A couple of weeks ago when I was in Vienna, attending a congress celebrating the 125th anniversary of the Burgtheater’s current home, an utterly over-the-top theatre palace and one of the reputed hallowed sites of German-language performance arts, I picked up a substantial, glossy volume published by a theatre scholar in collaboration with the Burgtheater. The book portrays six actors it identifies as the “New Generation” of Burg stars — a group widely regarded as the newly established leading performers in the ensemble, and therefore by (self-)definition, among the most accomplished actors anywhere in Austria, Germany, or Switzerland. The oldest of this group of actors was 38 when the book came out; the youngest, 29. All six were a member of a major ensemble by the time they were 23. All six had played a major dramatic lead in a high-profile venue by the time they were 25.

That’s not unusual at all in German theatre, of course. The Romeo and Juliet that premiered at the Schaubuehne in Berlin last season had a Juliet who was finishing up theatre school. The Juliet in the production of the play I saw in Frankfurt this past summer, by contrast, already had a full five years of experience under her belt when the staging premiered. But that’s the paradise that is German theatre. Right?

Not so much. In London this year, I saw an actor two years out of theatre school in Gorky’s Children of the Sun at the National Theatre; a Desdemona in the NT’s Othello who, at 25, played that female lead in her first appearance in an NT production; and a 25-year-old Cassio with a long list of previous theatrical credits to his name (including at the RSC and in the West End). And the older actors in the casts had started at least as young. Justine Mitchell in Children of the Sun, for instance, was playing award-winning leading roles at the Gate and Abbey Theatres in Dublin by the time she was 24.

The UK, helpfully, has a major prize dedicated to rewarding “the best classical stage performances in Britain by actors aged under 30,” the Ian Charleson Award. The list of past winners and nominees is a fascinating and enlightening read. To cherry-pick a few examples:

– Rory Kinnear, 26 when was nominated for Laertes in 2004 (his second nomination). By the time he was 29, he was playing multiple leads at the National Theatre
– Rupert Penry-Jones, 29, in the title-role in Schiller’s Don Carlos at the RSC
– Hattie Morahan, Iphigenia at the National Theatre at 26
– Tom Hiddleston, playing both Cloten and Posthumous in Cheek by Jowl’s Cymbeline at 26

Those are the older ones! How about…

– Chiwetel Ejiofor, as Romeo at the National Theatre, at 23
– Ben Whishaw, as Hamlet at the Old Vic, at 24
– Hayley Atwell, playing Bianca in Women Beware Women at the RSC at 24 and the title role in Major Barbara at the NT at 26
– Rebecca Hall, Vivie in Mrs Warren’s Profession when she was 20, and Rosalind in As You Like It, among other major roles, the next year — though admittedly both productions were directed by her father

It’s not just Germany and Austria — the major British theatres are just as likely to entrust major parts, even title roles, to actors barely out of training. By the time performers reach their 30s, they are unquestionable leading men and women, in the prime of their range (Kinnear has played both Hamlet and Iago on the biggest stages — he’s 35. Hiddleston’s about to tackle Coriolanus, at 32; 34-year-old Morahan has been collecting awards for her Nora at the Young Vic; Ejiofor was a celebrated Othello at the Donmar at 30).

Romeo and Juliet makes for an interesting test case. Romeos tend to be older than Juliets, but it’s rare for either of them to be in their 30s, for obvious reasons: it’s a play about immature people, not about characters getting ready to settle down into their impending middle age. The RSC’s most recent version from 2010 is an outlier with its 33-year-old Romeo and a 30-year-old Juliet (Sam Troughton, a three time Charleson nominee in 2000, 2001, and 2002; and Mariah Gale, the 2005 Charleson winner). Before that, here’s how old Royal Shakespeare Company star-crossed lovers have been over the past 30 years or so:

2008: Romeo 26, Juliet 22
2006: Romeo 29, Juliet 27
2000: Romeo 29, Juliet 31 (Alexandra Gilbreath, a Charleson-winning Hedda Gabler four years earlier at 27)
1995: Romeo 25, Juliet 23
1989: Romeo 29, Juliet 23
1986: Romeo 27, Juliet 27

One more: the Globe’s 2009 production, directed by Dominic Dromgoole, featuring 25-year old Adetomiwa Edun as Romeo (who played Macbeth in a stripped-down version at the National Theatre that same year) and the 19-year old Ellie Kendrick, pre-Game of Thrones and about to start her English BA at Cambridge at the time.

And then there’s this. Romeo and Juliet, Stratford Festival, 2013: Romeo: 28; Juliet: 37.

