Theatre Information

Don’t Act Your Age

By • Jan 5th, 2011 • Category: An Actor's Advice

I always thought it was unfortunate that most community theatres tend to only cast actors that are near the same age as the characters in the play they are directing. I had a very lousy experience once of going all the way through two nights of auditioning only to be told at the end I was too young for any of the roles being offered.

“Didn’t you read our audition notice,” the rude director asked me. “It called for actors in their 50’s and 60s.”

I corrected her, because the audition noticed had actually said, (and I had proof), “We need 5 actors who can play characters in the 50’s and 60s.” A significant difference that seemed totally lost on her.

Yet it is true. That is what it said. And I knew that, with rehearsing and direction I could of course play someone in their 60s. It is, after all, a role, like any other. Why should I be any less able to play a 65 year old man convincingly than I am able to play a murderer, a priest, or Bob Cratchit? (All of which I have played, though none of which am I in actual life.)

The need for heavy make up has been cited by some theatre directors and managers with whom I have spoken. It takes more work to make someone up to look old, when there are people out there who actually are old.

People who do not often turn up for auditions, and have to be tracked down, and given their own personal readings in order to get cast, when 4 perfectly good actors read beautifully for characters much older then they are. My response would be, “find us a make-up artist today!”

But alas, it usually does not work that way. Much to the disservice of the theatre, and to amateur players as well.

Playing different ages is something I encourage every actor to do at some point, however they can, be it in a scene in a class, a one-person show, or in a far more open minded community theatre than the ones I have described. Nothing quite opens you up to the potential intricacies of the human condition than studying and reproducing the nuance of various ages. Especially if those ages are not near your own.

I once tried out for a play called Miss Nelson is Missing, based on the children’s book. Nearly all of the roles are those of 4th graders. But it is written in such a way that most true 4th graders couldn’t play them. Too much adult nuance. But it was vital to the role to portray a child-like quality. And the director asked me, and all those trying out to ad-lib about 60 seconds of child level conversation in response to what she said. I got the role, but not before I had to dig down rather deep, rather quickly, and call upon the subtle, and not so subtle qualities of your average 8 year old. So far removed from my norm was such a thing that I consider it today one of my more challenging auditions, and at first, one of the more challenging roles.

Now I do not recommend that adults very often be cast as roles that are written for child actors. But such an experience will broaden your theatrical repertoire.

Also jump at the chance to play an elderly person before you actually are one. Unlike children, there is, as I mentioned, an ability to make someone young appear quite old, if your director puts a little time into it. Playing children, we remember where our humanity comes from. Playing elderly, we get a chance to see where it is going. And greater knowledge of those two extremes, when it comes to acting, cannot help but make you even better at giving life to any number of roles in between.

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is a Maryland native and has been acting for nine years, having studied it at Marietta College in Ohio. He has been schooled in Shakespeare, improvisation, public speaking and voice articulation throughout his career. His credits to date include over 30 plays and readings as well as 2 films. You can also read his blogs (for theatre related thoughts) and (for thoughts on personal success from an outcast). Follow him on Twitter @TyUnglebower.

5 Responses »

  1. Ty,

    Whenever the theatre bug hits the actor, usually at a young age, the bug will never leave them. We all have been bitten by this bug and I applaud your forging your acting career with such a vigor as you have.

    You are, however, in a position of affecting other actors and influencing them by writing on this platform. This is considered by some a great power. But as the quote goes, “With great power comes great responsibility”. So please be careful with your statements.

    All actors are put into positions of having to play older roles while we are in training in elementary school, middle school, high school and college. Some of our fraternity are very adept at acheiving all the nuances required of some of these older roles. It is a testiment to these actors talent and abilities on stage.

    When the actors broaden there desires to act in other venues, community theatre to be included, the playing field changes. Sure there are a plethera of younger talented actors around, but now the arena is open to all ages. This poses a more competative playing field. A field in which the actors who went to school, played older roles, were quite good playing older roles and now, as Father Time has turned his aging head their way, they are now older. This is not to say they have lost their nack or talent of achieving the same nuances as they were able to do at a younger age. No. Only that they now don’t require the purchase of heavy make-up. Also, the directors don’t have to role any dice with a younger talented actor when they have a just as competent OLDER actor to choose.

    Shouting at the theatres to hire a make-up artist is an expenditure of time and steam to which the budget may not have nor should it be bothered with such rantings of younger actors who couldn’t or didn’t get cast in roles their own age.

    As to your posting comments on playing an eight year old. I’d suggest that maybe a very highly talented and trained four year old might have just as much of a hold on the nuances required of an eight year old without having to worry about changing his voice or remembering what it was like to be an eight year old.

    I’d like to say to all actors. Just BE! Be who you are. It is all we have to offer the audience. For, when the lights go up on you, the audience is looking at you and the character you have brought into yourself. NOT the character you have jumped into outside of yourself. To do otherwise is discernable to the audience and, quite frankly, an insult to them.

