Aging and Acting on Buffalo Stages
David Lamb in "The Father"
Photo by Gene Witkowski
If you’ve ever sat in a post-show talkback, you know an inevitable question is “How do you learn all those lines?” There’s really not a pat answer beyond “I study them,” but, for older actors, when memory becomes less elephant-like, learning lines is a bigger challenge.
Kavinoky artistic director David Lamb, who got his Equity card in 1966, not only had more lines than anybody else in the recently closed The Father, but also had many rambling monologues that didn’t necessarily interact with other characters. “The Father took [Tony winner] Frank Langella a year to learn,” says Lamb. “I started last August (obviously not every day) and it has been tough, but that could just be the Christopher Hampton translation of language spoken by someone with Alzheimer’s—full of ellipses, repeats with small changes, etc. Langella said Lear was a walk in the park by comparison. So, I will not know what is age-related until I try another play. I am assuming lines won’t be a problem; now names, that’s another thing entirely!”
“I have to admit that I employ some new tricks to learn lines and keep them fresh in my head, including recording lines and cue lines on my computer, transferring them to my iPhone, then listening to them through the Bluetooth connection on my car radio as I travel to the theater for a rehearsal or performance,” says Peter Palmisano, who began acting in high school fifty years ago and most recently was in The Country House at Road Less Traveled Productions. “Although other actors have recorded their lines and listened to them on tape cassette for years, I think I may have started this during SDP’s Merchant of Venice only about seven or eight years ago. I can’t remember the exact show I was in when I suddenly lost concentration and could not remember a line, but it was frightening enough to cause me to refine my methods!”
(Funny aside: Palmisano says he got into acting in high school “probably because I had a crush on a girl” and Lamb met his wife, Marcia, when she came to a Dublin production of Mark Pinter’s The Caretaker, in which he played Mick. “From then on I never looked back, coming to Buffalo chasing Marcia that same year.” So we have women to thank for putting them on Buffalo stages!)
“It’s very disorienting when your mind and your body stop doing things so automatically,” offers Anne Pfohl, who began acting in school as a child and has enjoyed a quarter-century career of professional acting in Buffalo. “Everything takes longer, learning and recovering. My knees bother me a lot. The furniture we end up with on stage isn’t always the newest or firmest; I have put on more than a few pounds, add a bum knee, and I need a Hoyer lift just to stand up.”
“Fortunately, old lady roles are what I get now, and nobody expects them to move with great agility,” says Anne Gayley, who began acting with the Amherst Players in 1965, and was most recently seen in The Cemetery Club at O’Connell and Company. “So far, these are not a huge challenge for me, so long as I don’t try to do too many shows in a row. Another issue I have now to deal with is a small tremor in my hands, which gets worse if I am tense or nervous, which I am somewhat on stage. Handling cups, saucers, papers, or anything that rattles or flaps amplifies the problem. If the role is a very old lady, this is an asset, but if I’m trying to get away with sixties, it’s not!
“Physically, I still play roles that require a lot of onstage activity,” says Palmisano. “Jon Elston’s After America: Wasteland 2015 at RLTP was a perfect example. I was climbing, crawling, wrestling zombies…all over the stage. And it never occurred to me that I might not be able to do it,” says Palmisano, who has yet to let age deter him from a role. “There may be a sudden ‘Ouch! What the heck was that?’ It’s these not-so-subtle reminders of my age that always seem to take me by surprise.”
Despite feeling young at heart and athletic in body, physical challenges can still present unexpected roadblocks. Three years ago, Lamb had a heart valve repair that took a lot out of him physically, and, while he seemed fine during the run of The Father, he concedes, “In the future, I probably won’t be ‘leaping tall buildings,’ aka slapstick farce, or even jumping off the stage to pick up Chris O’Neill’s sword!” (Lamb is referencing a 1986 production of Corpse at Kavinoky, when O’Neill dropped his sword into the pit, and Lamb “heroically leaped after it in one bound, threw it back to him and in a second bound was back onstage.”)
For Palmisano, it was a mild heart attack thirteen years ago during rehearsals of Private Lives at Irish Classical Theatre Company (ICTC). It required stent surgery. “I missed a week of rehearsals,” he says, “but I came back, continued rehearsals for two more weeks, and completed a four-week run. I know other actors who suffered similar attacks and had to be replaced in a show. I was lucky that the timing of mine was such that it allowed me to continue, but that’s when I first felt vulnerable and began to realize how important my health and physical fitness were for my theater career.”
Offstage, recovery can also take longer, with aches earned on stage showing up the next day, along with vocal strain. “Bouncing back after a performance to do it again the next evening, or, even harder, the next afternoon simply doesn’t happen,” says Pfohl, and that means post-show outings are out. “When I was younger, I used to stay out until two or three in the morning after a show. I just can’t do it. I do stay for meet and greets, which I feel are so important, and it’s my opportunity to express my gratitude to the people who came, but going out even for a meal is beyond my physical and mental capacities. Now, it’s home to bed.”
Palmisano’s words of wisdom: “Energy must be conserved. Proper diet is important. I work out five days a week for eighty to ninety minutes. And sleep cannot be put off for hours and hours. I learned about fifteen years ago that, no, you cannot have a glass of wine with your supper before a performance, or even a rehearsal. It’s surprising how the least little bit of ‘muddiness up there can be a problem.”
