stAgeism: Anti-Elderly Attitudes In The Theater

Anti-elderly billboard in Slings & Arrows, satirizing ageism in the theater (stAgeism)
Anti-elderly billboard in Slings & Arrows, satirizing ageism in the theater (stAgeism)

“The sometimes ugly rhetoric that people use about older audience members is in part fueled by resentment over their dominance and power. It is also, let us be frank, because there is a high correlation between audience member age (on either end of the spectrum) and likelihood of inappropriate behavior.”

So writes Isaac Butler in a blog post meant as a direct response to an article I wrote in Howlround entitled “Is Diversity A Codeword for Exclusion?”

So the elderly are both dominant and childlike, powerful and unable to control their behavior? It is one of the several shocking responses that confirmed for me what I had detected: The theater community has a problem in its attitude towards older people.

As George Hunka points out in his post, The Graying of The Theatre,  “The hostility to older audiences that Mr. Mandell discusses runs parallel to a hostility to older artists, critics, and administrators as well.”

My article for Howlround is in three parts. The first part offers examples of the dismissive attitude towards the elderly – so widespread that it was satirized in the backstage comedy Slings and Arrows: The fictional New Burbage Theatre Festival launches a marketing campaign that deliberately insults its elderly subscribers in order to get them to stop attending. (One billboard shows an old, ill woman in a hospital bed holding two tickets, and the tagline “Don’t Bother.”)

David Henry Hwang: “Ageism is a valid concern. I believe diversity includes older people."
David Henry Hwang: “Ageism is a valid concern. I believe diversity includes older people.”

Because so many of the people who exhibit this attitude are ironically self-declared advocates of “diversity,” the second part is a series of questions that such hypocrisy prompted me to ask, grouped into ten sections. For example:

Is “diversity” a codeword for a different kind of exclusion? Is it a zero-sum game, where the current losers replace the current winners? Are some groups more worthy of inclusion than others?


When is it appropriate for a character to be played by an actor who does not fit the playwright’s description? Does this depend entirely on a director’s conception? Are there some characteristics (race, height, ethnicity) that are more acceptable to change than others? Such as age: Denzel Washington and Orlando Bloom were both heavily criticized for being older than the characters they played, in “A Raisin in the Sun” and “Romeo and Juliet” respectively, but I don’t recall anybody criticizing Washington played Brutus  (usually played by a white actor) in the 2005 Broadway production of Julius Caesar.

The third part is an interview with playwright David Henry Hwang, a long-time advocate of diversity, who answers some of the questions and offers his perspective.

Those who have criticized my piece have done so because of the middle section, which some see as “bashing the legitimacy of cultural and racial diversity,” in the words of playwright Keith Josef Adkins.  That was not my intent. I believe in the importance of having many voices on stages, and many different kinds of butts in the seats.

But I believe these voices (and butts) should include the elderly.

The problematic attitudes, of course, are not limited to the theater. I was struck by an article a few days ago about Norman Lear, the ground-breaking television producer (All in the Family, Maude, and The Jeffersons), who said he cannot interest any network in his latest show, a comedy set in a retirement village. “They don’t want to touch the demographic.” (Norman Lear Goes Archie Bunker on Ageism)

But is she the only one?


Norman Lear (All in the Family) can't interest networks in TV series set in retirement village
Norman Lear (All in the Family) can’t interest networks in TV series set in retirement village

But ageism manifests itself in particular ways on stage — and some of its causes in the theater may be unique. Call it stAgeism.

Although unhappy with my article, Keith Josef Adkins, the artistic director of New Black Fest, acknowledges the dismissive attitudes in the theater towards older people. As he wrote in the comments section:

“As many have pointed out, the 60 and over demographic play a significant part in ticket sales and subscriber base for most theaters. Many theaters plan their seasons around the needs, interests, anxieties and curiosities of their 60 and over demographic. Tradition? Perhaps. Safety? Definitely. Rethinking the formula? Many are. Like Mr. Mandell, I have heard dismissive and insensitive blanket remarks about the 60 and over crowd. In my observation, there is a fear and a frustration that a large portion of that demographic is not interested in younger, African-American, LGBT, Latino, women and/or Asian theater practitioners. Substantiated or not, (I’m sure Mandell has his opinion) it is how many feel and what they believe about the power of the elderly in American theater. So, yes, perhaps a genuine conversation about the future of theater and the upside and downside of the 60-and-over demographic is paramount.”

Denzel Washington is playing Walter Lee Younger in "Raisin in the Sun" at age 58; Sidney Poitier was 34. Orlando Bloom is playing Romeo at age 36. Leonard Whiting was 18.
Denzel Washington is playing Walter Lee Younger in “Raisin in the Sun” at age 58; Sidney Poitier was 34.
Orlando Bloom played Romeo at age 36. Leonard Whiting was 18. Both Washington and Bloom were criticized for, well, not acting their age.


Excerpts from two other worthwhile comments:

Kerry Reid: “The seemingly widespread idea that older audiences can’t engage with “edgy” material is one that bugs me. It may well be that “older” audiences (many of whom were young people during the Woodstock era — not that all of them were there!) have seen what passes for “edgy” so many times that it simply bores them at this point. ..

“I would add that there is an element of sexism to the ageism as well — when one talks about “bluehairs,” one is usually sneering about women. And of course, as Hollywood reminds us over and over again, old women are basically invisible. Strange that a demographic that is so important in the ticket-buying public is so resented at the same time.”

Karla: “I agree that ageism is rampant in theater — it’s especially blatant in acting, particularly for females…

“Another reason older people are less accepted in theater and find it harder to get any breaks is profoundly shallow; young people are prettier. You want a younger cast on stage because everybody prefers looking at attractive faces, and you want younger playwrights because not only are they prettier but they’re assumed to be more relevant, more interesting, more innovative than older playwrights (I don’t know what impact ageism has on directors). I call this “The Hollywood Effect.” We may distain Hollywood movies as youth-obsessed, shallow, formulaic, and lacking true artistry, but man, do they know how to get an audience, including us!
“It’s also easier to write and market plays about the problems of youth — love, lust, job opportunities, first-time ethical dilemmas — than it is to write and market about the issues arising with age — infirmity, loss, death, grief, one’s personal culpability in accommodating with a less-than-ideal world, regret over missed opportunities or poor choices. These issues are thematically more difficult to present dramatically. They are also less attractive to theaters because they’re less likely to offer the sex and violence that help attract that elusive younger audience….

“I don’t understand why many theaters assume older audience members are less tolerant and less risk-taking than are younger audience members. One would think that, as experienced theatergoers, older audience would be more avid to see something fresh. I know I am.”


Author: New York Theater

Jonathan Mandell is a 3rd generation NYC journalist, who sees shows, reads plays, writes reviews and sometimes talks with people.

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