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In theatre, when it comes to representing days gone by, the rules of time may not apply.

Birthday Candles is especially inventive when it comes to staging the passage of time. In 90 minutes, we move through 90 years of Ernestine’s life. But how is this conveyed theatrically? During the original Detroit production of Birthday Candles, the actress playing Ernestine, Claire Karpen, was not physically transformed by aging makeup as she went from seven to 101. And yet, reviews suggest that because of the theatrical tone and the recurring “toll of a tiny bell” to mark the time jumps, audiences accepted the time jumps sans conventional visual representation.

Birthday Candles is not the first show to bend the rules of time’s arrow. Let’s take a look at how other plays and musicals convey the passage of time on stage.

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One of the most popular methods of portraying the passage of time on stage is that of using multiple actors to portray the same character at different ages. Many of the shows that employ this approach tend to represent three versions of the main character, typically a youth, a teen or middle-ager, and an adult or golden-ager. In The Cher Show, for example, the larger than life titular superstar is broken into three personas to embody three different creative eras of Cher’s life: Babe, Lady, and Star. In Fun Home, Lisa Kron’s adaptation of Alison Bechdel’s autobiographical graphic novel, the main character is similarly divided into Small Alison, Medium Alison and (adult) Alison. Meanwhile, doubles are sufficient to juxtapose the past and present in Stephen Sondheim’s musical Follies, but six actresses take on the titular Mary Page in Tracy Letts’s play Mary Page Marlowe. By using more than one actor, the audience gets to see a live-action bildungsroman—the rise and fall of an entire life—without having to wait 60-plus years for the aging to happen in real-time.


They say that sometimes, you need to go back in order to move forward. There is no literal rewind button in the theater, but smart staging techniques can orchestrate the effect as if there were one. Paula Vogel’s Pulitzer Prize-winning play How I Learned to Drive similarly uses this rewind approach. The protagonist, Li’l Bit, narrates her life story, stepping into and out of the action as she flashes back to pivotal moments from her past. Perhaps the most famous musical to employ the backtracking technique is Stephen Sondheim and George Furth's musical Merrily We Roll Along, which is based on the Kaufman and Hart play of the same name and structure. This experimental piece explores the development of a trio’s friendship backwards, from tragic ending to hopeful inception. A potential downfall of moving from end to beginning, of course, is that unless the play is carefully constructed, all tension and suspense could dissipate, given that the audience already knows how things end. These shows, however, were able to find creative solutions to this roadblock.


Variations on the way that Birthday Candles skips forward in time can be found in a number of 21st century plays. In Peter Morgan’s play The Audience, the passage of time is marked by a revolving door of British Prime Ministers as they come and go for their weekly meetings with Queen Elizabeth II over a 60-year period. Though The Audience moves both forward and backward in time, it features one performer playing Queen Elizabeth as she ages through many decades of her life. In the heightened, magical realist world of Will Arbery’s Plano, big life events occur at a break-neck pace. Luckily, the three sisters at the center of the play keep us updated on time jumps with periodic, literal announcements of “It’s later.” Even Roundabout’s 2020 production of Hilary Bettis’s 72 Miles to Go... employed the time-skip method, jumping across eight heartbreaking years in the life of a Mexican-American family that has been fractured by U.S. immigration laws and endless deportations. This fast-forwarding theatrical representation is ideal for stories that verge on epics, as they can be condensed down to their key moments without compromising their colossal spans.


Monaghan, John. “Review: Detroit Public Theatre's 'Birthday Candles' Burns Bright.Detroit Free Press, Detroit Free Press, 17 May 2018.

Soloski, Alexis. “For 'Mary Page Marlowe,' Six Actresses Share One Role.The New York Times. The New York Times, 20 June 2018.

Stewart, Zachary. “The Audience.TheaterMania. n.p., 8 Mar. 2015.

Stewart, Zachary. “Living Life in the Fast Lane in Plano.TheaterMania. N.p., 13 Apr. 2019.

One Character, Multiple Actors: Image Descriptions

First ImageThree light-skinned, dark-haired women in glittery, silver costumes stand next to Cher, who speaks into a microphone.
Second ImageA light-skinned woman with short hair, a light-skinned teenage girl with short hair, and a light-skinned pre-teen girl sit in director’s chairs and hold microphones.
Third ImageTwo middle-aged, formally dressed couples sing as two younger women in 1940s dresses look down at them from a set of stairs.
Fourth Image: A young red-haired woman in a red dress, a blonde, middle-aged woman in a beige coat, and a blonde woman in a beige coat and red high heels stand in front of a purple neon hotel sign.

Turning Back the Clock: Image Descriptions

First ImageA light-skinned, brown-haired woman wearing a turquoise outfit sits on the lap of an older, light-skinned man in a tan suit. She holds an imaginary steering wheel.
Second ImageA medium-skinned man in a plaid shirt stands with his arms around a light-skinned woman in a dusty pink robe and a light-skinned man in an undershirt.

Skipping Forward: Image Descriptions

First ImageAn older, light-skinned woman in a blue dress stands in the center of a long row of light-skinned men in black suits.
Second ImageThree light-skinned, blonde women sit on a small mattress set on grass. They hold hands.
Third ImageA medium-skinned, dark-haired teenage boy sits at a kitchen table; a young, medium-skinned, dark-haired man in a Marines’ uniform sits on a couch.