As far as I can tell — and I didn’t do an exhaustive search — the number of actors younger than 30 in the non-musical-theatre company at Stratford last season could be counted on the fingers of two hands; and that’s being generous. Daniele Briere’s Romeo was easily the biggest role one of those actors got to play, with Bethany Jillard’s Desdemona close on his heels. Sara Farb was allowed to be a 26-year-old Jessica in Merchant. But that’s pretty much it for reasonably weighty roles.

And next season is even worse. It’s the announcement of major casting decision that came out the other day that prompted this post. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a Midsummer Night’s Dream in which the youngest of the four lovers is pushing 30. Lysander may imagine that his sudden love for Helena is a sign of his new-found maturity, but I wonder if Shakespeare had quite such a late bloom in mind.

Let me be quick to qualify all that: can I imagine a production of Dream with a quartet of lovers approaching middle-age? Of course — I even think such a production might be interesting. But it’s a huge departure from the text. What would be interesting about such a production is just how radically it would have to reimagine the play to accommodate its cast. With all due respect for the good work that’s been happening at Stratford lately, I find it hard to believe the company’s ready for this sort of radicalism, and there’s nothing in the press release to suggest that that’s what they had in mind in casting the play as they did.

Secondly, none of my objections have anything to do with the actors as such. To the extent that I’m familiar with their work, I admire many of them. That doesn’t mean, though, that I understand why people my age are being cast as characters in their early twenties, or even as teenagers. Not that I want to insist on a facile naturalist paradigm — obviously. Of course there is pleasure to be found in seeing an older actor play a young character. To my mind, that pleasure kind of depends on an acting style not generally favoured around here, but in principle, I don’t think a character’s and an actor’s age need to correspond. But that cuts both ways: if an actor older than 40 can play a young girl, a young girl should also be allowed to try her hand at Cleopatra, or at Queen Margaret. If theatricality can justify one kind of mismatched age, it can just as easily justify the other. (Historically, after all, Burbage may have played King Lear and Hamlet at the same time, but Cleopatra was also played by a youth.)

Thirdly, this isn’t about Stratford in the end. It’s about all of our major theatres. And it’s about a mindset.

That mindset is most obvious in reviews. Richard Ouzounian is kind of its poster child. There is nothing that Ouzounian feels as entitled to destroy, with great panache and frankly disturbing brutality, as a “young” actor; and nothing he loves quite as much as an actor who reliably delivers the same kind of performance he’s treasured for decades. His review of the Stratford Romeo and Juliet is a perfect illustration. Youth is inherently suspect. And it lasts for a very long time. It seems to take forever for our critics to file actors as established figures, as no longer in the beginning stages of their careers. Here’s Robert Cushman, writing about two of Toronto’s most prolific and omnipresent actors of recent years: “[Maev] Beaty and [Michelle] Monteith have been the two most exciting young actresses in Toronto for some years now, and it’s good to see them being widely recognized.” I don’t disagree with Cushman’s praise or his appreciation. These are wonderful actors. But they’re also well-established stalwarts of the Toronto theatre scene — or at least that’s how they should be seen. And frankly, they’re mid-career actors, not the newcomers that Cushman’s description makes them resemble. Michelle Monteith played Ophelia almost a decade ago.

My point is not that it’s inappropriate to describe actors in their mid-30s as “young.” I suspect they wouldn’t mind the epithet. It’s that the sense of long-lasting emergence into public recognition bespeaks a much bigger problem. Neither of these performers is in any reasonable sense an “emerging artist” anymore. At this stage of their careers, both of them, or any actor of similar standing, ought to be cast in grown-up leading roles. These are the performers about whom German theatre scholars would be writing books. In Britain, they’d be headlining productions at the NT, the RSC, and the Donmar. (That Maev Beaty is playing Goneril at Stratford next season is good to hear. For my money, I would have loved to see her and Michelle Monteith as Elizabeth and Mary in last season’s Maria Stuart instead — or someone like Trish Lindström, for that matter, which would free up the parts of girls such as Miranda or Alice [in Wonderland] for actors closer in age to, well, girls.)

Instead, what seems to be happening at almost all of our major theatres is that no actors get cast in any roles of any substance before their mid-twenties. And virtually nobody gets to play marquee roles before their late thirties. And that is a huge problem. It’s a massive ethical problem: we’re basically asking young actors to bide their time for a decade or more, and if they somehow manage to survive, artistically and financially, we’ll reward them with a minor Shakespeare part, or a part ten to fifteen years out of their range. It’s an even bigger problem in terms of training, as younger actors are taught over and again to play minor roles, to integrate themselves into the company, to make safe and conformist choices, to produce something already established and recognized as quality work rather than to develop and reimagine their craft in new and unexpected ways.

