Art in An Ageist World

Art in An Ageist World

Acting attracts young people like itty-bitty moths to a flame. And why shouldn’t it? Acting is brilliant—an exhilarating, fascinating, deeply engaging career, not to mention that vague promise of fame and fortune.

Post by Kathryn Ash

The casting calls, the cattle calls, the call-backs.
The nail-biting waiting, waiting, waiting.

A whole new conversation has begun about Ageism in The Arts. It’s a typically fancy idea for something very simple: old artists aren’t getting the gigs. In an age that backs the emerging artist, the aging artist is finding it tough. Oddly enough, despite being an aging population (which logically also equates to an aging audience base), Australians aren’t making the sort of theatre readily requiring the services of older actors. Go figure.

Acting attracts young people like itty-bitty moths to a flame. And why shouldn’t it? Acting is brilliant—an exhilarating, fascinating, deeply engaging career, not to mention that vague promise of fame and fortune.

Life as an actor. What’s not to love? Let’s do an inventory.

The late nights. The long days. The laughable credit rating.
The soul-crushing part-time jobs you take to pay your rent while you wait for your next role.
The roles you almost got. The roles you didn’t hear about in time for the audition. The roles you wish you didn’t get but ‘thems the breaks’.
The casting calls, the cattle calls, the call-backs.
The nail-biting waiting, waiting, waiting.

Ask any actor who has made the choice to make a living out of acting. The work is hard. It’s often not lovely. It’s often non-existent.

Few people have the stamina for it, in fact. The exit rate for career actors is high. Seems most actors are doomed to wake up one day in their 30’s and realise “Gosh, I’m not gonna get famous, am I?”.

Cue dark, sad, cello music to accompany the heartfelt ‘to-be-or-not-be-an-actor’ internal monologue. So many actors decide “not” and exit stage right for more profitable pursuits. After the initial devastating horror of realising neither fame nor fortune will be forthcoming, however, some actors realise something else; they are not in it to be famous.

Gasp!

Theatre, in particular, is favoured by a good many older actors who realise they are in it for the Art. They’ve seen it all, lived it all, and have very little in the bank to show for it. They realise that the idea of fame pales in comparison to the deep satisfaction that comes from performing, of meeting their artistic calling, the feeling that they are doing something worthwhile and beautiful and meaningful, one gig at a time.

Whilst this is all very noble, the reality is, the jobs for older artists are just not there. Actor Barbara Lowing, an accomplished actor from Brisbane who JUTE audiences will recall as the wicked Worm in the 2017 production Here We All Are Assembled, has just finished a star turn with fellow-older actor, Roxanne MacDonald in Belloo Creative’s Rovers by Katherine Lyall-Watson.

Lowing expressed her joy at having the opportunity so rarely available to artists of a certain age. At the same time she expressed her disappointment that such opportunities are so frustratingly rare. She puts the ageism squarely in a feminist context:

“…Some theatre companies feel senior artists- read ‘female’- would draw an audience (most research proclaims this to be untrue- audiences, of every age, want to see great work and great story telling). You lose the ‘sexy’ ticket…. There are few things worse than having dedicated your life to creating theatre, and then realising that you have become redundant, after all the experience that you have to offer- and all the experiences that you want to learn. – actor, Barbara Lowing.

Ah, yes, the sexy ticket. Is theatre suffering under the delusion that sexy young theatre is good theatre? Is it that our stories must be young stories told by young people for an audience who, regardless of their age, only want to see the lithe and trim youth of today tread the boards? A quick rummage through the 2019 season plans of major theatre companies reveals that’s quite probably the case, although it must be said Melbourne Theatre Company is sharing the boards with seniors quite admirably.

Yes, of course, you are busy listing all the senior actors you’ve seen starring in main stage productions in the last year. Hugo Weaving in The Resistible Rise of Arturio Ui, Noni Hazelhurst did her star twirl with Mother, Kelton Pell in Black Swan’s reworking of The Doll. A few more perhaps. Lovely. But the weight of the stories have indeed been towards youth.

Our appetite for youthful theatre possibly always has been an element of theatre programming. Is it simply that fresh-faced stories and the young characters who populate them are, in an age of sexy young things, an easier sell to aging audiences who crave the vicarious experience of being young again? Why is it that the older the audiences become, the less likely we are to create, develop or produce a play for older actors?

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