Smashing Through the "Silver Ceiling" - VintAge in Backstage 10/26/2001

Smashing through the 'silver ceiling': A Coterie of Talented Artists Searches for Solutions to Ageism and Prejudice

An upbeat determination to confront the prejudices women over 40 face in the performing arts pervaded a recent, well-attended conference, "VintAge 2001: Positive Solutions to an Age-Old Problem." Actresses, designers, playwrights, as well as both women and men who work with many aspects of these issues participated in the conference sponsored by the New York Coalition of Professional Women in the Arts andMedia, Inc. It was held at the John Jay College Theater in Manhattan on Oct. 13.
Conference Producer Shari Upbin notes, "There's a new expression around these days--'the silver ceiling.'" Smashing through that ceiling is the goal. Upbin said that after the conference she heard from men asking to be included in future discussions of "ageism"--the prejudice against hiring older people. She also heard from a woman writer who said the conference snapped her out of a funk she'd fallen into over these issues and inspired her to write again.
Playwright-lyricist Elsa Rael, who conceived the conference, described it as a "day of reflection on the many problems experienced by this underutilized reservoir of talent.... When we are defined by age, rather than by experience, talent, intelligence, skill, mastery, something is wrong." The goal, she stressed, is to seek solutions.
In addition to vibrant panels engaging in discussion with an involved audience, there was entertainment provided by women who, as the Sondheim song puts it, are definitely "still here"--Lainic Kazan, Lesley Gore, and Stephanie Pope. Gore, known for her teen hit, "It's My Party," now expressed a different outlook, in tune with the spirit of the day, as she performed a song she co-wrote with Gloria Nissenson, called "My Declaration of Independence."
Keynote speaker was actress Valerie Harper, currently in "The Tale of the Allergist's Wife," and known for her portrayal of Rhoda on the "Mary Tyler Moore Show" and its spinoffs. The title of Harper's recent book, "Today I am a Ma'am," comes from an episode in which Mary confronts being called "ma'am" for the first time. Harper urged those attending not to "accept the mythology. It's a trivialization of who we are." She felt this prejudice affects viewers as well as performers. "I don't want my daughter to feel that she is going to peak at 22" rather than live a full life.
The conference got off to an upbeat start when Tina Howe read an excerpt from her unproduced play in which an older woman director seduces a hunky leading man. "No one will touch this play," Howe noted, when she joined a panel on "Who Gets to Say Who is Too Old?" Fellow panelists observed that typecasting--which affects all aspects of show business--reigns regarding this specific issue as well, with actresses Susan Sarandon and Renee Russo seen by film producers as the only older women who can portray sexual beings. No one begrudged these excellent artists their roles, but all felt the concept of an older woman being alluring shouldn't be seen, as a rare specialty.
This panel also included: director-choreographer Graciela Daniele, television producer Richard Dubin, playwright-composer, playwright-actress Micki Grant, writer-composer lyricist Carol Hall, actress Frances Sternhagen, and casting director Margery Simkin. The panel was moderated by Obie-winning writer-lyricist Gretchen Cryer. Grant, who played one of the very senior Delaney sisters in "Having Our Say," pointed out, "We live in an intergenerational world and I'd like to see more works reflect that."
Fear of Death, Fear of Age
The second panel, moderated by broadcaster Pia Lindstrom, asked, "What has formed the American obsession with youth?" Jane Powell, star of many classic MGM musicals, a theatrical actress and author, recalled that when she was a teenaged studio singer-dancer-star, she and her peers wanted to look older. Today, that would not be the case. She sees the avoidance of older actors as stemming from "fear of death, associating age with death. It's ironic since we live longer and stay active far longer now than people used to."
Her fellow panelists were Judith Gerberg, who counsels accomplished women on career transitions; John Nielson, vice president of Colle+McVoyCODE50, an advertising agency specializing in the mature market; and Daniel Wolf, an attorney with Sprenger and Lang, the firm spearheading an age discrimination class action suit by screenplay writers over 40.
Nielson pointed out areas in which advertisers would do well to tap the huge market of older viewers-among them the financial services sector and traveling.
Seeking practical solutions to the attitudinal problem, Tisa Chang, cofounder of the Pan Asian Repertory Theatre, moderated a panel called "How Do We Support Each Other to Deal with the Realities that Exist to Affect Change?" Scholar Anne Basting, who writes about the representation of aging; Eileen Fulton, longtime star of "As the World Turns" and a cabaret singer; actress Tovah Feldshuh; designer Marie Anne Chiment; Jeri Sedlar of Sedlar and Miners, an executive search firm specializing in senior management; and Margaret Hoorneman, who, at 86, wrote the book of the musical, "Great Expectations," tackled this topic.
Being persistent and creating one's own opportunities were key answers. Fulton described her need to keep after her show's writers to make full use of her character. Hoorneman ignored age as a restriction and just kept writing. Feldshuh agreed, urging those attending to list 10 things they want to do and just "show up."
In moderating, "Mind, Body, Spirit, Vitality" television commentator Denise Richardson dashed around the aisles in talk show fashion. The panelists were: actress Phyllis Newman, now on the television series, "100 Centre Street," and an active force in the Actors Fund's Women's Health Initiative; cosmetic surgery consultant Wendy Lewis; Actors Fund social worker Carol Haris-Manners; gynecologist Mark Silver; and Ruth Lax, a psychoanalyst and author.
Dr. Lax felt the problems under discussion are part of a continuum of attitudes seen at their most extreme in the Taliban's treatment of women. Even here, albeit obviously on a far more subtle level, the problem is a marginalization of women and a failure to view them as equal. Fortunately, we are freer in this country to take action on such gaps.
Tolkoff, Esther
Source Citation:
Tolkoff, Esther. "Smashing through the 'silver ceiling': A Coterie of Talented Artists Searches for Solutions to Ageism and Prejudice." Back Stage26 Oct. 2001: 5. Business Insights: Essentials. Web. 8 July 2015.
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