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No room for vanity in The Oldest Profession

The Oldest Profession, a play about five plucky prostitutes in their 70s, can hardly be considered a vanity project in any sense of the word.

The female actors involved in the Central Alberta Theatre production are all a decade or two younger than the roles they play, but still have to disrobe right down to their underwear in certain scenes — which is a daunting task when done in front of an audience, said director Derek Olinek.

“Everybody sees every lump and bump ... I think that takes a certain amount of courage. But no one’s hesitated, everybody’s embraced their roles.”

If the quirky drama by Paul Vogel, which opens on Thursday, Feb. 20, at the Nickle Studio, upstairs at the Memorial Centre, conjures up outrageous images of Benny Hill-like women playing it for laughs, think again.

Olinek said the script appealed to him because it’s sprinkled with real-life moments — both funny and very poignant ones.

“As the play moves on, it becomes more sad,” added the director, who believes people who make snap judgments about the aging New Orleans hookers at the beginning (“they might get some laughs and rolling of eyes”), will have revised their opinions as the plot unwinds. “By the end, they are very human.”

Olinek believes Vogel is inviting the audience into a fascinating, little-seen world through The Oldest Profession.

Her elderly “working girls” are at the end of very long careers.

While the play is set in the early 1980s as Ronald Reagan is entering the White House, the prostitutes actually started their brothel jobs in the 1920s — a time when a lot of women didn’t have a lot of choices in life, or much financial control. “This was just a part of life. People accepted it,” said Olinek.

The five “professional” women now have to eke out a living with new competition on the block, and are still having to fight to stay in the game. It’s not as if they can collect old-age security, added Olinek — in fact, they are faced with a diminishing clientele, since a lot of their ‘regulars’ are now in retirement lodges or nursing homes.

The question that Olinek believes the play compassionately tackles is one of survival: Can these women expand their brand and stay in “the life?” Or will they opt to leave their little group — which has essentially become their family — and find other options?

“There’s a certain desperation in their situation,” he admitted.

“These women have lived and worked together for 50 years. They’ve been doing what they do for so long, it’s just the way it is ... drumming up new business is part of the challenge.”

Olinek’s biggest hurdle in directing his first feature-length play was finding actors who were willing to check their egos.

“That’s one of the things the (actors) have had come to terms with. Some of them have even been showing up for rehearsals with no makeup on.

“They really have to put themselves out there,” said Olinek.

The script’s frank and salty language, as well as its required burlesque dancing to blues music, are not things every actor is willing to pull off, but Olinek believes he lucked out and lined up a terrific cast that’s more than meeting the challenge.

“I’m thrilled. ... It’s gone well and they’ve worked as hard as I expected.”

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