A Woman of a Certain Age on Ageism in Theater

ageism theater
Tulis McCall on getting better with age.

I have been performing one-person shows since forever. I was sort of weaned on them without knowing it. My father was a fan of comedians like Bob Newhart and he would play their albums at dinner time. Watching him laugh was pretty terrific. He moved up the evolutionary ladder when he brought home Hal Holbrook’s Mark Twain Tonight!. Narrative was added to the mix. The world expanded.

When I was in college, I saw my first live one-person show: James Whitmore as Will Rogers. I remember the theater, where I was sitting: audience right. And I remember the specificity, the singular focus, the simplicity. I was transported. All that magic being delivered by one person. It was intimate because there was no distraction. The actor, the words and us. Tribal.

Story continues below.

In creating my first one-person show I turned to women in American history and toured to schools, colleges and theaters for 15 years. What Everywoman Knows was a stand-up historical comedy. Comedy because, if you didn’t balance out the fierce fight and often the tragedy (women were tarred and feathered, raped, jailed and even murdered when they began to ask for equal rights) with humor, the stories would fall flat. The audience would not be engaged; the moment would be wasted. My mentors had taught me that.

woman ageism
A Woman of a Certain Age: Tulis McCall. photo: author

At the heart of the one-person show, it is all about the connection, the flow of energy between the person standing in the most brightly lit corner of the room and the people watching. Unlike a traditional play, where the connection must be made first between the actors and then overflow across the footlights to the audience, this connection is direct. I see you and you see me. There is no pretending. There is, however, a kind of make believe.

Story continues below.

In my most recent one-person show, Are You Serious? A Woman Of A Certain Age Inquires, I invite the audience on a journey. I invite them to a part of myself that I have crafted into a stage presence. This is a woman who remembers being eight years old and doing the “Hokey Pokey” on the playground and now recognizes that she has done some serious time traveling. The mirror is proof that she is no longer the smooth skinned tot. How did this happen? How did it come to be that she is speaking the words her own parents spoke: “It goes by so fast.”

Let’s just dump in the trash those who remind us we are mortal.

To be sure, this situation is not always on my mind. There are entire days when I don’t think about it. However, when I still my mind, at the center the thoughts swirl about: time is a notion that mystifies me. The past is vast, and I want the future to be an amusement park. But, but, but… when I observe the world around me I see a stacked deck. Nowhere is anyone rejoicing that Women Of A Certain Age exist, and in great numbers. Hillary is criticized for reminding people of their own mother. A 37-year-old actor is told she cannot play the mistress of a 55-year-old actor — too old they tell her. Women younger than my winter coat try to sell me wrinkle cream so my age won’t show.
Story continues below.

Seriously? We are doing that to ourselves? We are throwing away all the decades of experience and wisdom that we elders have acquired by dodging oncoming traffic of every sort? We, who live in the suburb of the world, view aging with hubris of such magnitude that it boggles the mind. Well, it boggles mine. As a nation we think we can afford to throw away human value, human potential and human dreams the same way we kid ourselves that a few more plastic bags won’t hurt anything. Let’s just sweep up the people who remind us we are mortal and dump them in the trash. Easy peasy does it.

And don’t kid yourselves that this is not going on in New York City, the capital of progressive thinking. Just pop into any theater and see how many Women Of A Certain Age (WCA for short) you see on the stage. You will not need both hands for the counting. How about a woman for mayor? How about a woman to run any major museum, conduct an orchestra, or say mass at St. Patrick’s Cathedral? Not so much.

Are You Serious? is a show built on a question. I use my mental and intuitive laser flashlight and point it first at myself and my own astonishment at having landed where I am. Next I point it out there where you are, perhaps exactly where you are. Perhaps exactly at you. What are we doing, I ask. Where are we going, I ask. Who are we becoming, I ask. Like the comedians I grew up with, I use simplicity, intimacy and language to say without saying, “Focus, my friends. Focus.”

Tulis McCall will be performing Are You Serious? at the Cornelia Street Cafe in NYC on Sun. Nov. 6 and 13 in the afternoon.