In my university drama society, we performed a wide range of plays, in which I got to play a wide range of characters and ages. Being the only mature student on my course, I became the ‘go to’ cast member for older characters, but there were also several occasions where I portrayed teenagers successfully – at least that was the feedback from other cast members and the audiences.
A few years have passed since I graduated and, although I now work in a more backstage-orientated role, the acting bug has never quite left me. This year, I decided to start applying for acting roles again. While preparing my casting profiles, I’m struggling with the ‘playing age’ category. I still think it is quite wide but I also want to be practical and truthful.
In performance, the age you portray can be influenced by many factors ranging from how you dress and your physicality to whether you are working on stage or screen.
For the playing age on your casting profile, I suggest establishing a ‘realistic mid-range’ first and then working outwards to believable lower and upper limits on either side. You will notice that I said ‘believable’ rather than ‘possible’. There are certainly actors who can play 16-year olds and 30-year olds equally well, or even move comfortably between the early 20s through to the late 40s, but before you rush to put such wide age ranges on your profile, reflect honestly on what might happen if either end of the scale was taken entirely literally.
An actor of 22 might be able to play a 16-year-old convincingly, but just as the real test of mastering an accent is how it compares with native speakers, the actor needs to consider how well they could realistically fit into a casting room in which all the other candidates genuinely were in their mid-teens.
Physical attributes can mature rapidly, not just due to age but also life experience. This is especially true in the early 20s: most of us with nieces or nephews will know the ‘I hardly recognise you’ experience when we haven’t seen them for a month or two, changes that are less obvious to themselves or people who live with them day to day.
On the other end of the age scale, there is still nowhere near a wide enough range of parts available for more mature actors. If your playing age is moving into the next age bracket, it can be tempting to try to hang on to whatever range proved fruitful in the past, but there comes a point when outdated headshots and showreel scenes pass their sell-by date. They may ‘get you in the room’, but you won’t be the person the panel is expecting to see when you arrive.
Rather than missing out on opportunities for which you are no longer a front-runner, it is usually best to embrace the new season of life, and make sure your photos, reels and audition pieces present you in your best light.
A very useful resource for establishing your playing age is one that every actor should aim to build or to keep nurturing if it already exists: a small but diverse circle of supporters, in and out of the industry, that you know will give you feedback that is positive but honest on topics like this. Your playing age is guaranteed to change, but you will never reach a stage when having people in your life who care enough to give you truthful feedback is not helpful.
Contact careers adviser John Byrne at firstname.lastname@example.org or @dearjohnbyrne
John Byrne is also a writer, cartoonist, performer and broadcaster. Read his advice columns every Wednesday at thestage.co.uk/author/john-byrne