Tag Archives: mercy

Interview with the Director: Jake Murray

jake murray

Jake Murray was Associate Artistic Director at the Manchester Royal Exchange Theatre from 2001 to 2007. Alongside founder James Roose-Evans, he runs Frontier Theatre Productions, which aims to explore work dealing with the ‘Third Age’, or in other words, the period of life from 60 onwards. I interviewed Jake while researching this article for the British Theatre Guide about how the theatre world views older actors, but his responses were so insightful that I wanted to give them a bit more space…

Chris Naylor How did you get involved with Frontier?

Jake Murray I was invited to come on board a few years ago be a right hand man for James [Roose-Evans]. Finding him a kindred spirit and an inspirational person was part of why I said ‘yes’. The other main factor was a long-standing love for the late plays of so many great writers – Sophocles, Shakespeare, Ibsen – all of which dealt with life on such a profound and beautiful level. As these great writers drew to the end of their days, they tended to distil their life’s wisdom into these extraordinary works; they are their final testimonies, as it were. Not only are they theatrically remarkable (who can deny the brilliance of ‘Oedipus At Colonus’, ‘King Lear’ or ‘John Gabriel Borkman’?), but the depth of understanding is second to none. As I think that Theatre should be dealing with our lives on as profound a level as possible, working on such plays seemed the right thing to do.

CN What are you hoping to achieve with Frontier’s work?

JM We want to bear witness to the fact that the Third Age is as rich and profound as any other phase in our lives. In the past, old age was seen as a great achievement, a time of wisdom and understanding, Now, because being old is not economically productive, does not make you sexually attractive, and reminds us all of our mortality, we have drawn a veil over it. As a consequence, a vast amount of people have been made invisible, when in fact the only thing that is ‘old’ is their bodies. We must give them a voice. That, I think, is what we want to achieve.

'Mercy' in rehearsal

CN Have you found it easy to attract actors to Frontier?

JM So far, yes. There is a huge reservoir of older actors out there very keen for work. We forget that this was the 60s generation, who made up the mainstay of our theatre, TV and screen work for four or five decades and still has much to offer.

CN Is it frustrating to discover that a lot of good actors give up too soon? Does this make it harder to find enough good older actors to cast?

JM I work a lot in drama schools and the drop-out rate of actors who leave while still in their 20s is mortifying. The profession is more brutal than ever. There is far less work out there than there was, even when I started out in the 1990s, and people were complaining about a shrinking workplace even then. Even with the work that is out there, the chances of being paid decently are minimal, worse than ever, in fact. It’s horrible seeing huge numbers of talented young actors struggling to keep going. ’Too soon’ is now two or three years after leaving drama school for a lot of them, let alone in their 30s, 40s or 50s. It’s very tough. I often say to my students: ‘Keep going. If you are good and you don’t give up, you will eventually find work, because the drop out rate is such that people will be looking for actors in their 30s onwards more and more.’ But can people wait that long? But good older actors still wait to be asked, so hopefully we will find enthusiastic actors of those generations. So far we have!

CN It has traditionally been harder for women to find acting work as they get older – is this still the case?

JM Well, yes and no. The canon has always had more male roles than female. However brilliant Shakespeare was for women, there is only ever a maximum of five parts for actresses in his plays, as opposed to nine or ten minimum for men. Also, women have suffered from the ‘Juliet/ Nurse’ syndrome, whereby people only write parts for young women in their 20s or in their advanced years, with nothing in between. This was partly because women in their 30s and 40s tended to have children, and so came back to the stage when they were older. As a consequence, a whole area of women’s lives have not been documented on stage.

Helen McCrory as killer Medea ©Alastair Muir

But I think things are changing. There is more interest in great roles for actresses; there are more writers writing great parts for older women, as well as women in their middle years. The appearance of more female writers is an important factor, of course, as is the appearance of more women directors (there are more female Artistic Directors in British theatre than ever before, I’m pleased to say), but male directors are also exploring these parts. Last year we had Gillian Anderson, Helen McCrory and Kristin Scott Thomas all playing major classical roles. I have always loved working with older actresses, because the energy, passion and wisdom they bring to the stage is so great. I tell writers to write for women, especially older ones, as there will always be more talented women in the profession than men, and so their work will be produced. We need more and more of this. We at Frontier are very keen to help redress this balance.

