Having a Senior Moment!
Coral Drouyn chats with two of our most senior stars before a national tour of Senior Moments.
There’s an old saying that ‘Old actors never die, their parts just get smaller’. Or maybe it’s not an old saying, maybe it’s just me having a senior moment and imagining it? ‘Senior moments’ is an affectionate term we use when people older than us start losing the plot, but no-one could accuse the cast of the musical revue Senior Moments of having lost the plot. The show, in its third season, is about to start a national tour, taking in most of the cities in four states. That needs a lot of stamina, when you consider that the collective age of the cast tops three centuries, with around 200 years of that spent performing.
The art of comedy revue has died out over the last few years, but, in a world where credibility is being stretched to its comic boundaries, it’s great to see that writers Angus FitzSimons and Kevin Brumpton have been able to tap into the gentler comedy of how we oldies deal with life and the younger generation. And, notwithstanding a cast of the calibre of the iconic Max Gillies, John Wood, Benita Collings, with indefatigable octogenarian Geoff Harvey on piano (along with a great supporting cast), the show dispels all the old warnings that it’s impossible to have a lifetime career as an actor.
If we time travel to more than 50 years ago, I was having similar conversations with John Wood and Benita Collings at Sydney’s Neutral Bay Music Hall – a full sized theatre featuring full length melodramas with music and a large cast. It was THE place to go in the mid-1960s and where a young actor at drama school, who was earning some extra money directing the follow-spot, first laid eyes on the rather exotic and free-spirited Benita Collings.
“I thought she was the sexiest woman I had ever seen,” John Wood reminisced with all the wonder of adolescence. It’s true that Benita, in her twenties, had a wild beauty about her, with her head of unruly curls and a certain attitude we now call sass. John would go on to star in two iconic TV series – Blue Heelers and Rafferty’s Rules - winning awards for both, and Benita, despite films and theatre, was most recognised for her role as the hostess of Playschool for over 30 years. But how much different, I wondered, was performing every night in your seventies compared to your twenties. And how had they managed to sustain their careers in a climate where more than 60% of performers are unemployed at any given time?
I wanted them to tell me what was the best, and worst, thing about being old and still performing.
Benita, still full of energy and passion, jumps in first. “I really don’t get the whole concept of just putting a number on a person and that determines how old you’re supposed to feel. Some days I feel incredibly young, ready to conquer the world. Other times I have aches and pains and feel my age - whatever that is. But the moment I step on the stage the pain goes, or at least I’m not aware of it.”
“That’s true - until you step off again,” John Wood agrees. “It’s lousy that your body won’t do what you want it to. There’s no ‘best’ thing about being old.”
“The best thing is that we’re still employed, we’re still being offered shows, we still get to perform with old friends and new talent. You have to admit that’s the best way to stay young,” Benita says, brimming with enthusiasm.
“Alright,” John concedes, “it’s marvellous that we’re still considered for good roles when so many people have retired, but it’s a shame when your body doesn’t want you to enjoy it. Recently I did a group audition for a major production and we all had to fall on the floor, and then spring up again.
“Well guess who couldn’t move and had to have two people to get him to his feet? And guess who isn’t going to get that part?”
John now grapples with Rheumatoid Arthritis and finds it annoying as well as painful. “But Benita is right,” he says. “The minute I step on stage I’m no longer aware of it, and fortunately we are meant to be our age in this show, so a few aches and pains simply add to the credibility.”
Benita has faced her own problems. “Early this year (2018) I had to have a hip replacement,” she says.
“In our last production Benita was in pain a lot of the time but the audience had no idea,” John adds.
And that reminds me of another cliché, ‘The show must go on’.
“I wasn’t so much worried about how I would physically recover, as I was about the mental repercussions,” Benita says. “I’d heard that sometimes after an anaesthetic short-term memory is affected, and I wondered how I’d go learning and remembering a script. Fortunately, it made no difference at all.”
“And because this isn’t a narrative show, it’s comedy, it wouldn’t matter too much if we did ‘dry’,” John adds.
Again I’m reminded of yet another old adage, ‘If it gets a laugh, leave it in’.
John laughs. “Exactly. There you go, one more good thing about being old. Max Gilles is an absolute master of that. It’s not so much that he ever dries, but he has such a fertile brain that he’ll paraphrase sometimes, and it comes out as an even funnier line.”
I wondered if they had ever, when they started out, thought about what they might be doing fifty years down the road?
“I can honestly say I never thought about it,” Benita says. “Of course, it was very different in those days. There were no Performing Arts schools in the 50s, and NIDA had only just opened. Everyone had a day job and trained, did classes, auditioned, even rehearsed, outside of business hours. No-one imagined they could actually have a full-time paying job acting. I trained with Hayes Gordon at the Ensemble and somehow managed to do a secretarial job, acting classes and productions all at the same time without ever feeling stretched. It wasn’t until I returned from England in the mid-sixties that I gave up doing a day job. And I don’t remember it being a conscious decision. It just evolved.” She seems surprised by the memory.
“I don’t remember exactly how it happened for me,” John muses. “By the time I left school I wanted to be an actor, but that was the same as saying I wanted to go to Mars. It just didn’t happen. I did various lousy jobs, including an awful time in an abattoir. I ended up going to Sydney with 40 dollars - no, it was pounds - in my wallet, with a clapped-out old car, and I was accepted into NIDA. After that, doing anything else just wasn’t in the running.”
John’s first play at NIDA was in 1967 and was actually directed by his Senior Moments co-star Max Gillies. “And I’ve admired him ever since. There’s not a chance in hell Max and I imagined we’d be here now - nobody thought that far ahead or made five-year plans about their careers. We just wanted to act. They will literally have to carry me away to stop me.”
It’s not an addiction to the audience response, laughter and applause, that drives them, but it’s something close.
“We’re incredibly blessed to be doing this tour with people we admire, and an audience that just seems to love every moment,” Benita explains. “It beats sitting at home as so many retirees do. I have never lived in the past and I’m still wondering what the next show will be.”
John is just as passionate about the future. “When you get to share the stage not just with your peers, people you’ve performed with over the years who have become friends, but with an audience that gets every line, every gag, every song, and goes along with you, well, those are the moments that you treasure, whatever your age.”
Images: Cast members of Senior Moments: Max Gillies, Benita Collings, Geoff Harvey and John Wood.