Age on Stage

Charlie Steele: I’ve often heard the term ‘bunch of students playing old people’ bandied about negatively, and never more so than this particular week. Basically all of the shows, including the devised pieces, contain instances of students playing characters often several decades older than them, with varying degrees of success. From a performer’s perspective, I understand the reasons why. There are so few great roles for people of our age group. When you’re young and passionate about theatre it can be hard to find a play that reflects you unless you’re writing your own work, and even then, is anyone really interested in that perspective? And would you want to limit yourself to ‘writing what you know’? For me, theatre is special in that it allows us to suspend our disbelief more than any other art form. To me, I don’t know if the form matters that much if it’s executed well.

Dan Hutton: There’s an interesting gulf between the way in which responses to this question have varied between naturalistic and non-naturalistic pieces. Though this has been picked up on in shows like Jerusalem and Pornography, little has been discussed of the effect of ‘playing-up’ in Tatty Tales and Twelve Dancing Princesses, both of which included members of the company playing outside of their age group. Due to the non-naturalistic styles, however, we don’t seem to mind. All that you have in these cases is people saying that they’re a certain gender or age and an audience believing them. So to my mind, it doesn’t just come down to a matter of whether or not it’s ‘executed well’, because no matter how good the performance is in a naturalistic piece, we’re never going to totally buy it. The way we get round this, then, is to situate plays less in the ‘real’ world by embracing the theatrical.

CS: How do we define what’s naturalistic, then? Simon Stephens has gone on record as saying that his plays aren’t necessarily naturalistic (in conversation about Punk Rock). Maybe that’s why I found the different ages in Pornography not off-putting at all – Maria Hildebrand who played the older woman was especially good. I find it quite difficult to mark that divide as we’re never going to get a perfect representation of life onstage, no matter how hard someone might strive for that. Maybe what needs to be examined is the standard for performing as a character that is not your own age; do we strive for caricature? A blending of performer and character that isn’t too distracting? Or do we let the text do the work?

DH: I agree about Hildebrand’s representation of the Old Woman in Pornography. The tone entirely fitted in with the feeling of the piece and its awareness of its own theatricality. If anything, however, I think this could have been pushed even further, either by heightening the character or stripping it down; each would obviously have very different implications. Just imagine a student actor saying those lines as themselves – we would not need make-up or even costume to suggest character, instead depending on the words written down. As students, we will never be able to play characters of an older generation with any real believability. Finding different ways of representing age onstage therefore becomes far more exciting than just asking ‘How do old people move?’ and ‘How shall I talk?’ The actor, then, is liberated. That way, we can bring to light more questions, exploring those characters and the effect they have on the world of the play. We must accept our own limits, but use them to propel ourselves to more intriguing ways of working.

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