Why does [insert name of famous actress] keep her grey hair in a bag?


This conversation started between two people and eventually the whole room was kind enough to join. It’s rather longer than most blog posts….

I’m not sure if we said or learned anything that isn’t in another report in open space somewhere else. However open spacers know that Sometimes a thing needs saying many times until someone steps forward with an action …. To break the cycle. Please….feel free.

A few points of info for context.

I’m 48, I’m female, a theatre-maker and I have taken a conscious decision to be grey-haired. I’m campaigning for the Women’s Equality Party in the London Elections so I’m not in a neutral space about this issue. I declare my interest 😉

I’d just come from a morning surrounded by mostly younger women and had forgotten until I arrived at the D&D and was suddenly conscious of how my legs and hips were tired, after hours of walking and canvassing, that I was the twice the age of the women I’d been working with.

I remembered that my hair was grey. I became 48 again.Whatever that means.

  • Women
  • Theatre
  • Ageing….

I remembered that in a theatre green room, I once had a long conversation with a famous and incredible actress with a long history of writing and producing – about the grey moment. And that became my question to this group.

Despite being a Dame, and a household name, a trail blazer in TV, this actor kept her own grey-haired wig in a bag in her handbag and sported a dyed head of hair. It was a survival strategy and everyone (by which she meant all the female actors she knew of her generation) needed and deployed it. It came up again at a model box showing on another production with another woman of similar national treasure status.

I wondered and wonder why the theatre was and is so retrograde in its attitude to the older woman. I saw Escaped Alone recently and what a joy that was.

I’ve spent a lot of time pretending to be younger than I am, to get into rehearsal rooms (I didn’t get going as a director until I was 28) and in the past few years, I’ve been feeling the need to be taken seriously as a woman in her 40s.

(Never sure if it’s my hang up or a girl thing….)


In the conversation, I was joined by a woman in her 30s (I think) who is a musician and an actor. She described an incident that struck me as bordering on an assault:

A sales guy put collagen under her eyes to “correct” her appearance. The product cost £500. She hadn’t asked him, she didn’t know there was a “correction” needed. She thought it was bizarre. I thought it was a weird kind of outrage. (Yes the guy needed to make sales but … odd, no?)

Does this happen to men as they go about their Saturday window-shopping?

Why do we think we must stop the ageing process? Is this what theatre teaches us?

By focusing all the time on the young, from performers, to writers, singers and dancers – are we constantly endorsing the cosmetic industry view that ageing is bad/wrong/a fault? Have we got ourselves mired in a narrative that tells us we must be terrified of dying? Being old is shameful, looking old is worse.

This female performer (she’s in her 30s) was thinking that somehow the process of ageing (or growing up as it’s sometimes known) and not achieving all that she should have by now was her fault. She used the words “guilt” and “shame”. And was seriously wondering whether she should stop.

The question about F*ckability had pulled her to the D&D because she wondered if – as she wasn’t getting the breaks of visibility and stability – couched by her in terms of jobs at the RSC and NT, her sell by date had passed.

Maybe “It” would never happen in terms of being a young female performer.

Had the f*ckability dateline passed already?… And yet, as an artist, she clearly felt judging from how she spoke about her work that her writing was better, her voice was better, she was coming into her own. But “no-one” was interested – and she came back to thinking this was her fault….that she was stuck.

Lots of this story resonated with me and I wondered if she, as I feel I am, is in a chrysalis phase, where something else is going to happen.

We talked about how isolating and scary these moments are because you have to live through them without the security of the next job, without knowing how to access networks that might offer opportunities. We have to be upbeat, ready with the next idea… all the time in theatre.

At age 30+ you may enter the wasteland where for the most part you are no longer welcome in the emerging artists schemes – many of which are targeted at directors, small collective companies and writers. As an individual 30 something, you are expected to have got “it” together but if you’re not generating your own work as an independent….

Musicians and actors are much more vulnerable because they remain dependent on auditions to get their breaks. And for women, the audition is one of the last bastions of sexism and ageism.

A counter view might be – that this is the condition of the artist: part of our mindset is to be critical, to look at what we do and be judgemental, to stand outside ourselves and wonder if we could things differently, rather than to be proud of what we are doing.

And back to the grey hair – is our horror and shame of female grey because we stop being fertile? Is it because men seem to age differently? – as they get older the opportunities don’t close down in the same way?….So we watch them forging ahead, still “f*ckable” and apparently achieving and earning more in their chosen fields.

I wondered – Where do we get our ideas of success?

At the ITC AGM recently, Sue Emmas gave a detailed account of how the Young Vic was looking differently at recruiting – looking to assess competency and potential rather than experience (amongst other things). And this incidentally is how the WE party had recruited (as much out of necessity as choice I suspect. It had been very empowering to write about what I might be able to offer rather than what I knew I could do).

