FAIRFIELD — Is theater, specifically community theater, a young person’s game? Four local women, all 50-plus years old, with ties to the Solano County performing arts scene, think not.
Stacey Loew, 55, is an actress/director and co-founder, with Jeff Lowe, of Bay Area Stage Productions. Loew sees the value of experience.
“I think as you age, you gain more wisdom and knowledge and have more to offer. I mean, just look at some of the people involved locally – like Barbara Norris, George Maguire and Dan and Dyanne Vojvoda at the Benicia Old Town Theatre Group,” Loew said. “Also, as a director, I’ve learned how to handle people better and, believe me, it takes a lot of patience to deal with actors.”
Loew says that in theater, there is no age discrimination. But she is also cognizant that age discrepancies can destroy an audience’s crucial suspension of disbelief that is the foundation for taking them on a theatrical journey.
“Audiences are more accepting of race difference than age discrepancies. In ‘The Pirates of Penance,’ I had three actresses playing sisters – one was white, one was black, and one was Asian,” Loew said. “But if you have a character who is supposed to be the daughter of another and they are obviously close to the same age, audiences will say, ‘How can she be her daughter?’ Never mind that they look nothing alike.”
Pam Spering, 68, is the founder of Missouri Street Theatre and mother of MST/Downtown Theatre Foundation for the Arts artistic director Dae Spering. Her perspective as a producer is different from those who perform as she is more concerned about getting the finished product in front of audiences and not craving the onstage spotlight.
“I think many young people getting into theater are starry-eyed and don’t realize their own limitations,” Spering said. “That’s good because if they did they might give up because it takes time to develop the things you need to do your craft well. As you get older you realize the pitfalls and the hard work that it takes.”
When it comes to roles for more mature actors, Spering feels that it depends on the kind of production.
“In musical theater, there are far less roles and that has to do with your energy level when there is a lot of dancing. Non-musicals have more opportunities for older actors,” Spering said. “Sometimes it’s hard to realize that you have to transition to a different type of character. There is an awkward place of being too old for one role but not old enough for another.”
Local actress/singer/director Barbara McFadden, 57, was finally able to play a role in “Cabaret” she’d wanted to for years in last year’s production of the classic musical by the Napa Valley Broadway Playhouse. McFadden played Fraulein Schneider, a German widow who falls in love with a Jewish grocer in Berlin as the Nazis rise to power.
“I played Sally Bowles, the lead character, when I was in my mid-20s and I played Fraulein Kost when I was in my 30s and both times I wished I was Fraulein Schneider but I wasn’t old enough,” she said. “Sometimes the really meaty, fun roles to play are the older characters.”
While it can sometimes be harder to find older actors when they are needed, as a director, McFadden feels duty-bound to cast people who are close to the age of the characters.
“You don’t have to cast someone who is exactly 60 to play a character that is 60, but if they are 18, the audience is going to know it. I have seen younger people who were really good actors with great makeup and costumes pull it off, but that is rare,”McFadden said.
In an effort to both fill up the stage for larger shows and give people a taste of performing in community theater, McFadden has cast older actors who have never performed before. While some have decided it was not for them, others have stayed and flourished.
“It seems like the older people get and the more responsibilities they have, the less they feel they can just throw caution to the wind and go play in plays,” McFadden said. “In community theater, you can go in with the attitude to just try it out. We’re not trying to make a living doing it or get on Broadway. Everyone who has an interest should at least try it once.”
Fairfield resident Linda James, 65, is trying it, or more accurately, retrying it. James started performing in plays in Fairfield in 1975 and did them for a number of years until taking a long hiatus to focus on her career as a special education teacher.
Now retired, she has leapt back in with both feet and hit the ground running. James landed the role of cantankerous Ouiser Boudreaux in Solano Rep’s 2012 production of “Steel Magnolias” and earned an Arty Award nomination for her work. She recently performed in Fairfield Civic Theatre’s “Lend Me a Tenor.”
“When I was a kid, I played the ingénues and they are kind of . . . vanilla. I got to do Ouiser Boudreaux and Julia in ‘Tenor’ and you don’t get to play such fun parts when you are a kid,” James said. “As you mature, there aren’t as many roles, but the ones that are available are so much fun.”
The sense of teamwork and achieving a goal is part of the attraction for James. Her experience has been that community theater groups are almost always non-cliqueish.
“Theater people are the most accepting people I’ve ever met. My husband was in the military and we moved a lot, so every time I came to a new town I would find a theater troupe and I would have instant friends,” James said.
James sees many people over 50 in local theater who have branched out into many other aspects of the theater – many who did so during her hiatus.
“Barbara McFadden can work anywhere with her costuming skills, plus she is an actor and a singer. For me, I am kind of narrow in my scope,” James said. “I wrote to Dae Spering, who was casting ‘Damn Yankees’ for MST and half-jokingly said that if she needed an old lady who can’t see without her glasses, can’t sing and can’t dance in her musical, then to please call me. I got the one non-singing part in the show!”
Reach Fairfield writer Tony Wade at email@example.com.