The problem of eternal youth

Theatre makers are getting younger – are they getting a chance to grow?

Orson Welles, aged just 26 when he made Citizen Kane

Orson Welles, aged just 26 when he made Citizen Kane


You’re only as old as you feel – and, with the beginning of this year’s Dublin Fringe Festival, I have come to feel as sprightly as the guy who Methuselah used to get to buy his beer. More than any other festival, the Fringe represents a fresh splatter from the bleeding edge of the Now, an expedition way ahead of the curve, a snapchat message from the future. Frankly, it’s exhausting trying to keep up with it.

When outgoing Fringe director Róise Goan was first appointed, some people were shocked: why would an august institution appoint a 27-year-old sapling, whose only professional experience involved producing, directing, curating, playwriting and TV show running? Even Goan now considers it a mad gamble. Really? Fringe founder Jimmy Fay was 25 and his immediate successor, Ali Curran, was 26. Joe Dowling was 29 when he became director of the Abbey. These days, adulthood is a status forever deferred

Youth has come to resemble a contentious condition: a transient asset wasted on the young, envied by the old and fetishised by the media. One vexed question, though, is whether creativity in artists peaks early.

Orson Welles was 25 when he made Citizen Kane. TS Eliot wrote The Love Song of J Alfred Prufrock (“I grow old, I grow old”) at the wizened age of 23. And how old was Seamus Heaney when he issued Digging, Blackberry-Picking and Mid-Term Break – widely circulated this week in celebration of his life’s achievement? (Answer: 26.) As Tom Lehrer once put it, measuring his achievements against a past prodigy, “It is a sobering thought that when Mozart was my age, he had been dead for two years.”

The theatre has a strange relationship with age, from the lofty dismissal of Shakespeare’s salad days (“When I was green in judgement”), to Synge’s analysis of temper tantrums (“Well, it’s a terror to be aged a score”) and Beckett’s generational disdain (“Just been listening to that stupid bastard I took myself for thirty years ago”).

Yet the most prominent recent playwrights are celebrated as much for their precocity – Conor McPherson, Enda Walsh, Martin McDonagh and Marina Carr all emerged in their early 20s. And there’s a near-vampiric fascination in the British press for new-bloods Lucy Kirkwood, Polly Stenham and Anya Reiss, who have barely cleared legal drinking age.

A worrying reason for the youthful display of the Fringe’s content is money, or the lack of it. Making work on a shoestring, the lottery of Project funding or the peer power of FundIt campaigns is harder to do with mouths and mortgages to feed. Goan agrees that this is an exciting time for young artists, but worries that there was nowhere to graduate.

If that problem isn’t addressed, the lifespan for artists will shrink drastically. Performing arts could enter a chilling stasis, as troubling as Dorian Gray: a theatre that seems forever young.

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