CN Do you think there is a difference in the employment landscape for older actors in theatre, as opposed to TV/film?

mark hamill

JM There is an increasing presence for big movies that deal with the older experience. The Marigold Hotel films are a case in point, and movies like ‘Quartet’ and ‘Amour’. We have Harrison Ford, Carrie Fisher and Mark Hamill about to take the screen again in the new Star Wars movie. Throw in the dreadful ‘Expendables’ movies and perhaps it’s fair to say that age is not a problem in cinema! I think when people love a screen actor they enjoy seeing them still doing it in their old age, especially if they can be playful with their image. I remember Kirk Douglas and Burt Lancaster having a ball in a movie called ‘Tough Guys’ back in the 80s, which really was fun to watch.

CN Is the entertainment industry directed too much towards younger people?

JM Yes. Cinema is aimed primarily at the 13-21 age group, which is why there are so many Marvel superhero movies nowadays. I’m in my 40s and I feel totally alienated from the cinema now. I’ve become bored with having to pretend I’m down with the kids and enjoy the latest Avengers movie. I don’t. They’re awful. But Hollywood & Entertainment is all driven by money and demographics. If producers think the money is in the ageing population, that’s where they will go.

CN Do you think the profession has an obligation to provide more casting opportunities for older actors? If so, where does the responsibility lie?

JM We have a responsibility to provide more casting opportunities for all generations of actors. Ultimately the responsibility lies with the people with the money. Its lack of resources that chokes off theatre. When you can’t pay your actors, or can only afford to pay two per show, you are killing theatre as an art by not allowing it to breathe. I am very against quotas in theatre, but I do think that if we want a healthy stage world, we must fund it. That responsibility must come from the State in our modern society. Commercial theatre takes care of its own, but if we want our theatre to also deal with real issues in a deeper way, we have to support it from non-commercial sources.

CN Would you agree that theatre is a pastime that generally appeals more to older people? If so, should plays be telling more stories about older people?

JM This is highly complex. It’s partly generational – theatre was part of the older generation’s landscape more, educational standards were higher and more wide ranging back in the day and theatre didn’t have to compete with Netflix, Playstation, Facebook etc. But there is still a strong, dedicated young theatre-going audience out there.

In the end we as theatre folk have to bear testament to the whole spectrum of human life: that means telling stories of all phases of age. One of the things Frontier wants to do is present intergenerational work. We don’t want plays which hive off the old into some kind of inward-looking box, but which show how the old relate to the young, and how generations can learn from each other. We live in an atomised society which lies to itself about ageing and the process of life, so people don’t know how to deal with it. Many young people feel the lack of nourishing connections with older people, especially when they are facing life’s problems. It’s important we talk about this in our work.

Frontier Theatre’s production of Clare Whitehead’s ‘Mercy’, directed by Jake Murray, is part of the EverHopeFull repertory season and runs from September 1st to the 26th at 6 Frederick’s Place, London EC2R 8AB. Tickets are priced at £10.

Advertisements

Close Encounters with the Third Age

pigeon fancier

Who has a job for life these days? That fondly-remembered (probably mythical) era when you’d start work in the factory at 17 – the same place your father worked, and his father before him – safe in the knowledge that you’d be clocking on until you were 65 and it was time to retire and give your days over to your racing pigeons or the rhubarb in your allotment… Those days have now gone. Nobody can really expect to stay in a job for very long. But at the same time, the ‘default retirement age’ as it is known, which had been set at 65 for decades, has been phased out, and UK workers are under pressure to work for longer.

