In 2006, Stephen Sondheim spoke about a turning point in his early career. As a young man trying to make it as a composer and lyricist, he was taken under the wing of composer Oscar Hammerstein. “Oscar saw in me somebody he could pass his knowledge on to,” he said. “The move was as crucial as crucial can be.”
Most industries try to have a good balance of young and old in the workforce, partly for this reason. Musical theatre productions are generally no different, yet over the past decade I’ve seen a change: producers are casting large numbers of young and younger actors – many straight out of drama school – to fill out a cast.
This includes casting young actors to play older roles, which makes no sense when there is a surplus of age-appropriate talent available. If the book calls for it, producers should stay faithful to the story in casting someone of the right age. Having more experienced actors in a company not only gives an audience value for money, but means they can mentor that younger talent during a production. Who knows, that may just lead to a nascent career soaring. It also prevents older actors fading and dropping out of the industry.
When I started in this business 20 years ago, I worked with a wonderful older actor called David Savile in The Far Pavilions. David always used to say: “Walk your track every day, Irvine.” He meant that I should go over and over the performing track I was understudying. It involved endless walking of entrances and exits and speaking the lines again and again. Invaluable advice, which I still carry out today.
During my two and half years in Aladdin, young actors have often approached me wanting to discuss acting or singing advice. How to fit a microphone belt was an example from another show. Some have wanted to discuss life issues outside the industry, including applying for a mortgage and even how to fill out a new passport application.
This partly suggests that drama schools are not doing their duty in teaching basic life and professional skills to their students but it also shows how important experienced actors are when students do graduate. A season pro can offer advice that some tyros would not even go to their family for.
Retention of the seasoned pro has never been so crucial. Fill a production with young talent and the David Savile-style wisdom will vanish. This is knowledge built up over decades, even centuries; it brings the community closer together and conjures a sense of continuity.
Mentor-style relationships must be encouraged. Allowing young actors an outlet to ask questions and not be embarrassed that the query may be basic is so important. And on the flip side, experienced actors should always offer advice; don’t go down the ‘I learnt the hard way and so should you’ route.
It starts with the producers. They should ensure a company is balanced with young and old, experienced and inexperienced. One that is too wildly tilted one way prevents theatre and its continuity to flourish. Sondheim knew it was crucial, and he’s done all right, hasn’t he?