Most troublingly, it’s an enormous problem for our theatre as a progressive art form. For one thing, our casting practices bespeak the central weakness of Canadian theatre: the preference for safety, for respectability, for reliability over exciting, challenging, demanding, and yes, unfinished, provisional, and ground-breaking work. Casting an established, experienced, and well-known actor in his 30s in the part of a teenager may be wrong in all sorts of ways, but it’s a safe choice: you know what you’re going to get from that actor (and Richard Ouzounian won’t be mean to him). Casting a guy straight out of theatre school, a guy with one or two shows to his name and who’s never performed on a big stage before as Hamlet may be a gigantic gamble, but if that someone turns out to be Ben Whishaw or Chiwetel Ejiofor — well, then you not only have a big hit on your hands, you’ve also set a young actor up for a great career, and a career that doesn’t only begin in earnest, if at all, in the actor’s 30s. More importantly, the success of such a show will depend on precisely the raw, unpredictable, uncertain quality of the inexperienced actor. It will have to embrace risk as a core principle. That may be scary, but it’s also totally unavoidable if you’re after fresh and revelatory work. And most importantly, giving young actors key roles in plays with major young characters is the only way to establish a company that doesn’t simply reaffirm a paternalistic tradition.

Theatre is an art that depends, almost uniquely, on the past and the present, tradition and innovation, convention and revolution, age and youth, in more or less equal measure. So my cri de coeur on behalf of youth here isn’t meant as an ageist attack on older actors. Far from it. Any functioning ensemble needs older, even seriously old actors and the experience, wisdom, or recalcitrance they bring to their work. You need a central generation of actors in whose work knowledge and innocence find a balance. But you absolutely need a young generation that’s allowed to do more than carry spears or play one-scene parts. Hamlet is a very different play if the lead is so green that he has no idea what the “proper” way of doing things is — and that innocent impropriety, that raw energy, may just pull the rest of the cast with it, persuade or force them to depart from their accustomed choices. It may force the director’s hand in all sorts of interesting — or at least unpredictable — ways. But if our theatre is to succeed in negotiating the conflicts between conventionality and innovation, between then and now, between one way of thinking about text and character and movement and another, well, then both sides of that productive struggle need to share authority and access. Theatre needs the young, the middle aged, and the old; and sometimes, theatre needs to let the young take charge. And that’s not just true for a particular show. That’s true for the entire system. Because if young actors don’t learn that it pays to be adventurous, that it’s not just exciting but necessary to take risks, then they won’t be able to carry that mildly revolutionary ethos forward, in tempered form, into their middle years; and then “the way things are done” won’t just be a nostalgic fantasy in their old age, but a depressing reality.

Theatre needs youth, on stage and in the audience. Not instead of middle and old age, but as well as those. Theatre is an art of the now, and an art that constantly has to reinvent itself. Speaking as a middle aged person, the now isn’t quite as present for me as it was ten years ago, and my desire to reinvent myself is severely mitigated by my desire for stability. Which is to say, if I’m even vaguely representative of people my age, you can’t — theatre can’t — rely on actors and directors in their 40s and 50s for impulses. Theatre needs the spark of youth. It needs youth to deliver reliably rebellious buttkicks. It needs the irritant of youth and its ability to shift perspectives. It must take the young seriously, and it must sometimes put them in power. Otherwise, it’s doomed to stability. And stability, in the theatre, is death.

33 Responses to Canadian Theatre has a Youth Problem

  1. David Allan Stein says:

    Nancy is, indeed, great. I have known her since she was in my class at Banff, in 1965. I do not, however, agree with her support of Ken Gass.

    On Richard Ouzounian: I worked for him, thirty years ago, and his attitude to actors my age (even though I played the leading role in YPT’s atrocious production of an atrocious adaptation of Paul Gallico’s one claim to fame, “The Snow Goose”) resonates in this excellent article. Dickie’s “show-bizzy’ reviews are tediously shallow, reflective of his conservative Fordham U. education and the crap paper he writes for. You might want to read some reviews of his own efforts as a writer of musicals.

