The Times, 26 April 2005:

photo of three founders outside the LBT


Fed up with ageism in acting, three friends established their own theatre company. Heather Nicholson reports:

When Marion, the wife of the actor and director Alan Meadows, had a stroke, she began speaking in a language of her own. It was rambling but it was not gibberish. “It was curious, it had a poetic sense and was very poignant and truthful,” he says. “Her conversation was a complete stew, a mix of memories from 40 years ago. We found a way of talking and it was not sad.”

On the contrary, Marion’s affliction became the inspiration for a play that 59 year-old Meadows wrote, The Two Ends of the Lands of the Living. Described by the critics as funny and poignant, the play, in turn, was the inspiration for a new theatrical venture, the Yellow Leaf Theatre Company.

Two Ends, starring Alan’s friends and fellow actors, Vanessa Rosenthal and Chris Wilkinson, was a winner at the North Derbyshire New Playwrights’ Festival, and the three friends, who have hundreds of stage, television and film appearances between them, were buoyed up by the fact that a play about a stroke victim could be a success. They realised that there was a rich mine of issues that new plays rarely bothered with: those concerning older people.

All three of them had experienced ageism time and again when auditioning for acting roles or putting themselves forward for writing commissions. “It is strange,” says 63-year-old Wilkinson, “but when I was young I was always acting up to be a 40 or 50-year-old. Now I am considered too old to act down.”

Sometimes they were simply told: “You are too old, go away.” But more often they found that, as older actors, they were peripheral, no longer carrying the main argument of a play, because the central characters in most plays are rarely older people.

Now, with the Yellow Leaf, they are the pipers and can call their own tune. “We asked ourselves two questions. Should the youngsters get all the best parts? And should world premieres be confined to big cities? Having answered both questions with a resounding ‘No’, we set about creating new drama in highly mobile forms,” Rosenthal says. “We can move into a local arts centre or village hall with no fuss and deliver a polished performance. And we can stay for a chat if the audience wants, before packing up and moving on.”

The name Yellow Leaf, taken from one of Shakespeare’s sonnets, is intended to emphasise their philosophy that the rich autumn of our lives is a time to celebrate. It is an argument that will hearten people in other professions who find themselves discarded when they reach 50.

As well as acting credits from Brookside and Heartbeat on television to The Importance of Being Earnest on stage, Rosenthal, 61, has an impressive list of writing credits to her name. She has been nominated for a Bafta and had dozens of plays performed on Radio 4. But she was left angry and insulted by meetings with young TV producers, one of them from EastEnders. “I was invited to talk to them about doing scripts, but I could see as soon as I walked into the room that they were disappointed because they were expecting someone younger,” she says. “This 30 year old woman’s jaw dropped. She had made up her mind that I could not possibly have anything of interest to say because I was too old. Unless you are David Jason or Judi Dench you don’t stand a chance.”

It was partly their collective disillusionment that encouraged the Northern Three to branch out, and they have now been awarded a modest £14,000 grant by the Arts Council to help them to take their plays to community venues around the provinces.

“Getting our autonomy back is wonderful,” says Rosenthal. “Being in charge is very liberating and we are learning about theatre management and administration, which is interesting for all of us.”

One lesson they learnt quickly was that as they lack the financial resources to transport props around the country, their productions have to use existing props or leave much to the audience’s imagination. For instance, when the Ringwood Hall Dinner Theatre commissioned them to put on a play, Meadows wrote Old Skool Ties, about friends reuniting at a posh hotel. “The manager said that he couldn’t possibly create a stage, so we had to ‘steal’ 6ft of space from among the diners.” he says. “We put on the first act after the first course, then the second act when they were serving pudding and coffee. It went down very well.

“We have given ourselves a new lease of life but you have to be adaptable. Luckily we come from a thrifty generation, so we know how to make do.”

Not that they want to become known only as older actors performing in plays for and about old people. “A play advertising itself as about 60-year-olds is the last play I’d like to see,” Meadows admits. The point they are trying to get across is that there are dramatic subjects that are ignored but that touch all our lives.

“The over-50s are often marginalised, yet the questions they ask are frequently complex and ambiguous and I am passionate about championing them as a group,” Rosenthal says. “One in four of us will experience mental health problems, one in six depression, and one in 100 a psychotic illness. The line between normal and abnormal is not black and white.

“I wrote a play, Modelling Spitfires, about a man who spent a long time in a mental hospital while his sister looked after the house and family in his absence. He is coming home and has revoked the power of attorney without telling her. And he is engaged to someone from the hospital. At the same time her pregnant and unmarried daughter has arrived from London and will get back to work by leaving the child with her mother. There are comic moments, but also many problems that a great number of people can relate to.”

Currently they are presenting a play that they commissioned from a new young writer, Angela Truby, called Bill Maxted’s Most Excellent Adventure. Wilkinson is playing the title role and Meadows is directing (Rosenthal is not involved in this one because her husband is in hospital). The play is about a retired man who is emotionally stuck in a Seventies groove. His wife has abandoned him to his vinyl record collection and a new woman has entered his life – a woman who is determined to shake him up. It is a comedy with a lot of poignant moments set to a background of tracks from the Seventies.

Wilkinson says: “For most of my career I have been acting parts chosen by someone else, in plays written by someone else and directed by someone else, wearing a costume and strutting about on a set designed by someone else. It is an exciting and salutary experience suddenly to find myself in joint control.”

Marion Meadows did not live to see her unwitting contribution develop into a theatre company, but there is no question that she would have been happy to be in the spotlight. “The unwieldy title of Two Ends was hers,” Meadows says. “She had this stream-of-consciousness way of talking that was puzzling sometimes but delightful in a strange way.”

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