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The Age Advantage

Senior theatre is forging ahead in unexpected and adventurous directions

By Eliza Bent

“Will that be written down?” an actor asks during a rehearsal of This Was the End, an adaptation of Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya in which all the roles are played by actors over 60 years of age.

“Don’t worry,” the director sighs. “This will all get written down once we’ve decided on the blocking.”

The actor scratches her head and shuffles back to where she was standing. I notice the pale pink slippers she’s wearing, and for a second the line between character and actor blurs. It’s a quiet moment in an otherwise lively rehearsal.

“Let’s try it again,” the director calls out.

1. Art and Age
Theatre for young audiences has grown into a rich landscape in recent years, with full-scale associations, festivals and award-winning professional theatres devoted to programming for youth. But what about the other end of the spectrum? What are the comparable organizations and networks devoted to senior theatre? Is there an identifiable senior theatre movement, and, if so, what does it look like? What do we mean when we talk about senior theatre?

As I looked into these questions, there seemed to be two overarching camps—professional groups making shows dealing with themes related to aging, and amateur ensembles composed of senior citizens making theatre. But as my investigations dug deeper, the lines blurred—and the challenges, trends, misconceptions and unexpected stories I heard about senior theatre as a field were as nuanced and varied as the dozens of people I spoke with.

“My God! Senior theatre is exploding,” exclaims Marge Betley, executive director of Oakland, Calif.’s Stagebridge, a 35-year-old semi-professional company dedicated to senior theatre.

Betley has a point. Baby boomers aren’t babies anymore. The boomer generation’s first wave began turning 65 in 2011, and this will continue until 2029. It’s safe to say that senior theatre on the rise. And while some shows, like This Was the End—mounted by Restless NYC at the Chocolate Factory in Long Island City, N.Y.—may address senior-related themes, a raft of community groups housed in senior residential facilities also exist, along with a substantial number of companies devoted to senior-geared work. (See this complete listing for more information.)

Bonnie L. Vorenberg is president of ArtAge Publications and the Senior Theatre Resource Center, located in Portland, Ore. ArtAge is a mecca for all things related to theatre for seniors—the organization publishes books, plays and a monthly newsletter; offers consultation and teleconferences for groups just getting off the ground; and takes part in conferences such as that of the Association for Theatre in Higher Education.

Since Vorenberg started a database for senior theatre in 1979 with her book Senior Theatre Connections, the list of groups has grown from 79 to 791, and many of these troupes identify as community theatres.

Vorenberg’s interest in senior theatre began in the 1970s, when she was working on her thesis at University of Oregon in Eugene. “I was looking for a topic—I had an interest in children’s theatre, but it hit me like a bolt of lightning: I could do this with seniors!” she proclaims. She could find only one other comparable publication in the field of senior theatre at the time.

After getting her degree from UO, which also houses the country’s first gerontology library, she moved to Portland, where she was intent on starting a theatre group comprised of seniors. (Vorenberg had previously run an all-woman theatre company in Eugene called the One Nighters.)

“When I got to Portland, I went around to different senior centers and parks and recreation facilities, asking about interest. I remember one rec guy said, ‘Why do you want to do theatre with seniors—aren’t you worried they’ll all die of a heart attack?’ This is the river I’ve been fighting my whole life.”

2. Deeper into Vanya
If an impertinent remark about heart attacks provoked Vorenberg into championing theatre for seniors, it is Uncle Vanya’s melancholy question—“What if I live to be 60?”—that prompted director Mallory Catlett to create This Was the End, in which four professional actors in their sixties—Black-Eyed Susan, Paul Zimet, James Himelsbach and Rae C. Wright—perform a deconstruction of Chekhov’s play.

“When Vanya asks that question, the implication is that he thinks he’ll be dead by then,” says Catlett. “Vanya’s not even able to conceive of a time beyond that age. Chekhov himself only made it to 44.” (Which is, incidentally, also Catlett’s age.)

Ideas about the way memory functions in the formation of the future along with concerns about aging drive This Was the End. Initially Catlett was drawn to the last scene of what she calls Chekhov’s “ultimate midlife crisis story. I had this image of Vanya and Sonya being much older, and doing this scene and spilling out pills.”

Catlett’s fragmented adaptation functions as a portrait of the play’s four leading characters; past video projections of the performers interact with their live selves, and sound recordings of Chekhov’s words spoken by the actors weave together with live improvised text. The result has a curious looping effect: The actors reencounter their previous selves through projections and audio recordings, as they count pills, sit on a swing, dart in and out of doors, and run in circles around a giant, life-size cabinet with sliding doors, a set piece repurposed from the Mabou Mines Studio at Manhattan’s PS122.

The huge cabinet set, into which the actors disappear at times, is itself an object of merging time frames. “Every time we move the set, we project something older onto it,” explains Catlett. The projections by Keith Skretch are of the set itself, so the wall that one sees projected is layered over the same “live” wall.

“We’re watching the convergence of past and present,” says Catlett, who began developing This Was the End with the company in 2009, and premiered it last February. Over the course of its development, the show’s focus has shifted. “I’m not so interested in doing the play as I am in saying something about time and memory—about how humans function in time,” says Catlett, who undercut the Chekhovian themes of regret and dwelling on the past with Proustian elements.

“Proust was writing at the same time as Chekhov, but was much more mystical and optimistic, and viewed time in a cyclical manner,” Catlett continues. “I think it’s a flaw of human beings that we put everything in chronology—it doesn’t really work that way. Our logic runs counter to science, which kind of fucks you up!”

