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Like fine wine, creatives improve with age

Like fine wine, creatives improve with age

A few weeks ago I attended an event at the National Theatre, where the legendary director Peter Brook was in conversation with arts journalist Mark Lawson. Brook is ninety-four years old now, but is as busy as ever: the talk was to promote his new book, Playing by Ear, he’d just finished a world tour of his new play, Why?, and the previous weekend he’d been in Spain to collect a lifetime achievement award. He was in sparkling form, just as quick-witted and insightful as the man who started his directing career over seventy years ago.

Unlike many other professions, the arts doesn’t have a retirement age. Caryl Churchill, who’s eighty-one, has just had a Royal Court premiere of her new play Glass. Kill. Bluebeard. Imp., which was shortlisted at this year’s Evening Standard Theatre Awards. Ian McKellen is still going strong at eighty – in fact he celebrated his landmark birthday by creating a one-man show, Ian McKellen on Stage, about his life and career, which he’s taken on tour to raise money for theatres across the UK – including brilliant amateur venues such as Questors Theatre in London, Maddermarket Theatre in Norwich, and Wigan Little Theatre. It finally finishes in January, after a four-month run in London’s West End.

Age is no barrier to creativity. Just like playing an instrument or painting, theatre-makers get better with practice – and the longer they’ve been acting, writing or directing, the more opportunities they’ve had to develop their craft. Older actors have also simply seen and felt more of life, which they can bring to the characters they portray. Harriet Walter played Cleopatra for the Royal Shakespeare Company in 2006 at the age of fifty-nine and, as she writes in her book, Brutus and Other Heroines, drew directly on her “real experience of a woman on the cusp of old age, with all the contradictions that presents.” Older writers or directors working on a new script or production can mine not just their own past work, but also everything they’ve lived as people.

Older actors are well-represented in amateur theatre. Government research into the composition of amateur groups estimates that around 20% of members of amateur theatre groups are sixty-five or over, with roughly the same proportion giving their employment status as ‘retired’. Once they’re not stuck in an office for five days a week, retirees have more time to give to their passion – and amateur theatre groups are a brilliant place to meet and form friendships with people who share your interests.

Luckily there’s lots of fantastic new writing out there, both comedies and dramas, with great parts for older actors: Goodbye to All That by Luke Norris, Trestle by Stewart Pringle and Halcyon Days by Deirdre Kinahan are all brilliant scripts with warm, funny older roles at their centre. Alecky Blythe’s verbatim play Cruising shares hilarious and moving real-life stories of pensioners seeking passion – some of which are downright saucy! Caryl Churchill’s award-winning Escaped Alone is a disturbing but also laugh-out-loud drama featuring four female friends, specified in the script as all being ‘at least seventy’. The Children by Lucy Kirkwood is a gripping drama about three nuclear scientists in their sixties. Some plays offer fascinating opportunities to play with perceptions of age: Seventeen by Matthew Whittet focuses on a group of teenagers thinking about what lies ahead in their lives, with all the roles played by actors in their seventies.

Also, don’t be afraid to be bold with your casting, whether that means playing around with age or gender. After Cleopatra, Harriet Walter feared she’d never get the chance to tackle a leading Shakespeare role again – but has since started playing male characters such as Brutus, Henry IV and Prospero, with great success. Glenda Jackson played Lear to rave reviews in London and New York. Going the other way, a few years ago David Suchet took on Lady Bracknell in The Importance of Being Earnest. Similarly, casting against age can have wonderful results: Patrick Stewart was sixty-six when he played Macbeth in Rupert Goold’s production, and one review called it ‘probably the finest performance of his career’.

And why just limit this to the classics? There are surely lots of contemporary plays just waiting for bold casting choices, which can give performers unexpected opportunities and maybe shine new light on a script and role we thought we knew.

