Older Actresses: their silence speaks louder than words


Development session on My Name is Hunger @ The Park Theatre with the talented Salon:Collective guys!

(First posted Sept 2013)

“Though her soul requires seeing, the culture around her requires sightlessness. Though her soul wishes to speak its truth, she is pressured to be silent.”
― Clarissa Pinkola Estés,

What an extremely lucky woman I am. Not only do I get to team up with the salon:collective  on my new play, (My name is Hunger) but I get to take part in the Park Theatre’s Script Accelerator and…what’s even better, I get to write a piece for older women actors.

(find out more here)

Writing for older women actors is really exciting. They have developed their skills over time and enjoy rising to a challenge (and script accelerator is a challenge) I been writing older women’s roles forever, which has led to some criticism. But like I say, I’m lucky.  Theatre is strangely conservative at times, salon:collective are not – they are risk takers.

This may seem an unusual statement. Theatre people and goers seem a liberal bunch. In many ways they are. But it cannot be denied that older women actors are not visible. Even stranger when you consider 68% of the theatre audience are women. The minimisation of older women in theatre is sinister at worse and unconscious at best. Either way it’s unacceptable.

Let’s not blame writers. I know loads of really talented women writing for women who are confronted with the same feedback on their work that I have encountered. When I wrote my first play ‘the Crucifixion of Madeline McKay’* – a dark story about the church’s involvement in child abuse. I was told by an Art’s Council funded development team that ‘it’s a shame you decided to write about a woman who clearly hates religion and men. The audience is no longer interested in sexual politics. She’s too angry to be likeable. Rethink, make her younger and maybe the anger would be believable.’

I’ve underline the key point. It’s not that writers are not writing, it’s that other people decide what gets staged, read, seen, and heard. Programmers are deciding what the audience is interested in. So it is up to the audience to awaken to the possibility of having more. A lot more than what they are currently being fed. It’s also time for theatre to be less risk averse. We need to stop telling the audience they are not interested in older women actors. Women who have learnt their craft, have something interesting to say, and can hold stories in their hearts convincingly are being told their careers are over at just 35.  An age when most people admit you’re only just getting good. It’s a travesty. What’s more, it’s insulting to the audience to presume they are disinterested, bored or offended by an all older woman cast – especially if these women do not fall into safe archetypal boxes.

We need more than safe women on stage – we need whole women. Multi-faceted diamond women with many shining faces – we need diversity.

(Warning! Here comes my opinion on strong women characters)

Strong women are also safe women.

Of late, a lot of people have been telling me to write strong female characters. What are they talking about? Women being strong is a given. After all, we are subjected to the most misogynistic scrutiny on a daily basis. We don’t feel safe in the streets after dark, yet still need to walk home alone from work. To endure that is strong. Being strong should underpin any female character – but that’s not all. When you are writing a woman you are automatically writing for the oppressed. People without full choice. That’s what makes it complex and exhilarating. If you ignore either aspect, you are not writing realistically. Really what people are saying when they ask for a strong woman is ‘write someone women can hope to be. Someone who accepts and deals with her oppression nicely’. That’s not my job. I’m not here to give women another cross to bear. Women are entitled to be whatever they are. Women are being strangled enough by unrealistic expectations – I’m not about to give them another noose. If I wanted to create a superhero I’d write for Marvel. Writing a woman who endures her daily oppression safely, in a way the world can accept and admire, arriving victorious without psychological damage or a frown is to redefine reality. Fundamentally, this undermines the everyday woman’s struggle to be a whole person.

So no I won’t.

I refuse to create literary stick for women to hit themselves with. We don’t need more strong women characters, we need more diverse women characters. Ugly, raw, intelligent, violent, funny, difficult, angry, defiant, happy, bitter, insightful, and confused…in other words we need women we identify with, not idolize. You can open a celebrity magazine to pick your idol. I can’t be arsed creating you one.

Perhaps it’s the therapist in me. When facilitating the women’s playgroup at the Pankhurst centre we shared many stories about our lives. Our desperation, silence and invisibility was alleviated in recognizing our shared experience. Working primarily with women means I see their struggle daily. The post-feminist utopia party is late. (Shame, as I had a cake waiting) but this is another reason why we need older women’s stories (not to stop me eating cake) but to express our experience of being women in an age of such aggression towards our bodies for doing what they are designed to do – age.

I’m also lucky for as group, we get to take part in script accelerator at the Park Theatre. The Park also care about the issue of older women actors being underrepresented. If you check out their blog you will see how much. This is refreshing; I hope it marks a wider change in attitude. We as a society are hungry for new stories, it’s up to theatre, film and TV to up its game, play it dangerous until it becomes safe and then play it dangerous again. Otherwise what is it there for?

jeanI’m fortunate to work with  the salon:collective as they care as much about writers as they do for older women actors. (check out their excellent article here) They are passionate about the issue, they know it matters – so no boring discussions, nor political justifications – I can simply get on with writing for the characters I have chosen.  In this case Eileen, played by Jean Rogers and Helen played by salon director Lizzie Conrad Hughes. Both women are brilliant, vibrant and carry charisma like a silver clutch purse. They are also campaigners on the issue for better representation of older women actors – they have energy in abundance, it’s infectious. They are teaching me a lot.  I also get to write the play I’ve dreamed of writing. I get to tell a life lived backwards. From the end to the beginning – explore a baby story, dementia and how being parented by someone with narcissistic personality disorder can mar your decision making throughout life.

So I’m off to keep writing, I hope you will come along and see our piece, fly the flag for underrepresented theatre makers everywhere…an have a bloody good time doing so too!

* I’m happy to say, ‘The Crucifixion of Madeline McKay’ was taken on a couple of months after this letter by Lennie Varvarides  – she’s forever a risk taker.


© Alex Clarke 2013


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