Are you ever too old?

What do you do if you audition for a show, and you look considerably older than your age? What if you look younger? We can’t have a 16-year-old schoolboy playing a 21-year-old junkie. But a woman shouldn’t be penalized for being 27, however, if she looks young enough to play a debutante. There is this perception that how old you are dictates what role you must play. At auditions you are often confronted with a form that asks that rude question- “How old are you?”
Some audition panels are tactful enough to simply ask what decade you are in. Others are more sensible, and hit the nail on the head. They ask you to write your age appearance. Your looks, and what sort of mannerisms you have, may put you, in many people’s imaginations, at a certain age which you are not. Once we get over 18, why should it matter how old we actually are? Theatre is all about illusion. If you can preserve the illusion of being, say, 20 when you are 29, why should it matter if you are 29? Are the audience going to know? Are they going to care?
At any rate, sometimes it is best to avoid saying your age. There are many performance opportunities which are only open to younger people. When it comes to older people, a bar is placed across the door. There is this perception that older people are less deserving of support. There is this perception that they ought to have worked on their theatre dreams when they were younger. And if they didn’t, tough. It is assumed they had enough money for acting, singing and dancing lessons when they were younger. It is assumed they had plenty of opportunity to do that back then, and if they didn’t, that’s their problem.
There are plenty of performing arts courses, companies and competitions, as well as amateur theatre groups, which don’t have the time to waste on late starters. The cute kiddy winning his first eisteddfod, or the slim young dancer, who’s just been awarded three thousand dollars for her studies (and she’s only sixteen! Wow!) are who they are interested in. The manic depressive who is taking his first steps in theatre after a youth of self-doubt, or the woman who is finally realizing her dream after a childhood of financial disadvantage, are people they don’t want to look at all. Who tends to have the profound talent, though?
Theatre is a very creative process, and mental illness is the creative territory. It is well-documented that depression, mania, autism, schizophrenia and all types of other mental illnesses are frequently suffered by creative people. Just look at all the gifted performers over the years who have suffered such problems! Vivien Leigh, Marilyn Monroe, Antonin Artaud, Vaslav Nijinsky, Jim Carrey, Rosie O’Donnell, Cameron Diaz… the list goes on and on. And what go hand in hand with a youth spent grappling with mental illness? Shyness, and low self-esteem. These factors prevent many prodigiously talented people from acting on their theatre dreams when they are young. Lots of other things can prevent people acting on them, too. Lack of money, family responsibility, lack of family support, demographic, lack of cultural exposure, and so on.
People with these problems often wait until they are in their twenties, thirties or fifties to have their first tilt at theatre. Some of them wait until after they have had children. It can be a long-buried dream. After all, it can take a long time to overcome such difficulties. And when an older person erupts onto the theatre scene, it is not as if there are not roles for older people. There are. But it is very disappointing for such a person to see an advertisement for auditions for their favourite play and think, “Oh, great! At last I’ll have the chance to do that show!” and then look at the fine print, and see only those under 26 are allowed to audition- even though there are characters which are 40 plus. Sadly, too many opportunities are only available to younger people.
We all know of the theatre companies that only take them. There is a company out there that only takes people into their casts who are under 22, unless you have performed with them before. If you hear of that company by the time you have passed your 22nd birthday, you are too late. Of course, you may find that rule applied loosely if you are lucky enough to meet someone socially who remarks, “Oh, they let friends of theirs in who are older. Go along, and mention my name.” But when you are looking at an advertisement on a cold page that says, “Only people under 22 may audition,” how are you to know that?
Why is this? Well, it would be absolutely ludicrous to suggest younger people are better at it.  Older people have actually had more time to develop their skills. It’s particularly heartbreaking if someone has finally realized their dream, turns to this wonderful amateur theatre group in their area, and finds the age limit is 18 to 22- and they are 23. What is the difference between an 18-year-old dancer who looks 21, and am equally skilled, equally beautiful 23-year-old dancer who looks 21? The difference is that only one of them is going to get into that group. Are younger people more deserving? Do they require this support more? Are they expected to contribute more to the theatre community, in the future, that an older person would? It seems many people believe these things. I am somewhat torn. After all, everybody has their turn of being older and being younger. Older starters do not need the support less. They require it too. When I say support, I don’t mean someone holding your hand and saying, “Don’t worry, sweetie, I’ll be cheering you from the wings.” I mean opportunities to perform.