  2. […] young performers. Going off of a recent article to surface in Toronto, from Holger Syme’s blog dispositio, do you think the Toronto theatre industry has a youth problem? From your experience, do you think […]

  3. Dennis Hayes says:

    well said, holger and david

  4. […] I came across a great article the other day arguing why the Canadian theatre needs young actors (http://www.dispositio.net/archives/1722). It argues, among other things, that young actors need to be put onstage in big parts early as a […]

  5. James MacDonald says:

    As a director, I can promise you: walk into a room as prepared, as emotionally available, as confident, as versatile, as ambitious, as dedicated, as technically proficient, as open-minded, as well trained, as well read, as well travelled, as responsible, as engaging, as well-considered of your choices, as self-aware, as understanding of the text and how to speak it like you aren’t doing a theatre school exercise, as able to hold an intelligent conversation about the play, as smart, as respectful, as responsive, as enthusiastic, as loving of the theatre, and as bloody God-given talented as Chiwetel Ejiofor or Rory Kinnear – or Tom Rooney, or Maev Beatty, or Ben Carlson, or Fiona Reid, or Michael Spencer-Davis…and I’ll hire you.

    I don’t care if you’re 15 or 80.

    • Holger Syme says:

      Thank you for a wonderful illustration of the very problem I’m talking about. I suspect you didn’t meet and talk to either Chiwetel Ejiofor or Rory Kinnear in their early twenties, so I have no idea how you would know to what extent the very long list of attributes you require in a young actor applied to them when they started out. More importantly, the fact that you can only list Canadian actors in their thirties or significantly older than that implies that there are no young actors here that even come close to meeting your demands — or that at least you haven’t encountered them. I call bullshit on both counts.

      • mary elizabeth rubens says:

        I think it is fair to say that many promising stage thespians who are recent graduates from an strong stage academy or university program are in the ballpark age range of 18 to 23. And many of those “emerging artists” will be, (and are) absorbed by the film and TV industry. If successful, they are unfortunately often shunned by the theatrical community during this period of growth. Understandable – more money in TV land. By the time those actors, (who’s roots, training and passion are with the stage) reach the age of 40 in the film biz – 39 is generally considered the obit page of a female’s film career – the roles become less frequent and many attempt to return to the stage or simply give up. Yes, I think an injection of youth is vital but a lot of those qualities that James MacDonald described – do not apply to most adult teens nor mid-20’s – those qualities come with experience and hence age. I recently performed 2 of Shakespeare’s “mature” females – roughly my age or a bit older and I was able to inject more truth and genuinely feel the living text inside flow freely than I could have possibly done at the age of 18 when I was at theatre school. Having said that, I can play a richer Juliet now than I could when I first played her at the age of 18.

        • mary elizabeth rubens says:

          and on that note…I was yanked from my passion of the stage and sucked into the film world only to force my way back to the stage at the age of 26 to finish my degree. I had the delicious pleasure of playing the title role in Hamlet, (on a challenge from a mentor) and got my Honours to boot. That was not playing “safe.”

      • James MacDonald says:

        I’m afraid you’re the one missing your own point in your unnecessarily condescending remark about the English actors. I don’t need to meet them to appreciate their talent, and when I see the same talent in Canadian actors, I will, to the best of my ability, provide them opportunity.

        I could name several brilliant 20-somethings – let’s start with Nicola Elbro, Cole Humeny, Rose Napoli, Samantha Hill, Jamie Cavanagh, Courtenay Lancaster, Alex McCooeye, Shannon Taylor, Brendan McMurtry-Howlett – many of whom you probably wouldn’t know because they are westerners (now there’s another article). Will I cast them in parts that are appropriate? In a heartbeat, and I love working with them for their energy, their enthusiasm, their commitment, and their immense talent. Will I cast them in parts for which they are inappropriate, simply to “give them opportunity”? Sorry, no – nobody should be set up to fail, nor does the business of selling tickets at $75 a pop (another article!) allow the theatre for which I work to make that mistake.

        Most importantly, when these actors walk into a room, they exhibit the qualities that I mentioned in my post. If I see an actor of 30 years experience walk into a room and not exhibit the same preparation, dedication, etc., do you honestly think I would cast them because they are closer to my generation? If so, you are very naïve about the realities of the business.

        I’m not sure how to respond to finally’s plaintive cry in the dark, other than to say that a director may see a thousand resumes cross their desk, and it is a literal impossibility to see everybody – or it would be for me, because I refuse to disrespect people by auditioning them for five minutes a pop. It’s also a waste of an actor’s time to see people whom you didn’t see as right for a part. Is this subjective? Yes, of course. The whole business is subjective (yet another article). But for me this attrition is never based on age – it’s always based on type.

        Finally, Mr. Syme, the only part of your sneering rebuttal to which I really take umbrage is your objection to my acknowledgment of five really great Canadian actors. I refuse to apologize for citing these professionals (I could name dozens more, including Marty Julien and David Ferry), who paid a lot of bloody dues to obtain the success that they have achieved, who dedicate themselves to their craft every single day, and who, after carving out pretty good careers, still take nothing for granted. These artists, and many like them, are inspirations to all who are open-minded enough to see them for their talent instead of their age.

