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Not Acting Your Age: Playing Older or Younger Than You Are

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Age is relative, someone once said (probably some old guy). You may look and feel younger than your years, or you might seem a lot older than you actually are. But just because you've celebrated a certain number of birthdays does not mean you can't be young at heart or an old soul, well-preserved or pre-"mature."

No place is the time-honored "age is relative" saying more true than in show business. Acting your age may be preferable in public places and social situations, but when it comes to an acting career, one might be advised to avoid that particular rule.

Every performer has a range—the ages he or she can realistically play. But who says an adult can't play a child, or vice versa? Enterprising and versatile men and women may be able to take on a wider range of character parts. If you can convince the casting team, the director, and, ultimately, the audience, you can open yourself up to a variety of other assignments.

Take television, for instance. We have all seen performers playing characters way younger than themselves (anyone remember John Travolta and the Sweathogs or the "kids" who lived at 90210?) or taking on considerably older roles (Estelle Getty, who played the gray-haired mother on "The Golden Girls," was actually the second-youngest member of the cast).

Film also offers opportunities for actors to portray elderly people before their time or youngsters when past their prime. Dustin Hoffman playing a 121-year-old in "Little Big Man" and Robin Williams as an aging adolescent in "Jack" come to mind.

TV and movies do have their share of time-bending casting examples, but it's in the theatre where actors are most commonly called upon to essay roles that are furthest from their actual age. Every school play in the world will feature students playing much older parts, and community presentations will often allow a veteran company member to tackle Romeo or Hamlet while he still can, despite his advanced age. Character makeup and creative costuming can go a long way in helping complete the illusion. Regional productions also provide an outlet for someone who may not fit the description on paper, but can still pull off playing a youthful ingénue or fill the shoes of a middle-aged lead.

On and off Broadway, playgoers have been fooled and fascinated by many actors and actresses who have played roles outside their normal range. Recently, Frank Gorshin essayed the aged and ageless George Burns in "Say Goodnight, Gracie," while 62-year-old Marylouise Burke played the title role of a teenager who suffers from an aging disease called progeria in "Kimberly Akimbo." If you want to see some current examples, treat yourself to Tovah Feldshuh giving a bravura performance as a much older Golda Meir in the amazing "Golda's Balcony," or catch "One Life to Live" alumna Kathy Brier stepping into teen Tracy Turnblad's shoes in "Hairspray."

Back Stage has gathered together a group of actors who have become experts on the subject of believably sliding in and out of alternate-aged characters. Having accepted such challenging stage assignments in the past, they offer insights into how others can explore and expand their own personal range. From "18 to play younger" to character actors playing older, from exploring teenage angst to applying old-age makeup, almost any performer can benefit from not acting their age.

Golden Agers

Like the tour de force portrayals of Gorshin and Feldshuh, Frank Ferrante has convincingly captured the essence of a real-life person on stage—classic comedian Groucho Marx. He recently starred in, directed, and produced "Groucho: A Life in Revue" for PBS television, after years of performing it before live audiences. In addition, he has acted in and/or directed many other projects, including "Brighton Beach Memoirs" at Walnut Street Theatre in Philadelphia. These days, he can be seen in "Teatro ZinZanni," playing the comic lead for the San Francisco-based cirque.

Ferrante tells the tale of how he found himself portraying a person 64 years older than himself. "In 1985, Groucho Marx's son, playwright Arthur Marx, discovered me performing in a senior project titled 'An Evening With Groucho' at the University of Southern California. After the performance, Arthur said, 'If I ever do another show about my father, I'd like to use you.' Within a year we were in New York, then London, with 'Groucho: A Life in Revue.' " When the opportunity presented itself, the actor admits feeling "thrilled but petrified. In Arthur's 'Groucho,' I was to play my comic hero from age 15 to 86—a 70-year spread. Pretty daunting stuff. And I was 22 at the time!"

How did he approach the "daunting" stage assignment? In terms of physicality and movement, Ferrante followed the age-old rule that less is more. "I remember Groucho when he was 85, and I studied his moves and studied the moves of other elderly people, including my grandpa. I was sensitive to the lives of older people prior to the role. In fact, I was just short a couple of units of being a gerontology minor at USC."

