A Documentary-Style Verbatim Performance Explores Implicit Biases Around Aging
Could experiencing the lives of aging performing artists through young actors cause people to rethink their beliefs about aging and disrupt implicit biases? “Of a Certain Age”—a verbatim performance comprised of eight students portraying 16 performing artists and professionals over the age of 65—will explore this concept through performances at the Provincetown Playhouse from Friday, February 23 to Sunday, March 4.
The experimental performance replicates the voices, intonations, and gestures of aging actors, commentators, and professionals based on interview transcripts, audio recordings, and field notes. “Of a Certain Age” is a production of NYU Steinhardt’s Program in Educational Theatre in collaboration with The Actors Fund, an organization providing assistance to the entertainment community, and NYU Steinhardt’s Verbatim Performance Lab. Joe Salvatore, playwright and clinical associate professor of educational theatre at Steinhardt, created the play utilizing verbatim performance techniques similar to those in the Off-Broadway production, “Her Opponent,” an ethnodramatic re-staging of excerpts of the 2016 presidential debates co-created with economist Maria Guadalupe (INSEAD) in 2017.
Eight students conducted interviews with 37 performing artists—ranging from a back up singer for George Michael to an original cast member from “West Side Story” on Broadway—about their experiences growing older in an industry that has traditionally favored youth. Students will perform interview excerpts word for word and exactly replicate interviewees as they discuss the struggle to land roles, sexism in the industry, forced retirement, age typecasting, and more.
Watch rehearsal footage from 'Of a Certain Age'
Salvatore said casting choices were designed to disrupt audience expectations. In one scene, a young man depicts an older woman while a second actor on stage discusses being overlooked for voiceover roles, as these are typically given to men.
“Verbatim performance gives us an opportunity to reexamine how we think about aging. Watching gender-reversed and age-reversed actors perform these roles while in dialogue about sexism and ageism forces the audience to challenge their subconscious beliefs. How do we think about actors or celebrities over the age of 65 and how does this change when their experiences are portrayed by young people? The casting deliberately includes moments to shake up the audience’s perceptions; the theatricality is always present,” Salvatore said.
Salvatore said these choices cause an ‘alienation effect’ which forces the audience to reflect on what is being presented in critical and objective ways, rather than simply being immersed in the performance as they would with more a traditional play. This process of ‘making the familiar strange’ helps audiences to challenge their implicit biases and intolerances.
The performance also includes interview excerpts with writer and activist Ashton Applewhite, who recently gave a TED Talk about ageism as the last socially acceptable prejudice. The actor portraying Applewhite discusses the pejorative ways aging celebrities are discussed and structural discrimination in the industry.
Traci DiGesu, Senior Program Volunteer and Activities Coordinator at The Actors Fund, said the project helped participants feel heard by the next generation and discuss prejudices that affect artists of all ages.
“I was hearing from my clients about their experiences of ageism and feeling invisible, but I was also hearing a lot of good stories about how much they were still enjoying their work. It’s important for them to maintain their identities as artists and this project presented a terrific opportunity for participants to talk about their lives with student researchers who were genuinely interested,” DiGesu said.
The project is part of NYU Steinhardt’s newly formed Verbatim Performance Lab, which is committed to using verbatim performance techniques as an investigative tool to challenge and disrupt preconceived notions, implicit biases, and intolerances across a spectrum of political, cultural, and social beliefs and experiences.
“Of a Certain Age” runs Friday, February 23 and Saturday, February 24 at 8 p.m.; Sunday, February 25 at 3 p.m.; Thursday, March 1 to Saturday, March 3 at 8 p.m.; and Sunday, March 4 at 3 p.m. Tickets are $15 general admission and $5 for students and seniors. For tickets, contact NYU Box Office at tickets.nyu.edu, call 212.998.4941, or visit in person at 566 LaGuardia Place (at Washington Square South). Reporters interested in attending should contact Sarah Binney at firstname.lastname@example.org or 212.998.6829.
“Of a Certain Age” is directed by Joe Salvatore and assistant directed by Andy Wagner. It features scenic design by Andy Hall, lighting design by Daryl Embry and Leah Cohen, sound design by Darren Whorton, props by Sven Nelson, and costumes by Márion Talán. The dramaturg is Sarah Bellantoni and theraturg is Traci DiGesu. The production stage manager is Cassie Holzum and assistant stage manager is Jiawen Hu, with research and assistance from Han Yu. The cast features NYU Steinhardt students Rai Arsa Artha, Josh Batty, Megan Conway, Sherill-Marie Henriquez, Suzy Jane Hunt (appears courtesy of Actors’ Equity Association), Keith Morris, Amalia Ritter, and Hayley Sherwood.
About NYU Steinhardt Department of Music and Performing Arts Professions
Steinhardt’s Department of Music and Performing Arts Professions, established in 1925, instructs over 1,600 students majoring in music and performing arts programs. Music and Performing Arts Professions serves as NYU’s “school” of music and is a major research and practice center in music technology, music business, music composition, film scoring, songwriting, music performance practices, performing arts therapies, and the performing arts-in-education (music, dance, and drama).
About The Actors Fund
The Actors Fund is a national human services organization that fosters stability and resiliency, and provides a safety net for performing arts and entertainment professionals over their lifespan. Through offices in New York, Los Angeles and Chicago, The Fund serves everyone in film, theatre, television, music, opera, radio and dance with programs including social services and emergency financial assistance, health care and insurance counseling, housing, and secondary employment and training services. Visit www.actorsfund.org.