        Oh, and ps – if you come to Edmonton this April, you can see Brendan play Romeo, Rose play Juliet, and Jamie play Mercutio, at the third largest not-for-profit theatre in Canada. Just sayin’.

        • mary elizabeth rubens says:

          Well said James. Thank you.

        • Holger Syme says:

          But that is fantastic — and not at all the point you made in your original post. I didn’t sneer, in my response or in my blog post, at any of the actors you mention, or in fact at any of the older actors I mentioned myself. There is a wealth of talent in Canada, and I wish we made more of that riches. What the logic of your argument implied, however, was that the two UK actors (again, not even a slight sneer — one of them is a friend) were cast in major roles as very young actors because they displayed a range of skills and abilities that you associate also with a list of older or well-established Canadian actors. That choice of names struck me, given the topic of my post, as extraordinary. Why not name the brilliant 20-somethings right off the bat? That would have left no room for doubt. I also agree that young actors (or any actors) shouldn’t be cast in roles for which they’re not suited — who ever argued otherwise?

          I don’t think you’d cast an inferior actor simply because of his or her age — I wouldn’t accuse anyone whose work I don’t know or don’t know well of such a thing. Nor did I say anything like that.

          I will say that I think it’s a bit much to expect young actors to live up to your very long list of attributes. I suspect some might. I’m also certain that many great talents will not. But that’s a more complex discussion. For now, I hope we’ve cleared up what sounds to me like a misunderstanding. You’ve clarified your position, and I don’t really disagree with much of what you wrote in this follow-up. Thank you.

          • M Julien says:

            “Full many a flower is born to blush unseen,
            And waste its sweetness on the desert air.” (Thomas Gray)

            Just to throw a little poetry into the debate. (thanks for the props, james…)

    • finallygaveup says:

      Yes, but James, you wouldn’t even see me.

  6. M Julien says:

    To compare the Canadian ‘scene’, or ‘industry’, or ‘theatrical polity’ with anything occurring in England or Germany seems misplaced as a point of departure in this debate – though I am thrilled we have passionate, erudite people such as Holger Syme to initiate and frame such a discourse! My experience as a theatre professional over the last thirty years severely tests the idea that there is any kind of sustaining, extensive conversation regarding the theatre in this country. There is little work to be had, and less attention paid to it all the time. The central affirmation here that we are under-casting young actors in significant roles may well be true, and certainly a desire to ‘play it safe’ is a contributing factor in this.

    However, I believe that Kendra makes an excellent point about the breadth and thoroughness of the English academy teaching model, and I also speculate that this model is one that must be more broadly considered in this debate with regard to the existence – or non-existence – of anything in Canada approaching the breadth of overall activity in the cultural sectors of European states such as England and Germany. I think David Ferry is astute to observe that our major repertory festivals – and I really I can only think of Stratford & Shaw, perhaps Blyth, NAC or Bard on the Beach – are necessarily formulated as tourism magnets, notwithstanding the fact that sometimes they do excellent work. (Soulpepper is a unique hybrid, and has yet to be modeled successfully anywhere else.)

    There simply is no real ‘industry’ or ‘business’ in this country to accommodate or reflect the kind of ‘career building’ that Syme advocates for. This is a land of free-lancers cobbling together a living on seven-week gigs, workshops, smaller parts in tv and film, commercials and voice work, teaching, and corporate coaching. It was so during the early eighties when I started working, and it still is today. Because we are an educated nation of tarnished ideals that holds a compromised history with the juggernauts of US and UK cultural influence, I believe we often think that there MUST be by NOW a mature industry and legacy through which to reform and revitalize the cultural capital of our theatre and its institutions. I believe this very premise is, for the most part, a persistent illusion.

  7. Mary Elizabeth Rubens says:

    To “finallygaveup”: I have to disagree with you. A prime example of an actor entering the biz well past the age of 25 is Callum-Keith Rennie. And David Ferry is right. David, beyond many thespians in the vortex of Canadian stage philosophy and history discussion, knows what he is talking about. But I must add to this argument; we are entering into a new generational stage of entertainment – that which is the desire of the baby boomers – who are craving works that reflect themselves and hence, actors who are their age. It is slowly happening in TV and film with story-telling, (Breaking Bad is just an example) and the thrust for senior talent
    should and will translate to the stage. Fingers crossed.

  8. Courtney Ch'ng Lancaster says:

    I’m pretty sure, that (unlike most things about Soulpepper) you’ll agree with me on this point, but I think it bears mentioning that Soulpepper seems to do better than most companies in Canada on this issue. I just spent the week training in commedia dell’arte and physical theatre as an alumni-guest with the current Soulpepper Academy who range in age from 22-29 and who you’ll be seeing on the SP stage next season, and likely playing leads sometime within the next two season.

