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Female actors reach their prime

Older female actors often find the number of roles available — to them declining even as they enter the prime of their lives and feel — at the height of their acting abilities.

"We joke about it a lot, but there are also serious issues — to confront," said Dee Maaske, a veteran of theater, film and television, — who appears this season as matriarch Fanny Cavendish in the Oregon Shakespeare — Festival's production of "The Royal Family" and also has roles in the — "Oedipus Complex."

During the 2002-2003 prime time television season, 80 — percent of all characters who were 50 years of age and older were male, — according to research done by Martha Lauzen, a professor at San Diego — State University's School of Communications.

Women who were age 40 or older made up 11 percent of characters, — and men age 40 and older made up 29 percent of characters - more than — two and a half times the number of older female characters, Lauzen found.

"At 40, they disappear down in Los Angeles," said Rita — Grauer, who recently played Karla in Artattack Theatre Ensemble's "Wonder — of the World" and will appear beginning this month as Frieda in "The Tale — of the Allergist's Wife."

The problem crosses the lines between television, film — and theater, Grauer and other local actors agreed.

Even big-name female film actors have trouble finding — roles once they reach a certain age.

"I think you have to establish yourself very, very well — in the industry," Maaske said. "Meryl Streep is an icon, and it's still — a struggle to find scripts."

Opportunities on stage also are rare.

"The number of roles available for women is so limited — with Shakespeare and all the classics," she said.

For women who have acted for decades, hitting the age — when their careers languish for lack of roles can be a frustrating and — painful experience, according to Brandy Carson, who stars as a tramp alongside — fellow veteran actor Shirley Patton in Oregon Stage Works' production — of the challenging masterpiece "Waiting for Godot."

"How do you give up the identity?" she asked. "Who's left?"

Reaching their prime

The births of children. The deaths of President John F. — Kennedy, Martin Luther King Jr., friends in Vietnam and loved ones at — home. Decades of partnership with a spouse. Explorations of other careers, — from police officer to drug and alcohol counselor.

Older female actors can plumb their years of experience — to better understand the emotions and motivations of the characters they — play.

"I know work I do now is better because of the life experiences — I've had," Maaske said. "Now I understand who these characters are. I've — had these children. I've seen more of life."

She said she took a break from acting to raise her four — children and returned to her profession at the age of 40 but found directors — weren't always pleased at the long gap.

"Directors would say, 'Where have you been?' I would say, — 'I've been living,'" she said.

Contrary to the notion that older people are less open — to experimentation, many mature female actors find they have gained the — confidence to try innovative roles and methods.

"I spent so many years playing it safe," said Patton, — who has brought more than 60 characters to life in 30 seasons with OSF — and also has performed at a variety of other theaters. "It finally dawned — on me the truth of learning from something that doesn't quite work out. — I thought how I've inhibited my growth by being safe. This is a wonderful — time of life. There's so much more to learn and to do. Life keeps throwing — you things that throw you off course. You learn from that."

Grauer agreed that a sense of perspective and flexibility — comes with the added years.

She said she is relaxed about the theater scene and enjoys — acting now more than when she was in her 20s.

"It's like being partners with life instead of trying — to manipulate or resist life," Grauer said. "I've changed inside."