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In the new play Out of Time at The Public Theater, older performers take the leads
"Where are the older people?" For years that question plagued Obie-winning director Les Waters (Dana H., 10 Out of 12, The Thin Place). A prolific theatre-maker and goer, he was acutely aware of the dearth of roles for older actors, and the few he did encounter tended toward stereotypes. "It wasn't just the lack of representation, it was the misrepresentation," Waters, 69, explains. "I love Chekhov, but I did Three Sisters and the older character sits around in the background and falls asleep. What the hell is that? When you're an old person on stage, you often lie in bed dying or you can't speak because you've had a stroke. I know all of that is true to life, but it's only a tiny portion of the available experience."
In February 2020, he found himself commiserating at dinner with fellow sexagenarian Mia Katigbak, a performer he knew from his tenure as the artistic director of Actors Theatre of Louisville. Waters had just seen a piece by choreographer Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker that showcased older dancers, and he mused about doing a similar project for mature actors.
Katigbak, who is also the cofounder of the National Asian American Theater Company (NAATCO), was all for it. "Les said, 'Wouldn't it be wonderful if we did a marathon of half-hour monologues of just old people?' Of course, his fantasy was for it to be a 12-hour show, from 7 o'clock in the evening to 7 o'clock in the morning!"
Less than a month after their brainstorm, the pandemic shut down theatres around the globe. Ironically, that pause and the horrific increase in anti-Asian violence helped crystalize a project that otherwise might have remained a dream. "It wasn't until months later, when the world seemed to be really kind of 'melting,' to quote a line in the play, that we got in touch," Katigbak recalls. "I said, 'Les, what about that gorgeous idea of yours? Do you want to do it? And can it be Asian-American playwrights? And let's not make it 12 hours.'"
Katigbak, Glenn Kubota, Page Leong, Natsuko Ohama and Rita Wolf are the five seasoned stars of Out of Time, which is produced by NAATCO and presented by The Public Theater through March 13. Waters directs the almost-three-hour evening of five meaty monologues written by Jaclyn Backhaus, Sam Chanse, Mia Chung, Naomi Iizuka and Anna Ouyang Moench. While each solo stands alone, they overlap, too, exploring bottomless topics such as aging, parenting and identity. The pieces are also suffused with the turmoil of the last few years, not just the pandemic, but cancel culture, polarized politics, ageism and racism (though the recent rash of Asian hate is never addressed directly).
"They're all very different voices for sure," says Waters. "They were all writing separately but the fact that the monologues were created during a very particular moment in history kind of links them. They are, in a sense, in conversation with each other."
Katigbak agrees. "The first time that we ran all of them together, we could see that there were these thematic threads that held them together," she says. "They're interconnected." Yet each is also refreshingly specific: a documentarian reflecting on a sudden loss, a groundbreaking author grappling with a culture shift, a woman pondering the dissolution of a friendship and whether any of us sees anything the same way. Older characters in other shows rarely command center stage. In Out of Time, they get the entire spotlight.
In addition to being an edifying evening, the hope is the play will inspire playwrights, especially young ones, to write juicy parts for their elders. Perhaps it will also encourage audiences and artists to recognize how they may be contributing to ageism, even unwittingly. "Just as a general thing, I think old people's ideas are dismissed," says Water. "Also, we work in an industry that always wants the new. I'm not dissing that in any way, this pursuit of the new, which can be very exhilarating. But there are big pools of talent that are just not being drawn on."
Top image: Les Waters and Mia Katigbak.