As if physical and mental challenges aren’t enough in maintaining a theater career as one ages, there are also emotional effects, for example, suddenly realizing that the roles one is getting are “of a certain age, which can be difficult when, in younger years, an actor was cast for looks and sex appeal,” says Pfohl.
“If an actress is between the ages of sixteen and thirty-five, let’s say, if she has a level of likability, or attractiveness, or sensuality, sexuality—an acceptable package as well as talent—she’s castable,” contends Pfohl. “I don’t intend to brag, but I had a certain combination of talent and package that helped me get cast in many wonderful roles. I’ve lost a lot of that package as I’ve aged, and some of my talent. I can’t sing like I used to, and, while that’s expected, I’m sad about it. My body is older, wider, softer, and I chose to stop coloring my hair. Now I play mothers, grandmothers, and other character roles. No romantic interests, no sex, no kissing. I don’t miss any of that, really. That was the uncomfortable stuff, for me. Appearing completely nude in BUA’s Unidentified Human Remains and the True Nature of Love was certainly an experience, but now I’m happy to create characters that only bare their souls and emotions, not their bodies. Ironically, I’m more comfortable in my own skin now, I just don’t feel like showing my skin to people anymore. I’m pretty sure they don’t feel like looking at it, so it’s a win-win.”
Not surprising, older men don’t seem to have this issue. In two of Palmisano’s plays this season—Don’t Talk to the Actors at Kavinoky and The Country House at Road Less Traveled—he found himself in the enviable position of kissing younger women, an apt statement on how roles tend to be written for men versus women in theater (and film as well). And, while Palmisano says he fears looking foolish in those situations, it’s clearly not a concern for casting, which could be why Palmisano almost didn’t notice that his niche was changing until it was right on top of him.
“I remember distinctly saying to a director when I was fifty-four, ‘Don’t you think I can pass for forty or forty-five?’ And I also remember distinctly his less-than-flattering reply. That might have been one of the moments when I thought, ‘Gee, I guess I have been fooling myself,’” Palmisano says. “As far as being cast differently, the truth is that the illusion of theater helps a good deal…especially for men! Women are much more the victims of ageism.”
Ever optimistic, Palmisano points out that as you age out of certain roles—including dream roles that are lost forever—you age into others, and cites a great number of roles for older men (contrast with Pfohl’s relegation to mothers, grandmothers, character roles; see above) that he has been lucky to play, even if it means a certain amount of miscasting for understanding audiences. Pfohl actually had the common female corollary—being cast too young—which resulted in a profound acting experience.
Cast in Buffalo United Artists’ 2015 production of Mothers and Sons, Pfohl played a mother who’d lost her son to AIDS years before; the play was a sequel to Terrence McNally’s Andre’s Mother, which takes place immediately after the son’s death, and Pfohl also played the mother in that production twenty years prior. “I was thirty-four,” she says. “I don’t know how many actresses ever get to play the same woman at two different points in her own life, and it’s twenty years apart in the stories of the plays as well. At thirty-four, I could only imagine how it would be to lose someone you love as deeply as Katharine had loved her son. At fifty-five, I had a much better idea. I used pain I had experienced from real losses and tragedies I had lived, for which I had little or no frame of reference in creating Katharine’s earlier incarnation. The material really is inside of me now.”
That kind of focus is something Lamb has relished. “I love finding the complications in a character because, if you look, there is really no straightforward good guy or villain. The character rarely sees himself as cruel or ‘good.’ This approach, I believe, is especially helped by experience, which you usually get by paying the price of maturing. If anything, younger actors may be deflected from their craft by social issues—getting laid, ego, fame, need to show off. By my age, only one of those is important!”
“I am happy to play the age I am.....or near to,” says Gayley, “but it is disturbing that the number of roles diminishes as you age. I have not had a lot of opportunities until this year and next when everyone seems to be doing shows with old ladies. As I said, too many! Why can’t they be spread out?”
All these actors have become more pragmatic about their careers, including the knowledge that they may be winding down. “It’s a fear I know I share with other actors of a similar age range,” Palmisano says. “I have had such a great career, but I know it must come to an end or, at least, a big slowdown. So, every year, as the offers or opportunities present themselves, I find it very difficult to say no. I am aware that all of this might come to a screeching halt, with or without my approval. So, I don’t want to let any chance go by. At the end of every season, I wonder…is that it?”
On the flip side, Pfohl has embraced a deliberate slowdown, enjoying reflection on the journey rather than worrying about what’s coming next. Some of this is a function of exactly the kind of career endings Palmisano references. “Friends and collaborators have died recently,” she laments. “That’s a change for many of us. We gather not to make art, perform, or to see a show, but to remember and celebrate the life of someone we have lost. I cherish the community of players and artists we have here in Buffalo. We are a small, close knit group; we all know and support one another. I feel it more now because we have also aged together and grown up together, and now we are learning how to say good bye together. It’s a tremendous gift and I’m very grateful for it.”
Gayley, too, has reassessed her priorities: “I have turned down some roles recently that I would have loved to do, but I felt too many in a row would exhaust me. And, also, as one gets older, the other parts of one’s life, like family and family events, which require traveling in my case, become more important. There is always something I hate to miss when I’m doing a show. Your priorities change and you wonder if it’s worth it.”
Lamb is the most pragmatic of all: “When the day comes that it becomes difficult to make an audience forget what is outside the theatre and have a great evening’s entertainment, then it will be time to back away with no regrets.”
Playwright Donna Hoke has enjoyed all four of these performers on stage, and hopes to enjoy many, many more.