At 67, Margaret Bending performed her first professional show. Taking to the stage at the 180-capacity stage@leeds venue in February 2020, Bending launched into a dance and theatre piece accompanied by an ensemble all aged over 60. “I was terrified but as soon as we got going, I realised that this is what I had been looking for,” she says. “Moving my body and being surrounded by all these wonderful performers, I felt completely liberated.”

The one-off show, entitled Crossing, was the culmination of a six-month collaboration between Bending and Leeds-based The Performance Ensemble, who produce shows with more than 30 dancers, actors and singers whose ages range from 60 to 90. “From the first time I stepped into their rehearsal space in summer 2019, I was hooked,” Bending says. “It’s so different from what I had spent my life doing.”

Growing up in 1960s Lincolnshire, Bending’s first love was space exploration. Vowing to make it into space after witnessing Yuri Gagarin’s Vostok 1 flight as a seven-year-old in 1961, Bending went on to do a PhD at Leicester University and began working at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology on rocket launches to detect X-rays in space. By 1990, she’d had her first child and decided to pause her career to home school. Over the next two decades, she home schooled her other three children until, in 2015, her youngest son departed for university and she found herself with an empty nest at her North Yorkshire home.

“I had been applying for every opportunity to go into space while teaching but hadn’t got anywhere,” she says. “It felt as if I was done with working and parenting so it was now time for a new chapter to begin.” Looking back on her childhood hobbies for inspiration during retirement, Bending landed on one memory. “When I was 14 or 15, I played the part of Anitra in a school production of Peer Gynt and I loved it,” she says. “I remember the joy of dancing the choreography.”

Inspired by that teenage encounter, Bending began researching local performance courses and landed on Leeds Playhouse’s Heydays programme. Every Wednesday morning, she would attend half-day workshops on everything from reading plays aloud to dancing salsa and improvisation. “It was a great space to explore different aspects of creativity,” she says. “Although it wasn’t a public performance, I used to get really nervous in the room. A few times, I lingered at the back and then had to leave.”

But she kept returning and, in 2019, one of the Heydays organisers introduced her to The Performance Ensemble’s artistic director Alan Lyddiard. “He said that I should join their week-long workshop and perform some of the skills I’d picked up,” she says. “I wasn’t sure what to expect but on the first day everyone was so friendly and welcoming that my nerves just fell away.”

Now 71, Bending has since become so enamoured of stage work that in 2023 she performed her own one-woman show, The Story of a Rocket Scientist, dramatising her career to an audience of 80 people. She has also more recently become a paid member of The Performance Ensemble, facilitating community outreach programmes to encourage older people to try their hand at taking part in performance.

“The whole experience has been exhilarating, and it’s made me so much more confident,” she says. “People stop seeing you as an individual in your 60s but by getting on stage we can show the world that we still have things to say, experiences to share and a future to work towards.”

Even her husband, Tim, who was initially sceptical of her decision to start performing, has, in the last year, started attending creative writing workshops at Heydays, while Bending has two new shows with the Ensemble slated for the summer, as well as more community collaborations and a new podcast exploring the world of science. “It’s such a joyous, trusting experience to be creative; everyone should give it a go,” she says. “Ageing is often used as an excuse to not try something new, but we need to challenge that. I still don’t feel any different from my 30s – you’re never too old to start!”

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