Tag Archives: the father

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.

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Interview With The Director… Joe Harmston – part 1

joe h

Joe Harmston is a British theatre director, whose career spans nearly twenty years.
Highlights of his career have been the world premiere of ‘King James’ Ear’, ‘The Lover’ and ‘The Collection’, which he directed at The Donmar Warehouse starring their writer, Harold Pinter.

With Bill Kenwright he created the hugely successful Agatha Christie Theatre Company, while at the other end of the spectrum he continues to champion new writing projects on the fringe.
In spring 2012 he commissioned and directed a landmark re-interpretation of Strindberg’s ‘The Father’ at the Belgrade in Coventry, where he is Associate Creative Director, and for which he was nominated for Best Director in the 2012 TMA Awards.


hay fever

I first worked with Joe on a tour of Noel Coward’s ‘Hay Fever’ for Bill Kenwright, starring Stephanie Beacham and Christopher Timothy.

Chris Naylor: The acting business has changed a lot since I started 16 years ago – in those days when I got an audition, my agent would tell me about who was directing it and what they’d done, but it wasn’t as easy to research people – I’m not sure Google existed in 1998. But when you meet an actor for an audition now, what do you expect of them?

Joe Harmston: Well, not a lot, actually. I think the most I expect of them is that they have read the play, understood it and have some sense of who I am – not in a terribly grand way, but occasionally you have a meeting and an actor will say to you, ‘sorry, who are you, what have you done?’ and that’s not really the best way to make friends and influence people. But personally I’m not interested in a great deal of preparation on the part of the actor, because what I want to do is see if I like them as a person.

CN: So you see it as a microcosm of the rehearsal room?

JH: Yeah, I’m trying to find a group of people who I think are going to get on well in rehearsal, and therefore be creative together. So I guess what I’m looking for is people who are going to ask themselves the right sort of questions about the play and are going to be engaged and interested. For example, I don’t want people to come into an audition having decided on a performance.

CN: So, off-book, for example – you’d never want that?

JH: I’m impressed by it but it doesn’t make any difference to me. Sometimes people come in off-book, but actually they’re not really off-book –

CN: – and then they throw themselves.

JH: I mean, I’m working on the basis that actors can learn lines – that’s not always right, of course – but essentially that’s not a skill I expect an actor to feel they need to prove to me. What I do want them to prove is that they can have ideas about the play and the part, and that they can also respond to my ideas. So even if somebody comes and does something beautifully, I will always say, ‘Well that’s lovely – let’s try that again, but perhaps we could do this’, even if the things I’m suggesting are not things I actually would suggest. Sometimes you ask them to do something slightly different, and they do exactly the same and you think, ‘Oh, I see, that’s all I’m ever going to get from them.’

CN: Are you surprised by that lack of flexibility?

JH: Yes, endlessly. I’m also endlessly surprised – especially with young actors – with how voluble they can be about the play and the performance, and then be unspeakably awful. So sometimes you spend five minutes having a chat beforehand and you think, ‘Wow! You’re going to be stunning!’ and then they do it and you think, ‘Did you just get up and leave the room and somebody else came and took your place?’

CN: So they can talk the talk?

JH: Yeah.

Guy-sitting-solo1-grey-350

CN: I can remember meeting Guy Retallack for my first ever theatre job. It was ‘Dangerous Corner’ at the Watermill, and I had a brilliant time – and I was talking to the actor who had sat in at the audition who told me that one of the reasons I got it was that Guy had asked me to make a particular choice about the character, and I said, ‘No, I think that’s the sort of thing I would leave for the rehearsal room’! For some reason that made him think, ‘This person is interesting’! Would you have cast me?

JH: I would have done as well, yeah, I would be interested in somebody who’s showing that they had ideas. I don’t want an actor who’s just going to do what I tell them to do. I think good directing is knowing what are the right questions to ask, and you‘re stupid if you think you’ve got all the answers.

rehearsals_5

CN: I imagine one of the key things about directing is that you need to be able to adjust your method to each particular actor?

JH: I always think that at the beginning in the rehearsal room, you’ve got 12 people who all speak different languages, and your job is to speak to them in their own language. The process of rehearsal is about creating a shared language so that at the end you’ve got everybody speaking the same language. The first part is always very difficult because you’re speaking Russian and German and Flemish, and sometimes you forget which language you need to speak to someone in.
I remember doing a play where one of the actors I’d worked with a lot – we’d known each other for a decade – and I gave him a really brutal note, it was something like, ‘Don’t do it like that, Simon – your character’s supposed to be dull and ineffectual, not dead, you stupid c***’. And Simon just went, ‘Oh yeah, sorry, sorry’, but everybody else looked at me in absolute horror. That was absolutely the language that I needed to speak to Simon in at that moment because of all of our shared history, but it was sort of inappropriate that I allowed other people to hear it. Actually by the end of it, I could speak to everybody like that, but at that stage there were many other people where I needed to be saying, ‘Darling, I love what you’re doing, that’s a terrific idea – I tell you what, let’s just try something completely different,’ which actually means, ‘Please don’t ever do that again.’

 

actortarget

CN: I can remember when we worked together there was an actress who was cleaving very closely to a method at the time…

 

JH: Yes, it was that book by Declan Donellan. It was so fascinating because when she began, instinctively she was just perfect for the part, but then it started getting odder and odder and odder and more disjointed, and we all realised she had this notebook. The method that she was slavishly adhering to was more and more of a block, because it became not about instinctively responding to the actors in the room with her, but about doing this thing – I mean, it was very odd…

CN: Particularly for a very light text like ‘Hay Fever’.

JH: Yes. I seem to recall we actually got her to burn her notebook – we had a sacrificial burning of it. It wasn’t that actually the work wasn’t useful, but it was all just about that, rather than what else was happening. She couldn’t be in the moment.

mamet

CN: I can remember when I was at LAMDA, David Mamet’s ‘True and False’ came out and we all just loved it and devoured it; it became the new Bible for us, for a while anyway.

JH: I think the good thing about ‘True and False’ though was that it was less prescriptive.

CN: It was anti-prescriptive.

JH: Yes, and it was very much an overview and an approach, where as so many of the books like Declan’s are about, you know, on page 26 there is the exercise you do, and you know, any text you can treat like this – and you think, ‘Ooh, no no no.’ But you’re right, the Mamet – suddenly there was a real vogue for it. I remember Bill Nighy giving it to me and saying, ‘Have you read this? You’ve got to read it’. Everybody was on about it.

CN: Do you find that sort of things crops up mostly with young actors?

JH: Yes, but sometimes it’s older actors who have that panic of the mid-career, suddenly thinking ‘I’ve found this book which is the great thing I must do – this is why things haven’t been happening, because I haven’t been doing this!’

Coming in part two: Joe talks Pinter, Doran and Jacobi