They’re all getting a bit more like the humble actor. We theatricals must be more familiar than most with this sort of work landscape. Let’s face it, much of the time in our profession, as soon as we get a job we’re preparing for it to be over, eyes always on the horizon. Along with a flexible attitude to work comes a very loose approach to retirement. If you stay the course and battle through those difficult early years, chances are you’re in it for the long haul. Most of us are not waiting for the day we can throw in the towel – it’s far more likely that we are travelling hopefully, always waiting for the Big One and fully expecting to keep going until we finally peg out live on stage. Tommy Cooper, Sid James, Eric Morecambe; the profession is full of romanticised tales of seasoned pros breathing their last in front of a paying audience.

But as we know, the profession itself often has other ideas. Despite our ageing population, the acting world doesn’t seem all that interested in old people. In an industry that is passionately infatuated with Youth, is there a place for an actor over 50, 60 or 70?

sam and auriol

I spoke recently to directors Sam Walters and Auriol Smith, who founded the Orange Tree Theatre in Richmond, and ran it for 43 years. Sam retired as Artistic Director of the theatre in 2014, and although both he and Auriol are still active in the profession, he was sounding rather ground down. ‘My desire to be involved in the theatre at all has diminished enormously recently,’ he said. Describing himself as ‘considerably less enthusiastic’ about the profession, he decried the theatre world’s obsession with youth: ’The New is concerned with the Young. And the tendency is always to denigrate the past.’

Auriol Smith has always acted as well as directing, and says she is ‘just as enthusiastic, but more cynical about the way theatre is heading.’ The contribution Auriol and Sam have made to the profession over the past four decades can’t really be overstated, and yet they clearly feel side-lined.

There is much talk these days of the ‘Third Age’, which is defined as the period of ‘active retirement’, post middle-age. I imagine most actors in their late 60s and 70s would take issue with the suggestion that they are in any sort of retirement at all, rather that they are trying to engage with work in the same way as ever – we all know the stories of John Gielgud changing agents at 96 in his determination to keep working. But if the work isn’t there, how can actors stay engaged?

A number of recently-established companies are trying to grapple with this issue. The Visible Theatre Ensemble, under artistic directors Sonja Linden and Sue Lefton, is one such endeavour. Their intention is to create ‘exciting contemporary theatre that both represents and transcends issues of older age. Our vision is a future where the contribution of older actors is honoured by British theatre.’

WHO DO WE THINK WE ARE

Visible recently worked with playwright Sonja Linden and a cast of older actors to devise their very successful production, ‘Who Do We Think We Are?’, which was presented at Southwark Playhouse in 2014, and they are currently running a season of workshops under the heading ‘Gravitas’, for professional actors over the age of 60, led by seasoned practitioners such as Mike Alfreds and Max Stafford-Clark.

Visible contend that ‘there is a lot of negativity about being older in our society, and this is heightened for actors, continuously in the public gaze. What is missing is the recognition of what is their most powerful resource – life experience.’

james roose evans

Another company set up specifically to create work for older actors is Frontier Theatre Productions, led by veteran director James Roose-Evans. James’s extraordinary career spans 60 years; among many other achievements, he was founder of Hampstead Theatre, and adapted and directed the original production of ‘84 Charing Cross Road’ in the West End and on Broadway.

James told me that, while running a workshop in London with actors over 70, he’d had been struck by how open to exploration they were. ‘This set me thinking about what a huge bank of talented actors in their sixties upwards we have in this country, which is largely untapped.’

jake murray

James’s experience led to the establishment of Frontier with director Jake Murray, who was Associate Artistic Director at Manchester Royal Exchange from 2001 to 2007. ‘The Third Age is as rich and profound as any other phase in our lives,’ says Jake. ‘In the past, old age was seen as a great achievement, a time of wisdom and new insights. Now we have drawn a veil over it. As a consequence a vast amount of people have been made invisible. We must give them a voice.’

mercy

James and Jake hope to achieve this both by reviving plays, but also finding new writing. Their latest production is ‘Mercy’ by Clare Whitehead, part of the So And So Arts Club’s EverHopefull Repertory season. ‘Since Frontier was launched, we have been getting scripts from New Zealand, Australia, America, Canada, as well as from the UK,’ says James. ‘Clearly we have touched a nerve.’

