Jenny Dowell (right, as Clairee) and Elyse Knowles (left, as Annelle) in Steel Magnolias

These days nearly all of us are lucky enough to retire in reasonable health. After a lifetime of making critical decisions day in and day out, with others supposedly following our every instruction, the shift to retirement can be a shock. Some come to suffer what former Labor politician Gareth Evans called “relevance deprivation syndrome”. 

Keeping active in mind and body is the key to warding off the vicissitudes of old age or at least delaying them. 

Some research in this area is being undertaken by the Maintain Your Brain study, funded by the Australian National Health and Medical Research Council. The study is a randomised controlled trial of multiple online interventions designed to target modifiable risk factors for Alzheimer's disease and dementia. Risk factors to be addressed are physical inactivity, cognitive inactivity, depression/anxiety, overweight and obesity, and poor dietary habits. 

Up to four intervention modules (physical activity, nutrition, brain training, and peace of mind) will be administered based on individual risk profiles. Each will run one at a time for 10 weeks with booster sessions (specific to each module) and ongoing monitoring to continue until the end of the trial. 

All activities and assessments will be conducted on a computer with internet access via the Maintain Your Brain eHealth system. It has invited over 8,000 individuals through the 45 and Up Study to participate in the trial. These participants are aged 55-77 years and will not be diagnosed with dementia, Parkinson's disease or multiple sclerosis. 

The study runs for three years with annual assessments measuring risk factors and cognition. The main trial recruitment began in May 2018 and is expected to finish in September 2021. 

Former mayor of Lismore, Jenny Dowell, is part of the study. Retirement has allowed her to return to a long term passion, acting! The challenges facing an aging novitiate are many but Jenny has successfully made the transition. 

In the following article, which first appeared in From the Bower, the magazine of Northern Rivers Arts, Health and Wellbeing, she describes this part of the next phase of her life. 

Getting into theatre – Jenny Dowell

Perhaps all of us hold a secret wish that we have never shared even with our nearest and dearest. I did and it was to act on a stage.

I’ve been a lover of theatre since my days as a new parent in Melbourne when Ron and I took advantage of the Melbourne Theatre Company’s Young Parent preview nights – we could not only access discounted tickets but a babysitter was provided in our home!

When we moved to Lismore, we subscribed to NORPA and also attended regular theatre nights at our local Rochdale Theatre that is within walking distance of our home. While I was Mayor, I took a keener interest in both NORPA and the Lismore Theatre Company (LTC) as both are in Council owned buildings.

After retirement, I joined the Board of NORPA and became a member of LTC in 2017. It was at LTC that I finally disclosed my deeply held dream of seeing if I could act.

I was therefore thrilled when David Addenbrook offered me the role of Aunt Julia in Hedda Gabler. This was the start of a whirlwind of learning a whole new language and process of theatre and the roles of the vital back and off stage technical support crews for a production. The process towards production is quite intense with three rehearsals per week for two months as well as the private time learning lines so the commitment from everyone is significant.

At my age, I was concerned about my ability to learn my lines and was very pleased (and relieved) that I could do so!

Coincidentally, I’m part of a long term Maintain Your Brain study on memory and while some of the tests had me doubting my ability to remember some things, my acting roles have reassured me that I’m doing ok.

After the very successful season of Hedda Gabler, I set my goal of securing one LTC role per year and to audition for a role in Cagebirds in 2018. I had no idea of what was required in an audition but the director and producer were very patient. They asked for a couple of brief impromptu pieces and asked me to read for two roles. I was over the moon when the phone call came offering me the role of Thump. Again, learning the lines was a challenge as was working with a director with a very different style. Andrew (Duckie) Silcock’s vision for this 1971 play was brilliant and his style in directing was quite different, so again, I learned a great deal. Duckie broke the whole play into more than 60 ‘blocks’ of dialogue and although this play as just over one hour in length it was very intense.

This year I again auditioned and was thrilled to be cast as Clairee in Steel Magnolias under the direction of Sylvia Clarke. Like Cagebirds, the cast was all women. The intensity of over two months working together brought the six of us very close. Two of the women had been in my other two plays and I know how wonderful Sharon Brodie and Elyse Knowles are as actors and as women.

Clairee gave me the opportunity of playing a comedic role, something I’d wanted to do for many years. Clairee had lots of lines in this fabulous play so again, I had the challenge of learning hundreds of lines and movements- and was thrilled to be able to achieve it and to develop the necessary comedic timing. Steel Magnolias runs for 2.5 hours so it was also the longest play I’ve done to date.

All performances rely heavily on the relationship between the performers. At the start of the process, some cast members are unknown to each other so there is a need to quickly develop trust in each other to ensure good timing in the dialogue and authenticity in the interactions, both verbal and non-verbal.

Fortunately all three shows I’ve been in so far have had great audiences so the positive reactions we get provide the reinforcement actors need to rise to be the best we can be.

In addition to acting, I’m the Publicity Officer for LTC and when not involved in a performance, I’m regularly on box office for the other 4-5 show seasons that the company stages each year.

I’m thrilled that I do seem to have some ability to act and I look forward to more opportunities in the future. Each is a learning experience that involves stepping inside a character who might be very different to one’s own. That’s a bit scary but also very exciting.

I’m now looking forward to another new challenge – performing an Eve Ensler Vagina Monologue in late November. The one I’ve been asked to perform is approximately six minutes and now I feel confident that I can indeed learn about two pages of solo dialogue!

As to 2020 and beyond, who knows but I look forward to more time with Lismore Theatre Company- on and off stage.

Dr Jenny Dowell OAM JP
(Honorary Doctor of Southern Cross University)
Mayoral Mentor LGNSW