Sue mentioned that maybe success or suitability wasn’t about the number of 5 star reviews your productions have, or who you have assisted in rehearsal.

Perhaps, she suggested, a successful theatre is one that makes artistically excellent work with a fully diverse in-house and creative team with inclusive casting. (I whispered to my Chair only half in jest that by these criteria, I was running one of the most successful theatre companies in the country. With my commitment to limiting our carbon footprint thrown in, perhaps I am….).

Does it matter than “no-one” knows who you are if you are making the best work you have ever made? And making it according to principles/ethics you have set out for yourself?

Is our self-worth still only defined by the single commonly agreed measure of external worth ie: the money that we earn, and who pays us that money? Is being paid by the RSC better than being paid by my independent company? Is carrying chairs around for a living in a small part for a national company better than playing a lead on the independent middle scale?

We talked about finding our voices as independent artists – and having to do everything ourselves, which are great achievements but they often go unrecognized – artists falling in forests – are we part of the cultural map?

Does it count, does anything change for us or for you as audiences?

My discussion partner felt that it was too late for her to be “discovered” by the music world – and she felt that the dominant mode of achieving success especially in music was according to a male pattern of forcing herself on the world, selling hard, shouting the loudest, promote and push and that’s how we still run the world. And those of us who don’t want to do that, have less value and are therefore less rewarded.

She felt disconnected from the industry – and we talked about the toxic power of casting – how and where to find value in the work we want to do and the power of saying No to work that isn’t good enough for us to do.

Writers and directors can be affronted by an actor declining to take on a project and react badly– but the actor has a right to say No.

Saying No is a bit like the present of using your two feet in open space – you are giving the writer/director a present by telling them that for you the work isn’t ready yet, or this isn’t the right time for you to work together.

We were joined by a third person who asked about the original question and saw that it was easier in society for an older woman to function as a fake (ie with dyed hair ). Paradoxically, in theatre which is about transformation, having the wig to enable her to look true to nature, or dying her dyed hair back to grey was sometimes the only way to get cast. Old lady parts come with grey hair, funny voices and funny glasses. We talked about the need to change the narrative both in society and on stage. The older women are living very differently from the little old ladies they are being required to play. What is everyone scared of?

We talked about how it’s easier to be given space if female when kooky or young, being clever and being yourself is still perceived as threatening. Infantile/funny is generally safest.

And yet again we discussed success: the questions we often get at parties– “would I have heard of you?” If you are a solicitor/teacher/architect/mortgage broker –would I have heard of you? What kind of questions is society asking of artists and what right do they have to judge us in that superficial way? Since I have worked for the last 20 years in theatre and not worked outside it, can I claim to be successful or do you (anonymous person) need to have heard of me?

It wasn’t all bad news. We talked about how as women who take career breaks for whatever reason it can be hard to explain time outs that have to happen. We discussed that ACE GFTA might be supportive of women returning to their career and that the question about artistic development is a place to make the artistic case – always worth checking with the helpline to talk this through. I suggested that GFTA is in some ways, and should be encouraged to be, a funding strand that looks at potential as much as track record, irrespective of when you start, pause or recommence.

Can being older be as much fun? The mindset we’re bred into as teenagers looking at the women who have fun. The young, fit, glowing people … can we be as fresh and stimulating as the young people when we’re a bit older?

A career change – Someone had decided to become a director after decades working in fundraising in a regional theatre. Everyone had told her she was crazy and she’s doing it anyway. She had an epiphany and she acknowledged that with the necessary financial support of her husband, she was doing it and was determined to get “there”. We asked where “there” is. “There” for her is being invited by a theatre to come and direct for a fee. Which is unusual for any director of any gender of any age these days. For me “there” is having a network of venues who would take my next production without haggling (too much) over the guarantee.

Both of our destinations are around the next headland.

She said she knew it would be tough –that she might fail but she had to try. But she had not realized quite how tough – not just because of the competition in numbers but the ageism. All the schemes for emerging artists which she clearly is, are developed with youth in mind (yes I remember hearing people talk like this 15 years ago and thinking it was all sour grapes ….. oh how fortune’s wheel does turn).

I had already mentioned that at 28 I found it hard to get in as an assistant and had to age down to do it. There were age barriers set at 26 when I joined in! And now many of the directors courses for undergraduates have been withdrawn because there is a question about whether directors need a bit of experience under their belts before they start –ditto with choreographers – and yet for writers -….. it seems the younger the better.

One older lady told us that there are tribes where the under 50s are not allowed to teach (she said talk first which struck us all as possible but a bit worrying). And in Italy it is almost impossible to direct if you are under 40 and possibly illegal (we joke) if you are female.

