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James Roose-Evans: 'You've got to keep living until the last minute'

The veteran director on why he's founded a theatre company for older actors

'People have a fear of ageing' - James Roose-Evans

Where did the idea for Frontier Theatre come from?

It came chiefly from running a workshop at the Richmond Actors Centre. I was so moved by the way actors in their 70s and 80s are so open to improvisation and exploring, that it set me thinking about how many talented actors and actresses we have of that age who just become invisible or get neglected and pushed away. I mustn't name names but there are some wonderful actors who need resurrecting.

People tend to associate ageing with alzheimer's or dementia, which of course is the dark side of the picture, but there are so many wonderful stories of people living creatively rich and exciting lives in their 70s, 80s or even 90s. These stories need to be told.

Do you think the theatre industry is ageist?

I think deep down people have a fear of ageing. In our society what's sad is that people don't always plan for their retirement, and end up somewhat on the shelf. So it's a wider issue. But my philosophy is that you've got to keep living until the last minute. We need to educate young people about these things, rather than just cramming their heads with facts.

You have an impressive list of patrons

They're all friends. I taught Mike Leigh at RADA and we've remained close since then. Vanessa [Redgrave], Judi [Dench] and I also go back a long way. Ian [McKellen] I know from my Hampstead Theatre days. Juliette [Stevenson] I don't know well but she's spoken out about this issue many times so she had to be a patron.

Judi Dench, performing at the NT 50th gala, is a patron

Tell us a bit more about your first season

Most of the planning falls in the lap of [associate director] Jake Murray. We've got one or two new plays we're premiering at our home in Frederick's Place, and we'll also be presenting some Beckett plays and a Strindberg double bill at the Jermyn Street theatre.

Where is the funding coming from?

Very good question! We're inviting people to become agents, or godparents if you like, and our impressive board of directors are lining up a list of trusts and foundations to appeal for funds. We have enough funding at the moment to operate a skeleton system but obviously we want to grow.

Tell us more about your headquarters in Frederick's Place; how did you find that space?

I'm not allowed to say exactly how it came about, but it's to do with one of the liveries. We've been allowed to have possession of this amazing five story building right in Old Jewry in the city for the next year or so. Without that we wouldn't be operating, but it means we have to start looking for another space quite soon.

So you're open to offers for suitable spaces?

Oh yes. There are spaces all over London lying vacant and it's just about finding the person who says "come on, come here". And it doesn't matter if we are only there for two or three years because we then move on to another space. When I founded Hampstead that was a shoestring theatre, but it's going strong now. If you really believe in what's happening then anything is possible; it's about having a vision.

Will Frontier's work be created and performed exclusively by older actors?

No, the other half of our enterprise is to do with younger actors. There is no longer a rep system in this country, where younger actors can learn from older actors. When I was a weekly rep you could say to your leading man 'how to get a laugh on that line?' and they'd tell you and you'd learn. This is why people like Ray Cooney and others are leading workshops for us; he is leading one in September on the craft of comedy, particularly aimed at younger actors. Also, some of the senior actors will be handing on their knowledge and their skills. So there will be the excitement of younger and older generations working closely together.

So it's as much about passing on knowledge?

Oh absolutely. I remember once at RADA Edith Evans was giving a talk to the students and she had this wonderful image; she said that acting in theatre was like riding a horse, every night. She said "I stand in the wings and listen to the audience; some nights they are so restless that when you come on you have to dig in the stirrups and tighten the reigns before you can begin to canter away, other nights you can gallop away from the start." It's a wonderful piece of advice.

For more on the Frontier Theatre company, click here