Veteran Ottawa actors looking to play their part

A scene from Up to Low at the NAC. From the left: Megan Carty, Doreen Taylor-Claxton, Kristina Watt, Pierre Brault and Paul Rainville. Photo: David Hou

The last time we saw veteran actor John Koensgen on an Ottawa stage, he was playing the mysterious Josef Džibrilovo in the Great Canadian Theatre Company’s production of Nicolas Billon’s thriller Butcher. It was a good show. But that was in March, 2016, and Koensgen, with no local gigs on the horizon, is now in Toronto digging up job opportunities.

“I’m an actor, I have to do this. It’s what fulfills me,” says the 67-year-old. Besides, “Not working is killing me financially.”

Koensgen – who reckons that over roughly three decades he has performed in at least 75 shows at GCTC and the National Arts Centre — is far from the only one of his contemporaries who’s largely vanished from local stages. Kate Hurman, Mary Ellis and others, actors who helped forge Ottawa’s theatre scene back in the day, are rarely if ever cast today.

Why has this happened and does it actually matter to anyone but the greying actors themselves?

John Koensgen with his son Jonathan Koensgen in Butcher at GCTC. Photo: Andrew Alexander

Scripts and numbers

“It’s simply that there are not a lot of plays being written for older actors,” says GCTC artistic director Eric Coates. “The bulk of new work is being done by people in their 30s, and companies like GCTC are mandated to reflect that (new work).”

In fact, the majority of GCTC’s 2017-2018 season featured shows about and starring younger actors. That’s largely true of other Ottawa professional theatre companies and venues as well, including The Gladstone.

Coates also raises the importance of context. He points to the Stratford festival, where, by his count, roughly 20 of the company’s 120 members are over age 50. He says that balance of ages – about 16 per cent over 50 years old — is about the same as when he acted there in the 1980s and “I don’t think that this equation will ever shift significantly.”

Stratford’s publicity director, Ann Swerdfager, says the festival doesn’t release actors’ ages, but she guesses about 25 per cent of the company is more than 50 years old.

Over at the NAC, English theatre’s artistic director Jillian Keiley says that of the actors in NAC English Theatre productions this past season, about 15 per cent were over 50.

(According to Statistics Canada, about 37 per cent of the Canadian population was aged 50 and older as of 2017.)

Keiley adds, “As for the future, we just did a series of readings of new work, many of which featured roles suitable for veteran actors so maybe there is a move towards that, i.e. a focus on older characters.  Certainly we see our population shifting that way.”

Mary Ellis, right, is seen with Margo MacDonald in Fly Me to the Moon by Marie Jones at GCTC in 2012. Photo: Andrew Alexander

Those readings may accord with a small flurry of new shows in Britain focusing on the elderly as noted in an article last year by one of The Guardian’s theatre writers, Lyn Gardner. However, Gardner was careful to say it’s too soon to know whether this apparent trend had legs or not.

Audience disconnection a risk

The relatively small number of older actors working in Ottawa is depriving older audiences of seeing themselves reflected on stage, said Ellis. Nearing 60 and once a regular in GCTC productions, she’s gotten little stage work over the past few years, although she is playing Malvolia in A Company of Fools’ production of Twelfth Night this summer.

She says that seeing older female lives depicted on stage is “recognition that a woman, and a woman of my age, matters … that our stories and lives are important, and I don’t think we can subsist on stories of people merely under 40.”

Noting that acting once accounted for up to half her income – directing and teaching now help make up the shortfall – Ellis says that while she understands younger audience members also want to see themselves reflected in theatre, “The danger is it becomes very homogenous, it becomes the same kind of stories if you’re dealing with just one demographic on stage.”

Hurman – a professional actor for 30 years and once such a regular on Ottawa and other stages that she was able to buy a house based on theatre earnings – detects another issue.

“There used to be subscribers who felt they ‘owned’ part of me and were consequently engaged in the theatre and wanted to see it thrive. The money raised for the new (GCTC) building came from that sort of relationship.”

She worries that audiences these days are less invested in the theatre. “So does it become like Netflix? ‘Yeah, maybe I’ll watch that tonight.’”

At 56, Hurman has reinvented herself as a behaviour therapist for young people with autism. “When a community you engage with so completely turns its back on you, then you say, ‘You don’t want me at this party? Ok, I’ll find another party.’”

Paul Rainville, Michael Mancini and Kate Hurman in The Secret Mask by Rick Chafe at GCTC in 2012. Photo: Andrew Alexander

Can’t begrudge the next generation

Paul Rainville takes a philosophical stance on the whole issue.

At almost 68, he’s still in demand on stage, most recently at the NAC in Up to Low, Janet Irwin’s stage adaptation of Brian Doyle’s novel of the same name. However, he notes that “When my pal Micheline Chevrier ran GCTC (as artistic director, 1995-1999), it was one of my leanest times. It’s just the way programming works.”

He also points out while he and others were kept busy at GCTC in the old days, there were also fewer actors in Ottawa and therefore more work for those who were here.

Rainville says that while he doesn’t like to see older actors sidelined, “I’m really torn – I can’t begrudge the next generation coming up.”

At the same time, younger actors benefit from working with preceding ones.

“It’s like sports or any other profession,” says Koensgen. “If you’re older, you bring experience, another dimension, to the game. The more experience you have, the broader your perspective is on the human condition. I’m not saying it’s better, but it is richer… When young and old act together, the complement of the two is fantastic.”

Ellis agrees.

“When I’ve worked with younger artists on stage, they’re hungry for the experience of people my age.”

Theatre has a responsibility

Irwin, who directed as well as adapting Up to Low and has more than 40 years of local theatre and allied experience, is adamant about the importance of those long-familiar faces on the stage.

“We’re losing a lot of expertise by not having these older performers,” she says.

Citing the example of Up to Low, which featured actors of various ages, she says that young audiences at a recent student matinee were captivated by the show. She believes it’s important that young audiences see a range of ages on stage and that it helps them realize that they, too, will one day be older.

“I think the theatre world has a responsibility to show breadth,” says Irwin. “We’re showing diversity (in the theatre) now, but that has to encompass everything.”

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Patrick Langston covered English professional theatre for the Ottawa Citizen from 2008 to 2016. He also wrote about music, travel, the local housing industry and other subjects for the paper. Patrick continues to contribute to Ottawa Magazine, Diplomat and International Canada Magazine, and other publications.