We should be grateful that Ian McKellen’s 80th birthday occurred in 2019 and not 2020.
To celebrate, he toured the length and breadth of the UK performing a one-man show in which he shared stories and performed extracts from various productions he had appeared in throughout his career. His tour played the largest to the smallest theatres and culminated with a performance in New York and a West End season.
It was a joyous show that not only reflected McKellen’s remarkable career, but also reminded its audience of the power and vitality of theatre as well as many of his wonderful performances.
I have found myself reflecting a lot this past week about productions I have enjoyed and that made a great impression on me, along with how much I currently really miss my trips to the theatre.
McKellen’s solo show raised thousands of pounds with nightly donation of proceeds to many different theatre and arts training organisations across the UK. If this health crisis had happened in 2019, then McKellen would have just been getting started and his tour likely postponed. As someone over 70, he would also be asked by the government to isolate himself for an extended period.
In the theatre, it’s quite common to find actors and workers working far beyond retirement age. When theatres were advised to close last week, 85-year-old actor Eileen Atkins had been in rehearsal for what should have been the UK premiere of Amy Herzog’s play 4,000 Miles at London’s Old Vic in April. Shortly before that, she had played an autumn Broadway run in the West End transfer of The Height of the Storm.
The late, great Roy Hudd, who sadly passed away last week aged 83, had been working close to his death, and even in his ninth decade had as much energy as many 20 year olds.
Most older actors and theatre workers may not draw the same headlines as those leading players but they are no less essential – whether that’s in supporting performance or production roles all the way through to the army of volunteer ushers who help keep many regional theatres functioning and thriving.
In every respect, it’s the work you do in theatre that keeps you active, social and your mind nimble – and that’s true across all ages.
But at this time, it’s important that we do not forget the many older workers in theatre who are currently isolating at home, deprived of those key daily routines of getting ready and going into the theatre: of entering through the stage door with the warm greeting from the stage-door keeper, the company banter, the preparation and contemplation before a performance and the atmosphere and excitement around a theatre that engulfs it as show time approaches.
Then there is the performance itself and reaction and energy from the audience that empowers a company, combined with the social interaction with both fellow company members, or in catching up with friends who have been in to see the show.
Finally, there is the return home after a performance, the all-important coming-down time and relaxing in front of some mind-numbing late-night TV before doing it all again the next day.
In unprecedented times like these, you really understand the old expression of how people live for the theatre – whether that’s working within it or, equally, the pleasure someone gets from watching it. And it makes you hunger for it all the more.
We do not forget the many older workers in theatre who are currently isolating at home, deprived of those key daily routines of getting ready and going into the theatrI
The 70-year-old Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn has already said that he will not be following the stay-at-home advice and will be coming daily to Parliament. For the moment his workplace is still open, while for those working in theatre, ours are closed.
Will theatres reopen before the notice is lifted for the over-70s to remain at home? Broadway is currently in an enforced closure of 30 days; the West End is closed, although still without the clarity the US has given to its theatre operators and companies.
If theatres were to reopen sooner than the restrictions are lifted on older people’s movement, what happens to all those older actors who have been appearing or rehearsing in productions before venues closed their doors?
When the show finally does go on, do older theatre workers risk coming back early and against advice, worried they may otherwise be replaced? It’s important to know that there is protection in place and a coherent plan that reassures older actors and other sector workers, and that also compensates them during what is a time of great stress and worry for many.
Last week I wrote about audiences rebuilding confidence. It’s also important for those working in our industry, especially if they have spent this enforced time away from the stage and endured a period of loneliness.
Across the industry at this time and for all ages, we need to be acutely aware of the toll these challenging circumstances are taking on mental health. Support and counselling must be there not only for those isolated now, but also once people do finally return to work.
By then, the theatre landscape could be a very different one, and some individuals may be coming back to work having faced tremendous challenges including illness and bereavement; many will also be facing difficult economic circumstances in the aftermath of this crisis.
It is paramount we all show support and kindness. We must make sure we are checking in on friends and colleagues. Crucially, when this crisis is over, as an industry we must all come back together to rebuild and see our stages lit up once again.
Richard Jordan is a producer and regular columnist for The Stage. Read his latest column every Thursday at thestage.co.uk/author/richard-jordan