The paradox of the older jobbing actor is that, while he or she may be happy to carry on working into extreme old age, the opportunities to do so are in depressingly short supply.
“For most older actors, the jobs on offer tend to be bit parts in TV commercials or someone’s nutty old grandparent,” says writer Sonja Linden, co-founder of Visible Theatre, a company focused on creating work for older performers that she set up with former dancer, choreographer and Royal Shakespeare Company movement director Sue Lefton.
“So much of the media coverage of the elderly is negative and unrepresentative. We’re not all immobile and gaga. I know that a lot of older people have health problems, but equally there are a lot of people who are fit and well, leading normal lives, having ups and downs, still working, travelling far and wide, falling in love.
“Sue and I wanted to create a company that gave a more diverse representation of old age, harnessing the resources of older actors, and saying to younger people, ‘Please rethink your attitude to the old. This is who we are’.”
Visible made an impressive debut last year with Who Do We Think We Are?, a home-grown show in which 10 older actors from varying cultural backgrounds, aged 60 to 84, acted out a ragbag of their own family memories, cleverly dramatised and woven into a coherent narrative by Linden.
When these memories included surviving the Warsaw ghetto in the Second World War, the reality of life under the dictator Ceausescu in Romania, growing up under the British Raj in India, and living through the atomic bomb in Nagasaki, you can understand why the Observer critic found it “a beautifully crafted evening of unusual warmth and interest… memories are picked up like dropped stitches, sewn into a single cloth”.
Two years in the making, Who Do We Think We Are? was insanely complex and challenging for a debut show – 41 scenes over two hours.
“It was so ambitious, we had no idea if it would work,” says Linden with hindsight. “What was incredible for Sue and me to watch was how the actors developed and came out of themselves. For many it was such a long time since they’d been given anything as meaty and meaningful as this to do.
“The actors were on a high for the whole three weeks of the run. They felt completely regenerated, and I know that a couple of them felt they’d emerged from it as better actors. I had always wanted to create something really beautiful which, as a writer, is quite difficult to do. But we had a great creative team and one of the greatest pleasures for me was that it was so beautiful to look at.”
Although the show did not, as expected, transfer from the Southwark Playhouse to other venues, they did film it. There was a screening at a recent conference of the British Society of Gerontology.
Linden and Lefton have now been joined by Claire French as general manager, a much younger theatremaker who has worked as a producer and festival director in Australia and Germany as well as the UK.
The follow-up show later this year will be Roundelay, which Linden has based on Arthur Schnitzler’s 1897 play La Ronde about sex and class, only Linden’s version is, unsurprisingly, more concerned with sex and age. “You don’t often hear tales of love and intimacy among older people, so I’ve created a series of 10 encounters under the broad umbrella of love.
“We shall explore stories of love between parent and child, love across an age divide, the loss of love that comes with bereavement, the disappearance of a loved one into dementia, and so on. I want to keep the idea of it being culturally diverse and there will be a lot of movement, as suggested by the title, which was a dance in Tudor times.”
In the meantime, Visible is staging a series of celebrity workshops in Hoxton, east London, entitled Gravitas, a clever acronym standing for Grow Richer With Age: Visible Intensive Training for Actors.
Leading the six workshops in August will be veteran directors Mike Alfreds, Max Stafford-Clark and Philip Hedley, actor and voice coach Annabel Leventon, drama teacher Vladimir Mirodan, and movement guru Jane Gibson.
Each workshop has been specifically tailored to the older, experienced actor, the maximum number of participants for each being 15. “The idea is to provide a rare opportunity for older actors to train and develop with the best in the business,” says Linden. “We’re also hoping they may yield some new talent for the company.
“Life experience can be a powerful resource that is far too little valued in the theatre. Our aim is to counteract the negativity that surrounds the whole subject of being older in our society and harness those qualities and resources older actors have to offer. You shouldn’t have to be Helen Mirren or Judi Dench to still be employable.”
Gravitas will take place at the Graeae Bradbury Studios, 138 Kingsland Road, Hoxton, London E28DY. The workshops are from August 3-September 25, and are open to professional actors over 60. Visit www.visible.org.uk for application details