As for getting into the mindset of Marx, the performer relates that there was a great deal of material available. "Through films, audiotapes, interviews, and letters, I was able to easily construct a point of view and an attitude for Groucho to use within the play. Also, there are many who survived him—particularly his children—who have provided their takes on him. I also considered and factored in Groucho's own frustration, regret, and pain at the end of his life."

The physical requirements of a life-spanning assignment such as the one in "Groucho," surprisingly, were very minimal. "I used some specific costume pieces—black beret, turtleneck, blazer, thick spectacles—items associated with Groucho near the end of his career. The makeup involved only some minor, subtle adjustments—the lines are a little deeper, more shadowing, whitening of hair."

Having to play both younger and older than himself has provided a constant challenge to Ferrante, as he returns to the show from time to time. "I just did the role again and I am now 40. It's different playing Groucho at age 15 now. So I work backwards. The voice is higher, and the movement a little more energetic. The glint in the eyes returns, and the spirit is a little less jaded."

What advice would he give to an actor or actress playing a much older role? "Go for it! Do the homework and observe older people. Get into the spirit and life of the character before adding the physical layers."

Cheryl Stern has garnered many stage roles that called for age-defying performances. Her credits include Roundabout's production of "The Women" on Broadway, as well as a run in "I Love You, You're Perfect, Now Change" Off-Broadway.

Currently, she can be seen in the musical comedy "Laughing Room Only," starring Jackie Mason, at the Brooks Atkinson Theatre. "I am playing two different 80-year-olds, plus a number of other characters who range from 20 to 80, in Jackie Mason's new show. I have portrayed children and characters of all ages in a dozen or more shows, including my one-woman show, 'Buffalonia,' at Ensemble Studio Theatre. I guess you could say it's my specialty."

As a teenager, Stern got her first clue that she would be playing other ages. "When I was 15, I played Tevye in 'Fiddler on the Roof' and Sister in 'Damn Yankees.' The writing was on the wall! I wanted to play Hodel and Lola, but, alas, I guess I am a born character actress and it just always came out in whatever I did."

The actress feels that finding the posture and "spine" of a character is critical. "Once I know the physical life of a character, the rest falls into place. I need to work with shoes and costume elements right from the start to get inside the character. I've done it since I was a child, and my training at Northwestern and elsewhere has also encouraged working with the details of a character's physicality and style in order to find the life. I do it for auditions and in rehearsals for every show. Directors and other actors sometimes think I'm a nut at first, but they usually wind up getting a kick out of it, or just put up with my various shoes and scarves and sweaters that come along with the invention of my characters. For me, age comes from the outside. What does this character wear on her feet? How does she move in her clothes, glasses, etc.? All inform posture and character, for young or old alike."

Stern also suggests, "Character, not age, informs mindset. You may be playing an eight-year-old who is slower and less energetic than a 75-year-old. It's about finding the person and all the details that create who he or she is. It's about observation of characters in life. Where they were raised and how they live inform how they speak and move."

Makeup and costume details also assist Stern in getting into character. "Every detail matters: the right wig, the right shoes, the right lipstick. I am a stickler for detail and I really love to work with designers who care about the attention to era and regional tastes and styles."

Her advice for tackling older roles is simple. "Do your work to investigate all the aspects of the character's surrounding and background and behavior. The age is a part of the whole picture. Observe older people and how they move and how their life experience informs their actions and mannerisms. Work with the physical carriage, but don't let it become a caricature of old age. Find what's true about the person. It's the same with any character building. When playing a younger character, don't play young! Just play the role, and find out what informs the character."

Young and Old

Richard Kent Green and Lena Armstrong are two more performers who have looked into the dressing room mirror and seen vastly older personas staring back at them right before curtain time.

Green states, "I've been playing old men since junior high school—in fact, I did a community theatre production of 'Carousel' in which I aged from 24 to 40, then to 65 by the final scene. I was 14 or 15 at the time.