Ultimately, actors are just actors. No one ever feels their age. At one point in Ian McKellen’s live show, he ‘plays’ an eighty-year-old – or at least, the version of eighty he played when he was thirty, complete with bent back, rasping voice and faltering delivery. This couldn’t be more different from the actual man performing his show night after night with unstoppable energy. So forget retirement. Keep acting. Keep creating. And if you need help or suggestions on finding the right script to showcase your talents, don’t hesitate to get in touch.

Tamara von Werthern is Performing Rights Manager at Nick Hern Books.
She is also a playwright, dramaturg and theatre-maker.

Get With the Times, New Roman!

Get With the Times, New Roman!

By Martin Clare of Phantom Theatre Services

When it comes to flyer design, font choice is maybe the biggest make-or-break design decision you can make. If you’ve ever seen a flyer somebody has designed for a school fête using every conceivable font and Word Art style under the sun, you’ll know just how messy it can look.

Here are my top five tips for font usage:

  • As a general rule of thumb, only ever use two fonts. A stand-out font for the title of the production, and a plain font for everything else.
  • A rare exception to this rule is if the author has enough gravitas to have their name before the title of the play (eg: William Shakespeare’s…). A good calligraphic font works well here.
  • Aside from the title font, stick to a plain and contemporary sans serif font that works well at small sizes.
  • To place emphasis where needed, use a font with variations. For example, if you use Arial as your main font, you could put less relevant information like credits in Arial Narrow, and prominent information like the dates and ticket-line number in Arial Black.
  • Use expanded character spacing to increase legibility, especially for the ticket number and website address.


Amateur Theatre Audition Workout

Amateur Theatre Audition Workout

By Richard James

It’s a common refrain that local drama groups are finding it increasingly hard to recruit actors. However, in today’s digital age, there’s an increasing number of tools available to help you do just that. Social media is proving an unstoppable force, and one that can be easily exploited. It’s easy enough to set up a Facebook page for your group, or even a page for a specific production listing the rehearsal and performance dates, the location you use for rehearsal and the required cast.

Does your group have an internet presence? Keeping a clear and simple website up to date is a useful way of attracting interest, and it needn’t cost a fortune. Again, keep the information specific. In all this new media, try not to forget the old. It is worth considering giving as much publicity to your auditions as to your production; putting posters up around your town or village to advertise your search for a cast or arranging an interview with a local newspaper.

Treat your auditions as a statement of intent; not just a way of casting your play, but as an opportunity to show the assembled auditionees just how you wish to proceed with your rehearsals. Will you be starting each rehearsal with a gentle physical and vocal warm up? If so, then start your audition the same way. If nothing else, it’s a great way of breaking the ice. Will your audition consist solely of a sit-down read-through of the play, or would you rather see your cast on their feet? If the latter, then this is the perfect opportunity to showcase how you will work with them as a director. Above all, remember, they are auditioning you as much as you them; you must enthuse them with your ideas about the play, and convince them that they will want to spend their time in your company twice a week. Try to reward enthusiasm as much as talent. It often takes a lot for someone to try something new like this so, if possible, give them something in return!

It can be useful to isolate certain scenes in the script and give them to groups of auditionees to work on for, say, twenty minutes or so. Each group can then present the scene to the rest of the room. Using this technique gives the director a chance to see how certain people work together within the group, whilst giving an opportunity to assess the level of ‘stage craft’ they possess. Provided you have the luxury of numbers, try different combinations of actors in different roles to see which works best. If you really want to stretch an actor, encourage them to play ‘against type’ i.e.: play the opposite to what comes naturally to them. It often leads to some interesting results – not least for the actor themselves. Remember, any production is a collaborative effort, and there’s no reason why this can’t begin in the audition room.

Since training at Bristol Old Vic Theatre School, Richard James’ twenty-plus years in the business has seen him appear in films alongside Helena Bonham Carter and Burt Reynolds as well as numerous TV shows.
His vast experience also extends to theatre where he recently toured the UK in David Walliams’ Awful Auntie, which directly followed Richard’s onstage involvement in Birmingham Stage Company’s previous adaptation of David Walliams’ Gangsta Granny.