by Rainee Denham
Ever go back to the neighborhood where you grew up? Or visit your old school, or a childhood home? I have, and it’s an odd feeling; a kind of Twilight Zone experience where you feel “you’re entering another dimension” …
I’m back in a business that I left a long time ago. In Chicago, my home town. The business is theater, and I’m an actor. With the passing of time, typical things that you’d expect to change; have. But the Chicago approach to acting is still raw and authentic. Plays give voice to gritty, controversial, and wounded stories of the unheard, unseen, and underrepresented.
I enrolled in a conservatory acting program that advertises with bruised and battered images of actors and the tagline, “100 days of blood, sweat and tears.” I was lucky enough to sign with a great agent. And I was called in for auditions, and I worked! In my free time I read plays to be knowledgeable about genres, playwrights, and hopefully find some parts that I could be right for. But, here comes the plot twist.
The roles written for ‘mature’ women weren’t inspiring. For instance, when the old gal walks into a scene the fun usually stops. Or she’s a free spirit (think old hippie) who is now dying. Then there are the plays where the poor old thing is used as a prop in a chair and basically talked over. All of that can be combined with the overarching characteristics-crabby petty embittered crone.
OK, I exaggerate. But do I? It’s now 2018, I’m still confounded. Why is the ‘mature’ female role generally sick, dying, victimized, or powerless? I would like to see the older woman in a play be a fireball, or at least, dimensional. And maybe they have purpose in life. Maybe they’re even relevant to the story and aren’t widowed and alone.
Clearly, I have a big imagination. But, in theater, where inclusiveness is king, it’s downright weird that stereotyping like Ageism exists. Let me tell you, as a woman who was a working mom and played a part in the feminist movement, as a business owner in a man’s world, it now stinks to feel irrelevant and invisible! I feel so frustrated. Is this what I worked so hard for?
There are far worse stereotypes, I hear you and I agree. In my head is that punitive voice that says, “you have nothing to complain about.” And in Chicago, many stereotypes are being broken down, but too slowly.
Statistically, plays are written mostly by men, with white male roles, directed by men. Only 40% of roles in plays are female, and of that, maybe 4% are ‘mature’ women. Can you guess of that 4% which ones break the stereotype, and are strong, accomplished, independent, feisty mature women?
I have a voice, and I have a choice. And I’m “going on a journey into a wondrous land whose boundaries are that of the imagination.”
And the signpost up ahead may have to read, “Written by Rainee Denham.”
Rainee Denham is a Chicago-based actor.