"My masterpiece, however, was the role of Old Man Toppersfield, who was over 80, for the original Murder Mystery Weekends in Tannersville, N.Y. I used a full latex-and-cotton makeup technique I'd designed myself. I've used that technique on others for various projects, including an old blind man for a production of 'The Blind.' "

Green's credits run the spectrum from mature to immature. "Using very little makeup, I've played several middle-aged British characters. At the other end of the scale are roles like Linus in 'You're a Good Man, Charlie Brown,' along with various rebellious teenagers and other kids. In fact, I don't remember playing many roles that were at all close to my actual age—which shall go untold."

Lena Armstrong has been seen on stage at DUMBO and Playwrights Horizons, and is currently working on a performance collaboration with three other artists.

She has played characters both advanced in years (45 years older, as the title character in " 'night, Mother") and youthful (15 years younger in "Light on Golden Slipper.")

When she was first cast as the mother who must deal with a suicidal daughter, Armstrong thought it was a mistake and told the director. But once she resigned herself to playing the part, she found ways to handle the challenges of playing middle age. "I developed a different walk, to determine where the character moves from. I came up with a backstory for her, and began to observe people of the same age. I then costumed myself older, wore my hair differently, and gave myself some extra layers. Also, I combed my hair differently and used very light makeup."

Armstrong advises that actors "start with the outer and then go to the inner aspects. Just remember, the emotional life of the character is 99% in the text."

Time Travelers

Jeffrey M. Bender ran around Central Park this summer as Harlequin in "Triumph of Love" for New York Classical Theatre, and is currently appearing as Lucky in "Waiting for Godot" for Tangent Theatre Company.

He's had a string of plus-years assignments, including playing 60 years older as Adam in "As You Like It," 45 years older as Father Jack in "Dancing at Lughnasa," and 35 years older as Leonato in "Much Ado About Nothing." Even Lucky has several decades on the youthful Bender.

"The first older role I played was Adam in 'As You Like It.' I auditioned for the role of Orlando, but I blew it. I didn't think that I was going to get cast at all. I took a look at the cast list the next day and there was my name next to the oldest character in the show!"

Finding the physical aspects of the character became vital to Bender's preparation. "Since I had no idea what went through the mind of an 80-year-old man, I began with the physicality of Adam. My first thought was he should be hunched over and barely able to walk. That lasted about a day. I had nowhere to go with the character. I was a lump on stage that moved at a snail's pace. I gave that up pretty quick and moved on to other ideas. I thought that Adam felt the weight of the world on his shoulders while working for Oliver and Orlando. So, I showed that burden in his shoulders and upper torso, but I also used my legs. Slightly bent at the knees and turned out. I also thought that Adam had an adventurous spirit. Once Adam left with Orlando to wander into the Forest of Arden, I felt that Adam should feel as though a weight had been lifted. Straighter back and a quicker stride was what I decided to bring to Adam to convey to the audience his newfound sense of adventure."

Once he had the physicality of Adam, it became second nature to the actor. "What came from those physical discoveries, however, was completely unexpected. I began looking at young people my own age and thinking, 'Young whippersnappers!,' as though my plot was foiled by Scooby Doo and the Gang. It was a strange transformation that came over me. Not that I'm completely Method—I didn't stay in an old-folks home for weeks to study them. However, I had to reign in that curmudgeon character bubbling to the surface."

Makeup and costumes for older characters, according to Bender, are the easiest aspects of creating the role. "For the role of Lucky, I brought in most of the costume after the first few days of rehearsal, so that I could get a sense of what it would feel like. I had an idea of what the makeup should look like and I tried to keep that in mind during rehearsals. The physicality came out of the use of the costume, particularly from the use of the long, white-haired wig. I think that wig would have driven me out of my mind if I hadn't had it from the beginning!"

Bender offers some words of wisdom on playing older types. "Start playing around with physical ideas for your character. Go back to the text and try to find out what other characters think of your character. What do they see in you? How does what others think of you make you feel? How does it influence your behavior and mindset? If you can get your hands on the costume you are to wear for the show, start using it in rehearsals. The costume doesn't make the character, but it does help inform the character. It also lets you know of any complications you might have when you start to implement physicality to your character. If you're playing a younger role, I guess I'd suggest watching MTV for a few hours and then go see a Hilary Duff movie to get you in the mindset of those young whippersnappers today."