    • Holger Syme says:

      Yes, I do agree. I think the Academy is an exemplary initiative. I would love to see more of the kind of work that goes on in there on the Soulpepper stages (!), and I still think more major parts could be handed over more regularly to younger actors even at Soulpepper, but on the whole, I think things would be a LOT better if their model was copied elsewhere.

  9. Da Hoodlum says:

    PREACH!!!! This is what has me irritated about the industry in this country. Film & TV carries a bit of this too. I’m one of those actors who “survived” into his 30’s & I’m still hustling like I’m 20 cause I’m stubborn & blessed with good genetics (I can still play 23-30. Give youth a shot. Challenge them & DEVELOP YOUR TALENT!!

  10. Kendra says:

    I agree entirely. To be fair,however, the drama school and conservatory programmes of formal theatrical training beginning at 16 make some of this possible (in England at least). These schools produce performers who are trained and able, by 22 or 23, to captivate an audience and lead an ensemble. These programs are outside the University. By contrast, the majority of Canadian training programmes are either intrinsically linked with a university, and therefore focussed as heavily on academics as theatre, or focussed primarily on producing performers for film & tv. The tradition of stage training in Canada is woefully shaky, and the transformation of the theatre will rely just as heavily on the theatres changing their casting practices as it will on the strong training to be developed in our drama schools.

    • Holger Syme says:

      I’m not sure I quite buy that. Most of the actors I was talking about finished A levels and attended one of the college-like acting schools after that — I don’t know that that’s a shorter path than ours. And quite a few went to university first and then to theatre school. Kinnear, for instance, did just that. It might be more useful to give the time between the end of formal training and the first major big-staged role, but that would be even more depressing!

      • Kendra says:

        Which sorts of college-like acting schools though? Schools like RADA, LAMDA, etc are VERY different to our university programmes (I have experienced this first hand). It isn’t that the path is shorter, but that the training more diverse and suitable to creating young performers fully capable of leading an ensemble. It is easier for a director to take such a resume seriously, because they graduate with multiple credits in a diverse body of work covering classics, contemporary work, style, etc. Conversely many University programmes here graduate with perhaps 1-2 credits.

        I’m not saying that it should be this way, mind. Just an observation that the two are likely very closely tied together.

  11. CJB says:

    In shifting the conversation towards his generation, Mr. Ferry exposes the problem: It’s about me, stupid.

    I would never hold it against a young actor in today’s theatre for not knowing who dead actors are, even if those actors were pioneers – they’re too busy busting their asses off trying to get work and make rent in a difficult economy, and very likely having to make their own theatre, in which case they are acting in the capacities of writer/director/designer, roles they were untrained for… A lot on their plates. If Mr. Ferry can afford a gross generalization of my generation’s actors (“They know nothing of theatre history”), allow me to make one of his: they never had to self produce. Most of them were picked up by companies when they left theatre school, and they could concentrate solely on their acting career under a much larger safety net ( I think it’s notable that in my time at NTS, not once did a student drop out because they’d found work, a practice that was commonplace in Mr. Ferry’s time). I seriously doubt “theatre artist” ever existed in that day’s parlance – actor will suffice, one doesn’t do anything else, thank you very much. And I doubt they were faced with theatres who have set companies that only hold generals every few years because they are mandated by EQUITY, festivals that give actors with more grey then colour ingenue roles, or intrenched regionalism within casting. In fact, I would be willing to bet that Canada’s theatre and casting sensibilities were in those days much more in line with what Mr. Syme found in other nation’s theatres today – indeed, how else would so many of our older actors have such established careers.

    I truly do feel for those older female (and male) actors who gave their life and career to the Canadian theatre, only to go to an audition and see a room of fifty old friends competing for the only role that company offers to their demographic that season. A bitter sweet reunion indeed, and I admire those who haven’t thrown in the towel after such disheartening encounters. Many of these actors are my friends, and I had the pleasure of working and learning from them both in professional settings, and in school. When I was in theatre school, the National Arts Centre in conjunction with the National Theatre School established The Ark, a three week exploration of a particular playwright or period, with a company of professionals and students. There was no better way to learn about theatre history then hanging out with these pros, telling us stories of Bill Hutt’s bizarre warm ups or Maggie Smith’s days at Stratford. More then facts, it gave us an idea of what a life in the theatre was like, what challenges we would have to face and contend with – but also that there was a great community out there who looked after each other.

