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On (Not) Acting Your Age

Timothy Thompson and his fellow student actors tackle the challenge of playing older characters in their production of August: Osage County.

Me as Charlie Aiken
(courtesy of Timothy Thompson)
I come back to my apartment around midnight these days exhausted, ravenous, a bit smelly, hair tussled with bits of makeup residue stuck on my face…and I love it! Okay, maybe not so much the makeup residue part, but it's still worth it!

Folks, I am in the midst of dress rehearsals for my fall semester production, and these late nights are what I especially live for. In two days, the UNC School of the Arts' production of August: Osage County, directed by Matt Bulluck, will be opening. This gargantuan epic is about one of the most dysfunctional families I think I have ever read. For those who do not know, August was noted for its Steppenwolf production, which then transferred to Broadway, subsequently winning Tonys, Drama Desks, and the Pulitzer Prize in 2008. I feel so blessed to be able to live and act these words every night with my fellow actors.

Performing any play is no easy task, especially one with such depth and complexity. For one thing, August is a three-and-a-half-hour marathon, demanding full commitment and concentration—more so than any play I have been in so far. What makes this play even trickier is that a number of us aren't portraying characters in their twenties. In my case, I play a man forty years my senior! Age has provided plenty of food for thought throughout this rehearsal process.

This situation isn't strange to me. I've been cast as older characters in high school productions, have presented more mature characters in scenes for class, and even played a character in his late sixties last semester. Each time, I am hit hard with the challenge that I must portray a character who's lived life and had experiences I've yet to have. I think this challenge has been more apparent to me, because virtually all members in the ensemble of August are playing older people. Even though this may be a challenge I'll only face at school—after all, you'd be hard-pressed to find a regional production of August complete with a cast of spry twenty-somethings—I find this such an interesting predicament. How does an actor tap into that extra layer of unfelt life experiences? How does one act age and do it convincingly?

I could bore you and give you my actor's insight, complete with thorough notes from my rehearsal diary…but I think it would be better (and funner) to share with you some insight my classmates offered from their processes. Enjoy the before and after pictures, too! Special thanks and a huge shout out to UNCSA Design and Production's wig and makeup department! There is no fooling anyone if you don't look the part, and this wig and makeup team transforms us into these larger-than-life characters every night.

TAYLOR ALDRICH [Portraying Violet—in her sixties] : Since I do not have the life experience the character has, I must rely a lot on my imagination and the things I observe. In the case of this character, I started off looking at Violet's addiction and handicaps, which then informed me more about her life experiences. I observed, read, and watched anything I could, and it's helped me.

DIANDRA LANGENBACH [Portraying Mattie Fae—in her late sixties]: I think the first thing I look at is the element of humanity—it's a very basic level. I first look at it in terms of what this character wants, what she doesn't want; how I'd play any other character. The challenge is layering in the life experience of the character, where that bridge seems extra long. But starting at that simple level of "What I want?" helps close the gap for me.

MAX GIESER: [Portraying Beverly Weston—sixty-nine years old] You have to approach any character from yourself. If you think too hard about the age thing, you aren't going to be truthful. You obviously have to consider and think about age, but it's just you…but older, you know? You can't let it get in your way.

For anyone out there struggling with the challenge of not acting your age, I hope this helps. There's a consensus amongst the three that I agree with: One doesn't "act" age. An age is merely a part of the character's given circumstances. The ultimate goal of the actor in any performance is to live a life that is informed by circumstances, not dictated—which makes portraying Charlie Aiken not as complicated as I first thought.