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"we all need to play our part"

Ageism is pernicious in the theatre scene, writes Dino Dimitriadis, and our veteran actors are not the only people missing out.

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Dawn of a New Age: Ageism in Australian theatre

Date: 14 Jul 2019

Earlier this year, I attended the memorial service in honour of a friend and veteran actor, Penny Cook.

Hundreds of us poured into NIDA’s Parade Theatre to celebrate an extraordinary woman and to honour a powerful body of work and a legacy of advocacy.

I was mourning my friend and a firecracker of a human who championed me as an artist. Penny and I had talked about working together. The vagaries of fate, the universe, whichever higher power you believe in (if you do), would no longer allow that possibility.

I am grateful that Griffin Theatre Company, almost by magical foresight, cast Penny in The Almighty Sometimes. This was her last role on stage, on a stage that existed in big part because of her efforts.

I’ve always valued the wealth of knowledge and stagecraft carried by older actors. And the bucket-loads of life experience that almost always adds complexity and rich dimensionality to the characters they play on stage.

But roles for older actors are scarce. Most actors don’t retire, they simply stop getting cast by directors and producers. I’ve seen a number of older actors disappear into the silent oblivion of absent roles and the preoccupation with “the new” which has somehow become, for many, synonymous with “the young”.

Casting often favours celebrity and youth culture.

When roles for older actors do come along, casting preferences those few who are regularly working and who have had the opportunity to exercise their acting muscles – John Bell John Gaden and Peter Carroll, for example. Bell and Gaden are playing characters younger than themselves as I write this.

Producers ask “who can we get?”, “where is so and so?”, only to find many actors have disappeared into the void of being an older-aged actor and when a role might be suitable there is a fear that that actor may not be stage-ready or show-fit.

But if there haven’t been opportunities to remain dexterous and to exercise the muscle, how can an actor be expected to be as polished as a performer who has been regularly jobbing?

Older free spirits

What would we learn if we surveyed the body of work on our Australian stages in a single year?

I think we’d see that we have made significant steps toward gender parity and more culturally reflective storytelling. There’s still a long way to go here, but we’re making progress.

I think we’d also see that while our Australian population is ageing and a large percentage of theatregoers are older people, stories reflecting the experiences of this large percentage rarely make their way to our stages.

And it’s not just about nursing homes and Alzheimer’s disease and illness.

People are living longer, healthier lives. Almost all the older people I know are adventurous, free-spirited, sexual beings and this rarely makes its way to film and TV, let alone the stage.

Great roles

Some Australian playwrights have written remarkable roles for older actors. Often these plays are written with certain actors in mind as the playwrights rightly question why an actor of a certain craft isn’t afforded the opportunity to feature in a work.

And it can be mesmerising when they do feature.

I remember many years ago doing a directing secondment on Tommy Murphy’s beautiful Gwen in Purgatory at Belvoir. Melissa Jaffer’s complex and nuanced performance of the eponymous role is something I won’t forget. Nor will anyone who saw that production.

Older actors on stage are much less common in the indie theatres.

When casting Angels in America earlier this year, I knew that one of the great challenges to unlocking that play was finding the right actor to inhabit, in every sense, The Angel of America.

It was a no-brainer.

I picked up the phone and called Maggie Dence, in her 70s, whose work I had followed and admired for some time. I knew that I wanted an actor who could command both the technical demands of the role while tapping into the depths of Kushner’s remarkable creation.

I wanted the clarity and gravity of the Angel’s words to land, as I felt that many people, who might have been dazzled by the theatrics of flying in past productions, hadn’t actually heard her words, an astonishing recount of God’s abandoning of his Angels that is deeply tied up in the reasons for Prior’s summoning to heaven.

There was something Lear-like about the depth of performance I wanted for that role, and Maggie reached in and tackled the complexity with immense craft and truth.

She also seamlessly managed three other roles over the play’s seven hours.

And it is the years of developed craft and depth of life experience that meant Jude Gibson was able to brilliantly portray five people, male- and female-identifying, in five accents.

It was a wealth of life experience and craft that also resulted in Belinda Giblin’s extraordinary performance in Doubt a few years back.

I’ve had the pleasure of working with a number of older actors in recent years. I can’t name all the actors here but I can tell you that the work wouldn’t have had as much dimensionality without them.

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Omar and Dawn

At 86 years young, Maggie Blinco is at the top of her craft. When I decided to stage James Elazzi’s Omar and Dawn, I knew there was an opportunity to cast an older working actor in the role of 80-year-old Dawn.

I could have easily cast younger.

Maggie is one of those older actors who is still working and actively seeking work on stage and screen. On most days of the week, I feel like she has more energy than me and the rest of the cast combined.

When I phoned her about the role, she told me she hadn’t been on stage for years, because there were extremely few roles for people of her age. She keeps her memory sharp and still goes to the gym. She is dexterous on the rehearsal floor and always willing to play and try new things.

Omar and Dawn was also an opportunity for me to finally work with Lex Marinos.

He’s also of a certain vintage, like a good red wine, and he wouldn’t mind me saying that because he, like Maggie, is one of the most generous and down to earth people I’ve had the pleasure of working with. He brings a wealth of craft and life experience to his role in the play.

New stories

Conscious and reflective casting is often one of the joys of working on new writing. New plays, especially when written by unheard or marginalised voices, put new stories and experiences on our stages.

In addition to its big heart, I was attracted to James’ play for its unapologetic inclusion of two characters over 70 and two characters that are young, queer and Lebanese.

There is not a scene in this play that I have seen on a stage before and that excites me as a director. We give stage access to unheard or marginalised voices and we get new stories. It’s as simple as that.

I don’t believe, however, that combatting ageism in our industry is as simple as demanding that playwrights write more stories for older actors. Playwriting plays a huge part, but this issue requires an industry-wide shift of consciousness.

It’s about directors and producers and casting-agents making age-aware casting choices, theatre companies critically assessing the stories they are backing and programming and arts media trumpeting the need for broad representation on our stages.

I believe that we all need to play our part.

I exercise affirmative action when casting. I do it by preferencing queer actors for queer roles and I do it where possible with age.

I’m not going to change our industry, but I hope to play a small part in encouraging this consciousness. I strongly believe that age, disability and intersectional representation are the next frontiers of storytelling that require our immediate attention. And action.

A new age of casting is on its way. And it’s overdue.

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