If you have suffered from the problems caused by mental illness all your life, or were halted from performing when you were younger because of lack of family support… or of money, and so forth… and finally reach the stage where you have the confidence, or autonomy, to realize your dream… then you need opportunities. How can you compare the indulged kid, whose parents pay for her acting training and drive her to every eisteddfod possible, to the former abused child who needs an amateur theatre company to welcome her with open arms?  Or to the mum with two kids, who has always dreamed of being in theatre but is barred by age discrimination when she tries a local dance school? These people were the cute kiddies of the past, you know. These were the ones who once clamoured to do theatre when they were talented youngsters…. but perhaps did not have parents who were willing to drive them around, or might have been dealing with the first difficult years of mental illness. If these schools, groups and contests for emerging performers say “We want to encourage the emerging talent of today,” why are they so blasé about crushing the chances of those who had difficult youths?
Are younger people a better investment, when handing out money prizes at talent quests, then older people? Are they more likely to contribute extensively to the theatre community? Possibly not. Younger people might change their career direction, or totally lose interest, as they get older. Older starters tend to be particularly keen and conscientious. They treasure the opportunity more, because for them it was a lot harder to attain. And more importantly, do young starters deserve this support more than older starters do? Well, what on earth, may I ask, have they done to deserve it?
Some might argue the reason for all this is because older people are not babies, and do not need others to create opportunities for them. Well to a certain extent that’s true, but this mentality of theatre groups for new performers, which advertise themselves, to take a typical pitch, as “a place where you can learn theatre in a fun and supportive environment,” and then have an age cut-off point, has gone way too far. At the end of the day they are discriminating. And this sort of mentality has become too ingrained.
It’s not enough to say, “Oh, if an older person wants to join, they can help out with building sets, or with sewing costumes. That’s fun!” No. They want to have a go on stage. That’s what budding thespians want. Some might say, when hearing only the younger ones are allowed to perform, “Oh, that’s all right. Let the younger ones do it. I’m quite happy sawing away in the back room, you know.” If they say that, they’re probably being self-effacing. The typical self-effacement of a person who is shy and timid in normal life, but turns into a dynamo on stage. They shouldn’t be pushed back by a well-entrenched, but hideously unjust, status quo.  There are talents to be discovered among these people.  
Some might say the introduction of older actors would ruin the character of a youth theatre group. The experience is sugar-coated for the young. The argument is so they have a space to play and “be themselves.” But a regular theatre group, as anyone has seen, involves mixed age groups. You have your fourteen-year-old dancers, your seventy-year-old set builders, middle-aged women doing catering, and performers in absolutely every decade filling the age-diverse roles that are in drama, for heaven’s sake!  Why can’t these young performers get used to working with older people early on? It would prepare them for the reality of theatre. What’s wrong with a little balance?
There is another argument that people will advance for this case. People prefer to see young people. People prefer to see fresh young faces, not haggard faces. People prefer to see sexy, slim bodies, not sagging bodies. People prefer to vicariously experience the performance of a young person. To those young people who put forth this argument I say- what are you going to do when you’re older? What are you going to do when you have a more haggard face, and don’t have a sexy body anymore? Your theatre dreams might not be sated yet, you know. What are you going to do when you realize they don’t want older dancers, and you can’t get into those youth theatre groups? Then, you will wish you had jumped on the bandwagon for older people when you were younger.
And to the older people who put forth this argument I say: You’re probably controlling this. The adult roles that crop up in these youth theatre groups should not be snatched by their committees. Once a friend of mine saw a play advertised, and thought she could not do it because the advertisement said, “Youth production. Only people 15 years old and under may audition.” The ad appeared several times. Years after the play had been performed, she met people who had been involved. They said to her reassuringly, “It had an adult section in it!” She said, “Why weren’t auditions for adults advertised, then?” “It was members of the committee,” was the answer. The fact that the youth roles were advertised to members of the public, and the adult roles were apparently grabbed by the committee, was not fair. Ah, that term… “not fair.” Considered very nerdy these days. But fairness is still not a bad thing to go by.
Finally, again on the subject of scholarships, endowments, and any other money gifts that are only offered to younger people… I hope this is not because of a belief that younger people need the money more. An adult struggling with unemployment, rising medical bills or a crippling mortgage may have a little less money than the young person whose admiring parents are willing to contribute a few hundred dollars to “start them off” in the industry. For those of you who do not know, being an adult does not guarantee financial ease. And the belief that one should have made themselves financially stable in the immature salad days of early adulthood- and if they couldn’t manage, tough- is a somewhat simplistic one. Life is unpredictable. Why should the industry miss out on wonderful talents that are waiting to be discovered, just because so many gates will only open for the young and for those who have always been blessed?
To those of you who are having real trouble gaining a foothold in the theatre community because you started late, don’t give up. You need to have the steely determination of a soldier sometimes. You will experience the cooing of “Aw, we’re giving the kids a go,” and committees crying “Aren’t we supportive!” whilst they slam the door in your face. This culture of discrimination, although accepted, is short-sighted and bloody-minded, and the less you say about it, the less likely it is to change.