Todd Alan Johnson starred as the title roles in "Jekyll & Hyde" at Maine State Music Theatre and "Sweeney Todd" at New Repertory Theatre in Boston. He has also served as a standby for Zoser/Pharoah in Broadway's "Aida" at the Palace Theatre. In "Les Misérables," Johnson portrayed Javert opposite Colm Wilkinson's Valjean, a role that required Johnson to age from a young man in his late 20s to an upper-middle-aged man in his 50s-60s.

Johnson had played Javert on the U.S. National Tour for a little over a year when it was announced that the tour would spend six months in Toronto and the original Jean Valjean, Colm Wilkinson, would reprise his role. "I'd just turned 30. Alain Boublil was sent to Chicago to check me out, but he deemed me too young to play opposite Colm believably. I was going to lose my job because of my age! Then a couple of months passed, and they decided to keep me on board."

The actor was thrilled for the opportunity to star opposite Wilkinson, but the age difference—the latter was 54—concerned the artistic staff. "It's vital that both characters age correspondingly. I'd been playing age in the role for a year already, but this is key: I'd been playing age opposite another person who was playing age, and audiences easily accept that illusion: two young men playing age, fine. But now I was going to be opposite someone who would be doing the reverse: Colm would be playing 'young' during part of the first act, and then basically be his true age through most of the rest of the piece—something which no other Valjean had or has done. I had to bring the next level of realism to bear in the role."

Taking his cues off of watching older men, Johnson recognized that there's a "slow and steady" measured tendency in their movement. "I also added a greater measure of self-preservation to the character as he aged, and took more care ascending and descending. In "Les Miz," there's lots of climbing. When Javert swings his legs up over the railing just before he commits suicide, I made the movement more deliberate, and found a whole new depth of meaning. Here's this guy, about to take his own life, being careful that he doesn't hurt himself getting his body up over the railing. If you think about it, it makes it even sadder. Human beings are crazy in those ways."

Sometimes overly relying on costumes and makeup for older roles can be more distracting than helpful. That's when moderation is the key, in Johnson's opinion.

"Be as thorough as you can with your research and preparation, and don't add anything that screams, 'Hey, look at me, I'm old!' Worry 10% about how you look and then forget it, and place your reclaimed 100% power into fulfilling the dramatic requirements."

As for playing younger, Johnson warns about pushing the age difference too far. "Some actors legitimately look younger than they are chronologically. But if you're obviously too old for a part, well, let me put it this way: I don't believe that Stockard Channing, or anybody else in the movie 'Grease,' is young enough to attend Rydell, but I don't care either. Maybe that's it: Don't care. Kick butt. Have fun."

Fountains of Youth

Often, producers put out casting notices seeking performers who are "18 to play younger." This can happen for several reasons. Either they need to hire a performer of legal age due to the requirements of the role, or they prefer to deal with a mature actor if the part is particularly demanding. Also, there are no limited work hours or tutor arrangements when the performer is 18 and over.

Michael Cyril Creighton starred in his solo show "The Hermitage of an Exiled Chain Smoker," a Fringe Festival offering that recently wrapped its extension at the Arthur Seelen Theatre in the Drama Book Shop. He also toured in "The Santaland Diaries."

Creighton has played characters of multiple ages in Judith Thompson's "Lion in the Streets," including 15 years older and 12 years younger than his 20 years. He relates, "I played an 8-year-old boy and a 35-year-old man in 'Lion.' It was a mainstage production at Emerson College, and at the time I was 19 years old. Because it was a college production, and because there was certainly no one under the age of 18 and not many people over the age of 22 available, casting was sort of a free-for-all. It made their production of 'Follies' very interesting."

The dual roles offered the young actor "an extremely exciting and simultaneously panic-inducing opportunity. I was so in love with the language in the play and the character that I wanted to do it justice. For the younger role, I was playing someone 10 years my junior. I thought this would be a breeze. But I found playing a child is much harder than playing an adult. It's hard to get the bright-eyed truthfulness that kids are full of. Physically, it's hard to imagine myself in a mini-body and, although I don't have the deepest voice, my director would keep saying, 'Higher! Higher! Higher!' There's only so high a voice can go."

