By Jessica Xing, Contributing Writer
“Of a Certain Age,” a production created by NYU Steinhardt’s Program in Educational Theater, works to question the invisibility of old age — it is an examination of how performing artists, who thrive on being visible, deal with their slow but gradual erasure from a craft to which they’ve dedicated their life. Directed by Joe Salvatore, associate professor of Educational Theater, “Of a Certain Age” disrupts the preconceptions that come with old age by chronicling the stories of sixteen performing artists over the age of 65 through the portrayal of students in the program. Through reversed casting, the production is a self reflection told through the performances of students who will, in their lives, come to experience the same gradual invisibility in the future.
The play is made up of interviews, as eight students perform verbatim the different responses of older performing artists to build a cohesive story about the fear and excitement of change. With reversed casting, the play disrupts audience expectations not only through age but through preconceptions of race and gender. Male students perform the roles of older women and female students perform the roles of older men, commenting on the bias towards older women in an industry hyper focused on appearances.
While the casting is meant to create some distance between the audience and the story, the stories, as reflections of interviews the students did themselves, are still an incredibly personal account of the sheer love of the arts needed to survive in performance theater. It brings into question also if that love is enough, if love is enough to erase the humiliation and shame that comes with failure and aging. The interviewees are portrayed to deal with this balance in a number of ways: through shamelessly lying about their age, proudly showing up to auditions even as the technology and the talent are rapidly changing to become nearly unfamiliar, through persistently acting and loving their work even with what’s stacked against them.
But there are also interviews in which the artist simply stopped acting, where their love for theater just faded out or was reprioritized for other things: children, retirement, stable work. Told through students who probably once reflected the sheer passion and optimism they had for the craft, the play acts as almost a premonition for what is to come for the youth as well — making the play an cyclical, ageless tale about dedication and sacrifice in the face of relentless adversity.
“Of a Certain Age” is analytical, using its casting to subvert expectations of old age, race and gender. However the stories told are not clinical in anyway: it is instead a nuanced look at endurance in the face of passing time. It is a hopeful message for young and struggling artists, and the play is a love letter to the art form that continually draws people in despite the insurmountable difficulties. It is a love letter to performance, and it is a love letter to the generations of people that have come and made the art into what it is today.