    While I hope that there will always be a strong community which makes plenty of space for these older actors, like it or not, they are not the future of the theatre. That’s a hard pill to swallow (Mr. Ferry’s eagerness to change the subject proves that he seems to be gagging on it). And if current establishment theatre practitioners care truly about there being a theatre to commemorate the sacrifices and efforts they made in building it, they should follow Mr. Syme’s advice and start immediately casting younger people, and putting them in positions of artistic power. Not doing so jeopardizes and will, in the long run, seriously damage the theatre. Honestly, it matters little to me if, in your self-importance, think you’ve got the measure of millenials and found them wanting; or if you think you know someone older who can play the role better. It’s beside the point; and denying this is as foolhardy as denying climate change: there will not be a theatre in twenty five years unless you start seriously investing in younger generations. Remember, theatres make perfect condo towers.

    • David ferry says:

      Jeeze, here I go again…..ok, “CJB” (who are these people who fear to use their actual name?)

      Please read my post and quote or summarize it accurately.

      I have done a fair amount of work in theatre schools and universities (not for the money, I assure you) and continue to do so. My observation about “theatre school graduates who know next to nothing about our young but vibrant theatre history” is based on actual experience and conversations and is not intended as any put down of the individual grads…more a comment on our theatre (and theatre training) culture.

      No idea, CJB, why I piss you off when I simply make a plea for full career support of artists …not just older artists, not just younger artists or mid career artists, but artists right across the age spectrum.

      And for what its worth I have self produced, worked in every kind of format or financial structured theatre there is. I make a point to do shows every year that are in challenging circumstances, with young emerging artists, in forms that challenge artistic standards and styles. I also work ,when I am fortunate enough, in more established NFP or Commercial theatre forms.

      I teach.

      I mentor. Ask around…..I have given employment to a great many young artists…often the ones ho have been told they will never make it.

      I have volunteered for 30′ years on the boards of a variety of organizations which are dedicated to the wellbeing and assistance to ALL artists regardless of age, gender, cultural heritage or political belief.

      I write and edit and dramaturge and do everything I can to support our theatre for the same reason I blog here, because I care.

      I have no “eagerness to change the subject because I gag on” anything CJB. I am working still. I am not a bitter out of work crank.

      And by the way, very few of my colleagues left theatre school because of some kind of abundance of opportunities for my generation……they generally left because they held strong political beliefs about a perceived lack in the training system; they were broke; they were emotionally committed to other relationships or callings; or (most often) they were kicked out because they were found wanting by the system (not that that is indicative of anything but a system that likely was broke.)

      So, CJB, whoever you are, before you cast the stone at my glass house of generalization about your generation, how about you check your own sins at the door.

      Whoever you are.

      My name is David Ferry.

      I am in the book if you want to give me a call and set up a date to slag me to my face.

      • David ferry says:

        Holy, Ferry…you sure are a touchy SOB. Leave poor CJB alone. He has a valid point about generational differences. Graduates from the far fewer training programs in Canada in the early to late 1970s did have a far different landscape and ecology to enter than the graduates of the last 20 years at least. There were fewer actors of their generation to compete against….the colleges and universities hadn’t branched out so universally into the theatre training industry. For instance, in your home province of Nfld there were no training opportunities. The regions were underserved. But no more. No sirree. Despite Malcolm Black’s late 1970s report for the Canada Council which warned of overtraining and an industry that could not expect to provide employment to the increasing masses of Theatre training grads…..the report was shelved cause colleges and universities at the time saw a cash cow potential.

        Also, to a degree CJB is right about the relative size of theatre companies with shows that demanded larger casts. There were larger companies for a decade I guess. Longer rehearsal periods too. And one thing that provided for the actors that went through those companies(I was not one…I was of the alternative theatre start up bunch) was the luxury of what Jon Jory referred to as the classroom of the green room. There were companies (MTC, Vancouver Playhouse, Neptune, Toronto Arts Productions etc) that had big seasons and actors from 18-75 in the green room…so history was a real tactile thing that provided a backdrop to the passing on of stagecraft.

        However there were a lot of us who to a degree turned our backs on those companies to start up Konstantin’s “new forms.” And many of these alternatives to rep company structure were in the regions. They are now established and often tired companies that have not replaced the old day large rep companies as large cast employers…..CJB is right.

        There was also, it is relevant to note, far less work in film and tv for my generation….and a great number of today’s grads aim there and truthfully a knowledge of who came before in our theatre s likely irrelevant.

        So Ferry, back off there a bit….cool down man. CJB just talking his, I am sure, hard earned PoV.

        Anyway….what’s a old coot like you doin up writin shit at 1:15 in the AM?