    Mark Lee Adams

  2. Mark: I believe you are on point. When I first started out, I was in my early 20’s and played the role of an idiot (my wife would probably claim that was casting to type.). For the most part, I have never worked in venues where there was a make-up artist, preferring to apply my own. Often I performed without make-up. The shows did not close despite this.
    I would say that should you run into a director, etc. who worries about age, is someone that may not be worthy of working with, since we all search to gain by experience and a director’s guidance can be educational. I am now a dramatist member of the Guild and recall, that in one of my productions in California, where I did not have control of casting (one of the rights under Guild contracts), a director changed all of the male roles to females. It made a great difference in my play and was something I never thought about at the time, so I do now. These days, I tend to write for some parts of “older” aged-characters and I don’t worry about what you have run into. As they used to say, “keep the faith”.

  3. Mark, either you haven’t understood what I have read, or you are getting indignant about nothing.

    Venues, communities, companies, it doesn’t matter. If a theatre doesn’t want to invest in the best people, it’s not much of a theatre. Lights, sound, costumes, and the time that people give up in order to be in a show, not to mention the time and money audience members put into seeing al show all, in some way are an expense. The cost money.

    Yet somehow, someway a solvent theatre invests in them, community or otherwise. A make-up person is not that much of an extra expense, and furthermore they casting of an appropriate actor, regardless of age is worth that investment in the end. It certainly makes little sense to sit around and wait for an actor of 75 if there isn’t one, when a 30 year old can play the part wonderfully with simply the aide of some make-up.

    Unless you know somebody personally, and even then, casting is ALWAYS, I repeat ALWAYS a roll of the dice. It is no more so to roll the dice to cast a young person as an elderly person than it is to cast an equally competent older person. It’s all a matter of preferences for the director, and the purpose of me column was to insist that directors start opening their minds more to people playing ages far outside of their actual age, in either direction. To simply go with someone who is older because the role is older is lazy. Just as lazy as saying, “the character is a doctor..we better find a doctor who is willing to be in this show.” (That isn’t a story, that is something I have actually heard directors do, and I was dumbfounded.)

    Other than the fact that the only people available in high school plays are in fact high school aged student, I fail to see the intrinsic difference between their community theatre, and the community theatre of a town. Learning doesn’t stop for the actor when school ends, and one of the best ways to learn is by doing.

    As I say with every other thing I advise, these are my opinions, grounded on my experience and centered around my concept of the whole actor. I regret nothing that I say, and continue to encourage any actor to follow exactly what I have said in this article, and in any other. I feel it can only do them good.

    But if you or any other person don;t want to proceed with acting or directing in that fashion, don’t. I therefore reject your notion that I am not being responsible as a groundless accusation. If sharing an opinion or offering my advice to other actors is irresponsible simply because it does not conform to the status quo, I am not sure what any of us are doing here.

  4. Ty,

    I will respectfully agree to disagree with you on all your points here. This isn’t about money, although it is; this isn’t about age, although it is; this isn’t about make-up, although it is. This is about your unwillingness to believe that there are actors among us who’re older than you. I have been acting and directing for 47 years now and continue to do so. I was involved in acting from a young age and studied through high school and college and then Post Grad at The Drama Studio, London, England. I’ve been lucky to work at Arena Stage and Folger and many local professional and community theatre in the Washington Metro area. With this passage of time comes some wisdom, I think. Also with this comes the knowledge and experience to know that talent lies in a place that’s void of age. I also know that with a competent director, an actor can achieve higher and new levels of their craft with each and every show, in fact, with each and every performance. I applaud your contention that an actor only needs make-up to portray a role. But I disagree with you that it makes no difference at all. I mean, if your contention were actually true, wouldn’t the movie industry have a plethora of younger actors playing older parts instead of only a handful where the characters age range calls for it?
    I want you to think of an audience member watching a show. If, at any time while watching a show with an actor made up to be older, this audience member thinks to himself or herself, “Nice make-up on that actor”, or “I wonder how old that actor really is?” then at that precise moment YOU, the younger actor with the director have lost that audience member and taken them away from the story and the message of the show. Taken the audience from the playwrights intent and into the realm of YOU, “You in your Art”. I’d rather have an audience member engrossed in the play and see the “Art in me”.
    Your self absorbs ion is fine! I’ve always believed, “THE PLAY IS THE THING”.
    Sorry to disagree, but in this case, I will never stray from what I believe and coach and direct.

    Mark Lee Adams

  5. Its obvious when an open call is put out asking for actors who can play 50-60 that what they desire are actors who are either that age or look that age. But open calls are always open to interpretation by actors. I had an open call for an actress in her late 20s to late 30s. I got actresses ranging in age from 17-60. Whose fault was that? Mine for putting out an open call that was open for interpretation.

    But with that said any actor who auditions for a role that is well out of their age range takes a risk. Yes they may go in and be so good that the director casts them. But the other side is they go in and make a fool of themselves and piss off the director and casting director for wasting their time.