Thursday, June 5, 2008

Age Appropriate

My long-time buddy from the Madness of Shear, the highly talented Aaron, celebrated his birthday today, and the event got me thinking. Firstly, reminiscences of the past, as Aaron was my first "Rosetti" (the cop who runs the investigation in the play) back around 1998. Here's a pic of the two of us way back when. I haven't worked with Aaron regularly since then, but on the odd occasion when we get to play together onstage, I find it magical. Any "Tony" in Shear will tell you: you never forget your "first Rosetti."

Aaron continues in the night company of the show, so as I was leaving the theatre today, I was able to give him a hug and a good wish for his birthday. We joked about his finally reaching age 39. I have no idea how old Aaron actually is, nor do I want to know. It is none of my business, and further, it doesn't matter. But his birthday today reminded me of an on-going issue in the life of an actor: age.

When I was growing up and being trained as a gentleman by my parents, I was taught never to ask anyone's age. It was considered rude and intrusive. Those days are long gone. Nobody cares about being rude or intrusive anymore.

Throughout my adult life, I have usually looked younger than I actually am. I don't deserve any credit for that, I inherited some mighty fine genes. In my business, the age you look is often important. But the age you actually are is completely immaterial. So, if a director, or a producer, or a caster, or just about anyone, asks, "How old are you?", a red flag goes up in my brain. It's signalling an inadequacy on the part of the pro asking the question. It means he has no idea how old you look, and so is asking how old you are. But for his professional purposes, it doesn't make any difference how old an actor is, it only matters how old an actor can play.

Everybody knows this, or used to, but Estelle Getty was actually younger than Bea Arthur when she played her mother on The Golden Girls. The story goes that she hired her own make-up artist for her final audition, to convince the Powers That Be that she could, indeed, play elderly Sophia. It did not matter how old Getty was, it only mattered how old Getty could play.

For that reason, I tend to keep my actual age private. It created some good-natured turmoil when I rejoined the Madness in March, as everybody in our cast eagerly revealed how old they are. I did not, and was branded vain. But really, vanity has little to do with my reluctance to let my age circulate in the local theatrical community. I received some very sage advice from one of the leading local actors as soon as I arrived in DC. Once a director pegs your actual age, he will only consider you for roles that age. If a caster knows, for example, that an actor is 32, that caster is very unlikely to submit the actor for a role which is described as 24, even if that actor can convincingly portray such a role.

Of course, it would be very easy for anyone who really cared to discover anybody's actual age, now that we've all joined the privacy-free zone known as the Internet. And I really don't care if anyone knows my age. But I do care when that factoid impacts my professional life. For that reason, and that reason alone, I'll keep the year of my birth to myself. And don't ask. I won't tell.