Acting an Old Woman character without resorting to cliché?
February 3, 2015 9:18 PM   Subscribe

I have an audition for a fascinating role in a comic opera - a feisty soubrette who's magically aged to 75 while pretending to be that age. How do I play a much older character without resorting to stereotypes - or a whispery reedy voice, since it's still an opera?

I can take some cues from my dialogue, but I want to make sure I can still project well enough to be heard in a theatre while conveying the character. I'm coming from a singing background, so I've never studied acting techniques that would help here. I've seen the overacted bent, shuffling, quavering crone too many times, however - many younger actors trying to "act old" just end up looking silly. I want my portrayal to be entertaining, but not a cariacture.

(In addition, there's the challenge of playing a character who's playing a character - and then suddenly is that character. I figure I can use some of the exaggerated techniques for the character-acting-elderly part, but that makes it more important to differentiate from the "real" 75-year-old version of the character.)

The audition's this weekend, so I haven't got a lot of time to prepare, and I probably won't have the chance to talk to folks that age beforehand. Most of what I'm finding online is about how to not "act like an old lady" when you're actually elderly, which is the opposite of what I need. (Also contemporary, when the opera's not.)

I have some ideas, but I'd love any tips you folks have to offer.

posted by Someone Else's Story to Media & Arts (9 answers total)
My observation is that older people move more carefully. Not necessarily slower, but with more care. They look where they are going and concentrate on where they're stepping. Probably based on fear of a broken bone.

This subtle change makes people easier to "age" at a distance, in my experience.
posted by taff at 9:47 PM on February 3, 2015

Best answer: I'm a late twenties actor, and I play a confused 80+ year old at one point during my current project. These notes are specific to the character _I'm_ playing; a 75 year old could still be very spry, able, and quick to move - you'll have to work from what you know of the character.

With the help of a movement coach, I started with a basic physical shape - a slightly bent posture (more a softening of the chest than a leaning over), and slightly imbalanced shoulders - one held a little higher than the other (My coach said: try to think of this as a 'shape' you're making, rather than a tension you're holding). My hands tend to stay in front of me, and my movement coach pointed out that the hands might be weak, arthritic, so they hang weakly from the wrist.

My neck and shoulders are somewhat fixed together, (as opposed to my neck turning freely without shoulders) - turning to see someone behind me is initiated in the shoulders, rather than the neck.

My knees are slightly turned inward, and my feet are slightly pigeon toed. This results in a bit of a shuffle when I walk.

Sitting down requires a very careful negotiation of weight - my knees aren't in great shape, so I use the table or chair to carry much of my weight as I sit. When I finally make contact with the chair, there is a moment of "absorption" - yes, I've made it, I'm sitting, i'm safe.

Regarding voice - my vocal coach says elderly voices tend to slide back a bit, into that 'vocal fry' sound that everyone complains about these days. This is, however, somewhat hard on my voice, so I'm picking my moments. It seems most effective on big vowels.

Now: with all these obstacles in place - my posture, the challenge of turning around, of sitting, of walking, now the actually acting, the ACTIONS of the character require pushing THROUGH my physical obstacles, getting past them. The mistake some actors make in portraying age is playing the AGE, concentrating on doing "old". No, you have to build in the "old" and then fight through the obstacles of age that you've created, to accomplish whatever your character is trying to do -eg. turning around despite your aching back, looking someone in the eye despite your posture, grasping someone's hand to get their attention despite your arthritis, calling out to someone far away despite your hoarse voice. In other words, don't forget to play the specific intentions of the character, despite their physical limitations.

I'm blathering on. Hope some of this is helpful! Break a leg!
posted by stray at 9:49 PM on February 3, 2015 [15 favorites]

Best answer: A lot depends on the story. How does the character react to the change? Is she terrified? Defiant? Blase? That predominant emotion should guide you. The tone of the piece matters a lot too. Is her change comic, or is it presented as a nightmarish thing? You want to pitch your performance at the right level.

There are so many ways to go with this. People age differently, and 75 is a lot older for some than others. Some quiet women become much more confident and brash as they age, and some powerful women become fearful, frail and feeble. You should do whatever you can to figure out who this specific woman is, and then figure out how changed she should be. Unless the piece is really comic or otherwise exaggerated, you're probably best off trying to play this rather subtle. A 75-year-old woman isn't always going to act like an "old lady," and small gestures may be enough to sell the change.

Once you have a good idea of who this woman is, you could study some clips of actresses or other figures who aged in the public eye, women who have something in common with this character. Focus on clips from their youth and clips from their elder years. You may see some very clear changes you can use. If you know some older people who are game, you could ask them to do some everyday actions while you watch. Watch them as they make dinner, as they putter around the house. Maybe even ask them to sing.
posted by Ursula Hitler at 2:16 AM on February 4, 2015

Best answer: I don't know whether the character you're looking to play actually is Sophie from Howl's Moving Castle, but whether it is or not, read the book! Right near the beginning when she finds herself transformed to elderly by the Witch of the Waste, and has to deal with the physical realities of suddenly being old (some of which aren't obvious until she moves around a lot). Maybe it would help?
posted by tomboko at 4:18 AM on February 4, 2015 [1 favorite]

I was also thinking of Howl's Moving Castle. There is an animated film which might be a good visual supplement to the interior world described in the book. As I recall she does have a few moments of "Oh wait, I can't quite clamber up there. Hmm, let me grab this broom to knock that down."
posted by tchemgrrl at 6:43 AM on February 4, 2015

Forgot something: TEETH. Some (not all!) elderly people have dentures or otherwise have issues with their teeth which results in a certain tension or discomfort around the mouth. One way to develop this is to pick a tooth or a spot in your mouth (probably towards the front) that is "bothering" you, and just layer it in as a spot you poke at with you tongue, or suck on - not really consciously.
posted by stray at 8:56 AM on February 4, 2015

In this situation a director once advised me to put very small pebbles in my shoes. That made me walk carefully.
posted by naturetron at 1:17 PM on February 4, 2015

Response by poster: Thanks for the suggestions, folks! stray, your comment was marvellous - much appreciated! And the character's not Sophie, but she's a great comparison.

The character isn't someone who aged well - not least because it happened overnight! She comes toddling along like an 80-year-old according to the script, and bewails that the gout & rheumatism she was pretending to while in disguise are now real, and her teeth have all come out. She's bewildered, unhappy, and scared that her newlywed husband will be angry at her for this (gotta love Victorian values!).

Ironically, with unstable joints and a painful chronic illness, I've probably got the slow, careful movements covered. On my worst days, I regularly get passed in the street by senior citizens on walking frames - sometimes it's acting young & sprightly that takes the acting talent!
posted by Someone Else's Story at 2:23 PM on February 4, 2015

Aw, sweetie, sorry to hear about your health troubles. I have OA myself, and when it was really bad a few years ago I often felt like a little old young person.

Given the givens, maybe it would be best to fake feeling energetic and sprightly early in the story, and then act more natural after the change!
posted by Ursula Hitler at 2:48 PM on February 4, 2015

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