Every year there’s a show at the Edinburgh Fringe that catches fire – a show that’s garnered critical acclaim, garlanded with awards and impossible for the average player to see. In 2022 it was Haley McGee’s solo show Age Is a Feeling heading to London for three weeks at the Soho Theatre.
“I didn’t expect things to go so well,” says the 36-year-old writer and actress, who has lived in London for six years since moving from her native Canada. “I had no idea how the show was going to end up.”
Age Is a Feeling follows a woman’s life from the age of 25 – the point at which the human brain is fully developed, says McGee – spanning love and loss, ambition and illness, friendship and failure. It focuses on the physical and psychological process of female aging – what happens to women’s brains and bodies as they get older – and death.
“I’ve always been interested in mortality since I was little,” says McGee. “When I was seven, I kept dreaming of being buried alive. When I was 11 years old, my mother actually got cancer. I was very aware of how weak and fragile human life is.”
Then she hit her 30s. “When you hit your 30s as a cis woman, society puts all this pressure on you,” says McGee. “Our youth-obsessed culture makes you feel like if you don’t get it by the time you’re 40, that’s it for you. The die is cast.”
McGee wanted to make a show that would truthfully confront both of these themes – aging and dying – so she started interviewing people about their experiences with aging, trying out snippets of writing, and eventually inventing an entire life story to perform. Some comes from her own life, some from the lives of people she knows, some is completely fictitious.
However, what makes Age Is a Feeling unique is that due to the show’s unusual structure, each performance is different. McGee prepared 12 different, interconnected stories from her protagonist’s life, each with a different one-word title – ‘oyster’, ‘bus’, ‘hospital’, ‘dog’, etc. – scribbled on a card.
At each performance, McGee offers these cards to her audience like a magician performing a card trick. Six stories are selected and performed. The other six remain unheard. “There are 180 possible versions of the show,” says McGee. “That’s the math. My producer keeps a spreadsheet of which stories are chosen. So far we have only had one repeated combination.”
“We wanted to reflect the unknowability of human life,” she continues. “We wanted a structure that explores the fact that people will remember you differently. Some of your stories will be remembered and others will be forgotten. It’s like someone showing you a place. You only see it through their eyes and their interests. You never really get a full picture, either with places or with people.”
Over the course of her time on Age Is a Feeling, McGee has found that each of her 12 stories resonates with audiences differently. Some make them laugh. Some make her cry. One in particular, Dog, gained marginal notoriety for how sad it was. “It’s getting harder and harder to tell Dog,” says McGee. “I feel so bad for putting the audience through this thing.”
“Every Fringe needs a Big Tear Jerker,” Time Out wrote in its review, giving Age Is a Feeling that award for 2022, adding it was an “amazingly wise, sad and beautiful reflection on life.”
McGee was born and raised in the town of Kitchener-Waterloo, Ontario. Her mother was a molecular biologist and her father was an academic specializing in Shakespeare. “That’s where my interest in theater came from,” she says. “It came from trying to connect with my father.”
Childhood dance classes gave way to roles in high school plays, which in turn gave way to drama studies at Toronto’s Ryerson University, now Toronto Metropolitan University. She lived and worked as a part-time actress in her home country for a decade before moving to the UK in 2016.
“I was really tired of being in other people’s plays,” says McGee. “I felt like I could bring just a tiny part of me to them. When I made my own stuff, I felt like I could bring so much more. It seemed like a better way to channel my creativity and it seemed more possible to do it in the UK. i love it here i love the scene I love that people my age create their own work and tour with it.”
McGee has continued to act in theater productions and TV series in the UK – she appeared in an episode of Doctor Who in 2020 and is the voice of “several well-known alcoholic beverages and deodorants” – but in recent years she has become best known for her solo shows.
In late 2018 she premiered The Ex-Boyfriend Yard Sale at Camden People’s Theatre, a show in which she used a mathematical formula to find a value for objects given to her by previous partners and which was translated into both a book and has also been adapted into a podcast series in 2021. “The voiceover work pays the bills,” she says. “It allows me to do what I want to do, which is doing solo shows and writing books right now.”
McGee is currently based in Walthamstow, having recently moved there from East Dulwich to be closer to her boyfriend, whom she met online during lockdown and did not see in person for the first two months of their relationship. “His name is Robert, he’s a painter and now I live around the corner from him, five minutes away,” she says. “It seems like a step in the right direction after being 10 miles apart.”
McGee and Robert were 400 miles apart this August when she performed Age Is a Feeling in Edinburgh. The Soho Theater produced the show and ran its pre-Edinburgh previews, which McGee says gave it an advantage in the notoriously crowded field of the world’s largest arts festival, as it allowed it to focus solely on the play.
“But that also meant that I didn’t have any excuses when things didn’t go well, and that also meant a lot of pressure,” she says. “That meant I really had to show up and do the best show possible, so I took it really seriously. I did not drink. I went to bed early. I was religious.”
The first full fringe since the pandemic began was euphoric, but was also hampered by issues such as skyrocketing artist costs and the city’s creaking infrastructure, which is increasingly unable to handle August attendance numbers. McGee says this has led to mixed feelings about the event. “On the one hand you meet artists from all over the world and see works that you would never have seen otherwise. The Fringe has opened up so much to me. On the other hand, many artists take enormous financial risks and it harms the city and the people who live here.”
But it was undoubtedly an exceptional Fringe for McGee – she won one of her venue’s Summerhall Lustrum Awards and one of The Scotsman’s prestigious Fringe First Awards in the same week. “I had no idea if the show would resonate with people or if people would find it compelling,” she says. “But they seem to have it and I’m very grateful. I’m surprised too.”
Age Is a Feeling runs at the Soho Theater until September 24th, then returns from February 14th to March 11th; sohotheatre.com