing is achieved without a little bit of an effort. Career, I think, is very important for a woman. You don’t have to be the top notch or the boss, but you have to do something you really like. Don’t rely on marriage or a relationship to provide everything.
You can catch Ruth in the Visible production Who Do We Think We Are? at the Southwark Playhouse from October 29th to November 15th. http://southwarkplayhouse.co.uk/the-little/who-do-we-think-we-are//
Ruth’s autobiography, Bits and Pieces of my Life is available on Lulu.com and Amazon (http://www.lulu.com/gb/en/shop/ruth-posner/bits-and-pieces-of-my-life/paperback/product-20487348.html )
Joanne Lau is that tired-looking Chinese-Canadian girl on the tube scribbling in her notebook and staring into space a lot.