We asked our older emerging female director – grey-haired like me- what she thought were the barriers to assisting a younger director. She couldn’t explain them.

Do people in their 20s not want older people around in the rehearsal room as assistants? Does the investment in an older person feel like a waste? Is the rehearsal room deemed to be a place for young creativity? She talked about enjoying being surrounded by young energy and feeding off it – do the younger people feel the same way? Is intergenerational working difficult.

We asked her if she wished she’d done it earlier and she said she didn’t think she’d have been ready – whenever it starts is the right time…. So we say in open space but not everyone is open.

See discussion about directing and choreography courses reverting to post grads again – just beginning to get it in 30s. (what the younger voices in the room thought to that we didn’t get to hear….)

I told a story against myself of being directed in a workshop by a young director and it being very difficult to understand from her – or for her to tell me – what she wanted. I realized why older actors can be suspicious or cynical about young talent. Their own instincts are strong and they can sometimes rebel against being warm props in thrall to a less experienced artist’s vision.

Ibsen wrote his best plays into his 50s and one of the reasons he did so is because he needed the money. Many of his early plays were flops – would he have got the big works on today?

How can everyone be certain that a 50+ newbie director is not as good as a 20+ newbie director? Why is there an assumption that a young person at the start of a career has more to say artistically than an older person who is making a career change….? We fear that skills from other walks of life are not deemed transferable to the rehearsal room. Maybe it should be put to the test.One of the actors in their 30s said she’d been rejected by a company on the grounds of her being too old – which is probably illegal as it’s ageism in the workplace but they obviously didn’t realise and acting does set playing ages. But they hadn’t mentioned a playing age and they invited her in for a casting. Their response was ageist but what can you do….?

How are we going to address ageism in theatre across all the disciplines.

A dancer/musician joined us and talked extensively about her work exploring and sharing the work of older female choreographers. So many find it hard to get stages or had found it hard to make work right from the beginning but had made it on the fringes anyway and were continuing to do so.

Whilst this is clearly a brilliant thing to do – I was thrown back by this comment – and this is a completely personal memory – to being in a minority of female students 25F to 200 M in a 6th form which had decided to admit girls to stop the talent drain. In the 1980s against the backdrop of Thatcherism, the miners’ strike and the Falklands War and a loadsamoney culture, I wanted to be an actor.

I could not find my voice. I did not know of these women choreographers making work in the margins, making waves – I knew about Annie Lennox and Debbie Harry and on the other hand Audrey Hepburn, Margot Fonteyn and Julie Andrews…. I never saw or dreamed that there were people like Caryl Churchill or Martha Graham.

So I want for the next generation that these women are brought onto the main stages and their work is celebrated all through their lives. Whilst I know that the margins are great and many exciting things happen here, too many people are still not being given access to or being required to give their attention to a sufficient diversity of work and the people who make it.

Too much brilliant work is made uncelebrated, undocumented and fades away ….Dancers in a forest.

And too much museum work is on the main stages when it belongs as tech study in a conservatoire.

We talked about how women feel they can’t articulate passion for fear of the Calm Down Dear retort. That we play down our status in our language and our body language. (it’s so boring to type this out, I almost can’t bear to – I mean that I can’t believe we’re still saying it not that my fellows were boring).

Pipe up the Passion we said. I know I couldn’t survive in the tribe where the under 50s don’t talk but we must also let the 50+ talk.

We talked of the rage (a word I’m encountering a lot right now) and the ludicrouseness of people carrying their true selves in a hand bag

AGEISM: is it more pronounced in theatre/dance than in wider society?

We thought it might be and that the audience and promoters were ageist too….And the funding system privileging certain outdated and ridiculous art forms is sexageist …. (I’d been to the ROH the previous evening and had to say that whilst I enjoyed the evening, I don’t think it deserved subsidy… but that was to do with the choice of programming not the artistry which was extraordinary).

Oh and can anyone tell me when was the last time you saw a woman holding the baton in the pit anywhere and when if you have spotted one ever, did she have grey hair?

And again the hair dye, men are starting to use it more commonly too…. This is not a positive development.

A side note is that hair dye is so dangerous if it were a drug it wouldn’t pass because of the high incidence of allergic reactions. If it were banned, whole sections of industry and some countries’ GDP would suffer badly.

More seriously ,we wondered how dance and theatre women could work together to address the situation. And we bravely said there was room for everyone and that would mean some people have to concede some space if we let everyone in and that by letting everyone in to tell their story, the story changes…. The dominant narrative changes…. With all that terrifying possibility and challenge.

It is going to happen, I just hope it happens soon enough for us grey heads to see it and be able to enjoy it.




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