The actor had to do a reality check after leaving his "glory days" at school behind. "It's a shock once you graduate from college—where you've been going out for roles that ranged from the children in 'Richard III' to the old men in 'Pride's Crossing'—and then you land in New York and reality kicks in. People are only willing to stretch their imagination so far. Theatre is a little bit more flexible, but from my observations, TV and film seem much more by the book. There are many roles out of my age range that I'd love to play. Perhaps if I keep smoking, my voice will deepen and I'll look 50 in no time."

While males are occasionally needed in these situations, it is more common that a female role will be cast this way. Two actresses, Darcy Miller and Anna Payumo, have had recent experiences playing younger female roles, with successful and surprising results.

Miller's recent credits include Solange in "Chopin's Preludes," Judith in "Gemini," and Thomasina in "Arcadia." She is currently working on a stage production titled "Compatibles." "I have played lots of roles that were younger than myself. The character of Solange was 10 years old, and Thomasina started at age 14. I do feel I can relate to younger ages more than I relate to my own age."

When first faced with the idea of taking a youthful assignment such as Solange, Miller recalls, "I thought a lot of what the character was about was very far from me. But I connected to the circumstances and to her perspective of the world and her relationships."

Miller observed, "It hasn't been such a challenge slipping into a younger mindset—the physicality and movement help take you back there. How kids use their bodies differs a lot at different ages. Older teenagers are very different from younger ones, and completely different from 10-year-olds. So I watch people a lot, and then I need a lot of time to explore. I was very lucky with Solange—the director gave me so much space and help in exploring the character during rehearsals."

Miller's advice to other actors and actresses playing much younger roles is very helpful. "It depends on the circumstances, but those characters can be more free than we are in real life, so there is a lot of joy in exploring that; but there are also very specific differences. Children are such a gift, and getting to step inside that mindset and body is a gift for the actor; I would never want to take it for granted."

Anna Payumo just finished playing a straight-laced teen in Eric Alter's comic play "Sex," and an even younger girl in Wendy Wasserstein's "Tender Offer." Payumo states, "My character of Lissa in 'Sex' was seven years younger, and Lisa in 'Tender Offer' was a whopping 12 years younger. I was 21 years old when I played both parts; Lissa was 14, and Lisa was 9."

The actress utilized movement to transform into the youthful roles. "When I played Lisa in 'Tender Offer,' I had to do a little dance routine because my character had just finished a ballet recital. I did a little research—watching old videos of my own ballet recitals when I was younger and studying how I used to move. Also, Lisa was very restless and fidgety, so I just thought about how every kid acts when you see them in the supermarket or at the mall with their parents, wanting desperately to go play or visit the toy store."

Mental preparation was equally crucial to Payumo's credible performances. "I try to think about my character and what she is going through from the point of view of someone of that age. I try to remember what it was like being that age and going through similar experiences. Also, I observe other kids around that age group—their speech, their movements, and their actions."

Not content to play young girls, the actress also portrayed a much older character. "I played Mae in a play called 'Now I Lie.' She was actually a 60-year-old woman. Her age, added to the fact that she was crazy, made things a bit more difficult. I didn't want to do the whole generic old lady voice and slouch-my-body-over thing, so I kind of mirrored my character with how my grandmother is. She is in her 70s, and although she moves much slower than she used to and her speech is slower and more deliberate, she still stands and walks erect."

Her advice to other actors is inspiring and insightful. "Do as much research and observation as you can when playing older roles, but don't lose sight of the fact that every character has a story behind him or her, and let that story and the character's motivations be the ultimate driving force of your portrayal. When playing younger, remember that we've all been that age at some point or another, so it's not like you have to go into it completely blind. Do research, study kids of that age, but, again, don't get too caught up in stereotypes. Every character is different and has a different story, so let that steer the way you act the character out."

Age of Reason

"What is your age range?" may be the most difficult question facing an actor on an audition application, because one may not be the best judge of one's own capabilities. The bottom line: Don't limit yourself. When you feel you may be appropriate for a role, regardless of age limitations, submit your headshot and resume and try out—you may give the casting folks an alternative they never would have thought of otherwise.

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