James is also keen to involve younger actors in Frontier’s work, to give them the chance to learn alongside older actors. ‘Clearly older actors, if they have talent, have a greater experience of the craft of acting, which they can impart to younger actors.’

There are plenty of young actors out there, of course, but one of the industry’s main preoccupations has always been the need to attract young audiences. This in turn has fed a negative attitude towards older theatre-goers – the cliché of the ‘blue-rinse brigade’. During their time at the Orange Tree, Sam Walters and Auriol Smith built up a fiercely loyal – and very theatre-literate – audience. ‘Theatre-going is a habit,’ Ariol points out. Sam agrees: ‘It is something they have known and grown up with. For the older members of the Orange Tree audience, their theatre-going was an important and meaningful part of their lives. That is why I always reacted strongly to any disparagement of them.’

I asked James Roose-Evans if he thought theatre was generally more appealing to older audiences. ‘I don’t agree with this. When I directed Christopher Fry‘s ‘Venus Observed’ at Chichester, Patrick Garland included it in the season but not expecting it to do well at the box office. The production was sold out, and what amazed Patrick and myself was how many young people responded, discovering Fry for the first time‘.
Jake Murray believes it is a complex issue. ‘It’s partly generational, as theatre was part of the older generation’s landscape, educational standards were higher back in the day and theatre didn’t have to compete with Netflix, Playstation, Facebook, etc. But there is still a strong, dedicated young theatre-going audience out there who are excited by what they see on the stage.’

Maggie Gyllenhaal

Discrimination against older performers is also being raised more and more – actress Maggie Gyllenhall recently spoke out against ageism in Hollywood, and revealed she had been told she was too old to play the love interest of a 55-year old male actor. She is 37. It is certainly still true that women have a far tougher time of it as they get older. As James Roose-Evans observes, ‘After sixty, women tend to become invisible.’ His work with Frontier hopes to improve this state of things by producing new work specifically designed for older actresses. ‘One example which, to the best of my knowledge, has never been tested in the theatre,’ says James, ‘is the rich relationship between grandmothers and granddaughters who are in their late teens, early twenties.’

For his part, Jake Murray is optimistic. ‘There are more writers writing great parts for older women,’ he says, ‘and not just female writers, but men too. I tell writers to write for women, especially older ones, as there will always be more talented women in the profession than men.’

In cinema, as Murray points out, the ‘grey pound’ is being served targeted more than ever:
‘There is an increasing presence for big movies that deal with the older experience. The ‘Marigold Hotel’ films are a case in point, and movies like ‘Quartet’ and ‘Amour’. I think when people love a screen actor they enjoy seeing them still doing it in their old age, especially if they can be playful with their image.’

Diana-Rigg game of thrones

Television, most of all, seems willing to embrace its older audience. Shows like ‘Last Tango in Halifax’ and even ‘Game Of Thrones’ clearly recognise the value of casting older actors –performers like Diana Rigg and Julian Glover bring decades of experience, but also carry with them the weight of earlier roles.

The entertainment industry deals in dreams, ideals and fantasy, which often means avoiding the harsher realities of life. But we have an ageing population – a community which can’t be ignored and which has an abundance of life experience, time to consume entertainment and in many cases, more money than the young. And perhaps the tide is turning after all. Companies like Visible and Frontier are showing that the older actor still has an important place in the theatre, and one of the hottest tickets in recent years has been Theatre Royal Bath and Tricycle Theatre’s production ‘The Father’, starring Kenneth Cranham, which explores the devastating effects of dementia on an 80-year old man – although, there is a danger that the theatre treats older characters only in terms of declining faculties: as James Roose-Evans warns, ‘It is not all about Alzheimer’s.’

It’s time we embrace fully just how important stories about older people can be to our culture – and this means we need to support older storytellers, both actors and writers. Theatre should be a window onto the whole of life, not just the first part.

Frontier Theatre’s production of Clare Whitehead’s ‘Mercy’, directed by Jake Murray, is part of the EverHopeFull repertory season and runs from September 1st to the 26th at 6 Frederick’s Place, London EC2R 8AB. Tickets are priced at £10.