        You should be gettin your sleep so you have a better shot at learning your lines.

        Phone yourself maybe. Slag yourself. Jeesh.

  12. David ferry says:

    Well yes, all that and a a bag of chips, BUT while you tip your hat here to OLDER actors (and full disclosure I am a 63 year old actor) you only touch on the issue of full life careers in the theatre, or lack thereof. We increasingly have a culture (via granting agencies and awards and theatre agendas) that pushes initiatives for younger artists but completely ignores the majority of theatre artists who are in later years (50s, 60s, 70s, 80s) and their need to continue evolving as artists. (And please don’t confuse these artists with those entitled few who have been at the two Ontario festivals celebrating dead English authors, for 20-35 years.) I have been fortunate (and have fought like a demon to keep myself relevant by seeking out work with new artists) in my career but I think of the many fantastic artists (particularly women) of my generation and older and I see how they have been discarded by the CanadianTheatre like so much used bathroom tissue. I don’t know enough about the German theatre to discuss what happens there, but certainly this DOESN’T happen in the English theatre. I see many “young companies” here casting 40 year olds or younger in the roles written for 70 year olds (mimic-ing TV mentality?). Theatre school graduates know next to nothing about our young but vibrant theatre history…they don’t know who Claire Coulter or RH Thompson are, little alone who William Hutt or Millie Hall were. Yes…..I want vibrant young, new people on our stages and in our audiences, but I also want a theatre that reflects the aging in society as well. I want to see Anne Anglin and Nancy Beatty on our stages just to name two fine artists who did not take the entitled path of career long employment at places like Stratford, but who helped build an alternative theatre that now, for the most part, turns its back on its older citizens.

    • Holger Syme says:

      Sounds like us 40-year olds are a problem for everyone!

      I completely agree, David. It breaks my heart to listen to interviews with actors who were around in the 70s and 80s (but mostly seem to have stopped acting in the meantime): it sounds like there was far more committed, challenging work being done as a matter of course then than now, and the disregard for older actors you describe must have a lot to do with the loss of the ethos. Of course younger actors don’t know, in any real sense, who many of these older actors were or what work they did — how could they? Given theatre’s impermanence, the work of past generations can only influence younger generations if it sticks around, in embodied form, in the work these older actors still do, in companies that allow for a cross-generational dialogue (and dialectic).

      Let me defend dead English authors, though. It strikes me that the problem you describe actually has a lot to do with the absence of dead authors from our stages — because if our theatre is oblivious to the work of past generations of actors, it’s also, as I’ve often written, devastatingly oblivious to the work of past centuries and its continued power. The obsession with “telling our own stories” that drives our independent scene has a necessary (likely unconscious) tendency to shut out people and texts that don’t immediately fit into those stories, narrowly conceived as they are.

      • David ferry says:

        I love dead English authors…my reference was really to the fact that our two largest NFP (and hugely subsidized) theatres are Festivals established to celebrate dead English authors. These theatres have become, since we don’t have a true commercial theatre here, our defacto broadway replacement in terms of being able to offer actors and directors good contracts (length and compensation.) They are thus our theatre brass ring for actors, designers and directors (and ADs.) and yet since they are both in small southern ontario conservative towns they are essentially tourist oriented… not hard core cultural tourists for the most part….but entertainment tourists. So of course there is not a great deal of experimentation (which is possible at The National etc.) The Canada Council subsidies to Stratford alone in 2013 was by far larger than any theatre dedicating its mandate to Canadian work (CanStage got 616,000 by the way). So my reference was not to discredit great authors like Shakes and Shaw, but more to reflect on the domination of our theatre landscape by these disproportionate funding receptors.

        • finallygaveup says:

          God help you if you don’t have the good sense to start acting professionally by the time you’re 25. If you’re older when you enter the business, no one even sees you. They all have their alliances and allegiances and prejudices and a newcomer has no standing.

    • Newf says:

      Nancy Beatty is a fantastic teacher and director as well. I’ve had the pleasure of learning a whole lot from her in theatre school.

      • Merrick says:

        Newf? Who are you? I had Nancy to. She changed me as an actor forever. She is one of the greats.

    • David Allan Stein says:

      Ferry, you will always propound the very white, boomer-stuffed, self-protecting “union” (possibly the smallest and most obscure in the world), on whose middling executive you have served. C.A.E.A. IS THE PROBLEM WITH CANADIAN THEATRE. Why? It has restricted the Anglo acting pool available to playwrights and producers to about SIX THOUSAND, about the same number it had FORTY YEARS AGO, when Canada’s population was much smaller. Enjoy your RRSPs, burned-out piggies..

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