New theatre company aimed at older actors launches with support from Judi Dench and Ian McKellen

The company, Frontier Theatre, has been founded by James Roose-Evans, who set up the acclaimed Hampstead Theatre in 1959

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The Independent Culture

The dearth of stage parts for older actors has long been lamented. Now one 87-year-old is doing something to address the problem.

A new theatre company created to provide opportunities for experienced performers who are overlooked by casting directors is being launched – with the backing of actors including Judi Dench and Ian McKellen.

The company, Frontier Theatre, has been founded by James Roose-Evans, who set up the acclaimed Hampstead Theatre in 1959. “There is a huge bank of actors in their 60s, 70s and into their 80s who become invisible, particularly actresses. Their talent is being wasted. This set me thinking: ‘What can I do?’”

Other high-profile patrons include Vanessa Redgrave, the playwright Ray Cooney and the film director Mike Leigh – who said Mr Roose-Evans “opened the door to the nature of creativity to me” early in his career. The actress Juliet Stevenson came on board after Mr Roose-Evans read her comments bemoaning the lack of good parts for older actresses last year.

Mr Roose-Evans told The Independent that he hopes Frontier Theatre will re-establish performers who have disappeared, as well as unearthing new talent in theatrical groups for the over 60s. He has been talent-spotting older actors in workshops and smaller theatre productions.

The big-name actors who are backing the project may help out with workshops, but are unlikely to perform with Frontier. “Otherwise we’re falling back into the star system,” Mr Roose-Evans said. “People like Judy and Ian are hardly short of work.”

Mr Roose-Evans, an award-winning theatre director best known for his West End play 84 Charing Cross Road, said: “I think the lack of roles for older actors is to do with society’s attitude towards ageing and not realising older people have a lot to give.”

“People are living longer, and more creatively. Reading media reports you would think ageing is just about dementia or Alzheimer’s, about the dark side. But there are some wonderful stories of rich creativity.”

It has taken three years to establish the company, which is a charitable trust. “Hampstead Theatre only took a week,” he said. “The world has changed.”

Jacob Murray, the 41-year-old associate director of the Royal Exchange Theatre in Manchester, is to be the company’s associate director. “He is very experienced and dynamic,” Mr Roose-Evans said. “We make a good team.”

The Mercer’s Livery Company has loaned 6 Frederick’s Place in east London to the company for the next 18 months, next door to Mercers’ Hall. In it is a 60-seater chamber theatre.

First is a double bill of Spring and Winter by Susan Hill and the company is planning to stage two Strindberg plays at the Jermyn Street Theatre in London.

The initial 12-month programme is “very modest; we have to learn to walk before we can run”, Mr Roose-Evans said. “But we hope to get to a point where we can tour and give work to more actors.”

Among the theatre’s early productions will be a work by Samuel Beckett called Come and Go – normally for three older actresses. Beckett’s estate has given the founder permission to stage the production with nine actresses.

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