The Virtues of Experience .
Directing FANTASTIC MR FOX at the Open Air Theatre, Regent’s Park this summer was a real delight. Lovely company, great production team and over a thousand enthusiastic bums on seats at each performance. Thanks, Ian Talbot, for inviting me back. You will be much missed after twenty years at the helm. All good wishes to your successor, Timothy Sheader, who will hopefully preserve your tradition of the annual children’s play.
After a performance of FOX, an American visitor expressed pleasure and surprise that Badger was played by ‘a senior actor’. She couldn’t believe that the esteemed Anthony Pedley (born like me in 1944), who has done everything in his career – film, tv, regular seasons at the RSC, GUYS AND DOLLS for the National etc. etc. – should be slumming it (not her phrase, but what she implied) in a kids’ play.
She didn’t realise that Mr Fox, played by that ever-youthful bundle of energy, Peter Duncan, was only ten years younger than Badger, so I didn’t enlighten her. There is a widely-held assumption that acting in children’s theatre is reserved for the profession’s youngest members. This is understandable. The challenge of twice-daily morning and afternoon performances on tour, facing hoards of schoolchildren, the most difficult audience in the world (yet the most rewarding if we get it right) is perhaps best undertaken while in the innocence of youth.
The physicality and stamina often required might not make children’s theatre ideal for the middle-aged actor with a dicky back. And, to a child, a twenty-two year old is ancient, so older roles needn’t be played by older actors. Remuneration will most likely, though most unfairly, be less than for an adult show, which might make it more acceptable to beginners. Incidentally, it always amused (and annoyed) me, in the days when an Equity card was the Holy Grail of a drama school graduate, that the only mention of children’s theatre was often at the very end of the course, when a well-meaning tutor would suggest it might be ‘easier’ to acquire a job – and thereby an Equity card – in a children’s theatre company than in a regional rep.
Well, if anyone embarks upon children’s theatre believing it in any way ‘easier’ than adult theatre, they are in for a rude shock. No wonder children’s theatre was then seen as no more than a rung on the ladder towards greater (grown-up) glories! I like to think we have moved on since then. Like all theatre, productions for children benefit hugely from the presence of experience. Younger actors learn from older actors. Commitment, timing, the art of listening and reacting, controlling the audience, vocal skills, spatial awareness and, above all, the self-discipline and sharing necessary in performance. And young audiences benefit from the accumulated skill, clarity, weight, and storytelling ability of mature performers.
Recently the wonderful Dudley Sutton (in his seventies) captivated and delighted children in Unicorn’s beautiful production of Michael Morpurgo’s BILLY THE KID, adapted and directed by Tony Graham. Mick Jasper played to perfection the widowed Grandfather in Mike Kenny’s heartrending play WALKING THE TIGHTROPE. And when I was invited to take my play THE GINGERBREAD MAN to upstate New York, I successfully employed a cast, all of whom had been in the play before, and whose average age was forty-six!
The title role was played by Tony Jackson, who, in his early fifties, had more energy than most actors half his age. Not every older actor will have the inclination or the ability to play to children. But those who do are worth their weight in gold. Anthony Pedley, my Regent’s Park Badger, recently gave a much-acclaimed performance as King Lear on tour throughout Europe. But I’m sure he is just as proud of his 1,500 magical performances as Roald Dahl’s Big Friendly Giant – on tour and three times in the West End – and his regular visits to schools in his one-man play A TASTE OF DAHL. Yes, we value the enthusiasm and vitality of youth in children’s theatre, but we also treasure – and need – the weight and wisdom of age and experience.
Back to Articles