Like many directors who work with older actors, Catlett encountered concern among the performers about memorization. “This seemed like the wrong problem to be having,” Catlett notes, so she set to work interviewing her actors about their own memories of Uncle Vanya and how their characters fit into the drama. “With Black-Eyed Susan, for example, we isolated 10 scenes that are pivotal for Sonya, and we made recordings that reconstruct her experience of the play.”

G. Lucas Crane, a wild-haired improvisational sound musician, runs these audio recordings throughout the show, and—except for the Sonya/Vanya final scene, which is memorized and performed live—the actors interact and improvise with the recorded text. The recordings are on analog cassette tapes, so a purposeful imprecision reigns in terms of how long it takes for a fragment to unfold. “I’ve always loved the relationship the actors have with him. I think there’s something noisy about getting old and not remembering things, it can be quietly chaotic. We call Lucas the Chekhovian Situational Therapist,” Catlett says with a laugh. The actors know what’s coming next, but the amount of time a scene might take varies depending on when a tape cuts in.

"They are amazing improvisers,” Catlett says of her veteran quartet. “They’re able to manage the moments of improv in ways that younger actors can’t, because they have such a long history of being in the moment.” Energetic optimism pervades This Was the End. At a rehearsal and run-through, the actors don’t approach the material so much as attack it, creating an unexpectedly physical piece. Zimet (who usually appears with his storied ensemble the Talking Band) plays Vanya, running round and round the cabinet-cum-set with such vigor that his bathrobe flaps in the wind; Wright as Yelena holds a perfect posture, books atop her head, until they come tumbling down; at one point all four actors do a kerchief squaredance as remixed bits of the Beatles’s White Album play. This spectator was reminded of the joyful awkwardness of dancing the electric slide at a bat mitzvah. “The show offers an expansive notion of what it is to get older,” Catlett says. “I’m interested in drawing that out of the actors. You see flashes of their younger selves.”

3. Misconceptions and Challenges
This Was the End offers up surprising moments that challenge the expectations you didn’t know you had about senior theatre. False impressions cropped up in many of the conversations I had about senior theatre; many stem from senior stereotypes. “They don’t want to sit in a rocking chair,” ArtAge’s Vorenberg declares. “They want to be onstage and have a voice!”

Vorenberg identifies three main misconceptions about senior theatre. “The first is that the show will be of low quality,” she says. “The second is that seniors are difficult to work with—that they’re hard to direct. The third is that there’s no literature out there for them. That’s one of my biggest goals with ArtAge—to provide shows with age-appropriate roles that seniors can work on.”

Vorenberg also cites the challenge of ageism. “The whole field suffers from it,” she argues. “You’ll see a lot of companies with cute names for their groups—they don’t want to say they’re ‘older,’ because the whole country has a huge bias against aging.”

Funding can be a similar challenge—and not just the lack of it. Stagebridge’s Betley describes the in-between zone where senior theatre groups often find themselves isolated. “You live in a space between being identified as an arts organization and a social service organization,” she points out. “Arts funders expect a certain amount of professionalism, whereas when it comes to social services, we aren’t an urgent-care need, like food or shelter.”

One of Stagebridge’s programs involves creative storytelling for people with dementia, where stories are generated through images instead of memory. “It’s not a program we’d go to an arts funder for,” Betley explains. But a social-service funder, rubbing up against the realities of the economy, would probably say that a program like this doesn’t meet the urgent-need benchmark.

Stagebridge lies at an interesting crossroads between professional and amateur. The company, founded in 1978 by Stuart Kandell, began with an acting class comprised of older women who wanted to be artistically challenged and has grown to offer a performing arts training institute for seniors, with some 25 classes taught every week by Bay Area professionals like Anthony Clarvoe, who instructs playwriting, and Michael French, who teaches acting.

“A lot of our students come for personal enrichment, but there are others who are interested in getting out there and working. We’ve had students go on to perform at Shotgun Players in Berkeley and the Marin Fringe festival,” Betley points out.

While the institute is Stagebridge’s main enterprise, its most visible components include public performances that range from storytelling events to full-length productions. In the fall, Stagebridge will premiere a new musical in honor of the 50th anniversary of the Free Speech Movement at Berkeley, a precursor of the Civil Rights and Occupy Movements. Joan Holden and Bruce Barthol, both of the San Francisco Mime Troupe, along with Daniel Savio, the son of Free Speech Movement leader Mario Savio, are collaborating on the text and music for the show, tentatively titled FSM. In the spirit of professional/amateur convergence, FSM will feature both students of Stagebridge and professional area actors.

“We want to make work that is not only reflective of the life experiences of the people who make up our student and company membership,” says Betley, “but we also want to address the fact that there’s a dearth of contemporary work out there that’s made for this particular demographic.”

Vorenberg agrees: “It’s very hard to find plays that work for older actors,” she says. “But the senior theatre field is growing every year.”

Betley, who was resident dramaturg at Geva Theatre Center 11 years before her Stagebridge tenure, speculates about the age of most playwrights receiving premieres in the U.S. “If you were to do a survey of the professional premieres of new work around the country and chart it on an age demographic of the playwrights, I wonder how many you would find over the age of 50,” she offers. “Which isn’t to say that young writers can’t write sensitively for older characters—but most of the time they don’t.” Older authors, like older actors, do have something special to offer, she believes. “It’s about the voice they bring, that’s informed by 70 years of living, and that’s really interesting,” says Betley.

Vorenberg observes that young playwrights paradoxically sometimes have a tendency to write about death and dying. But, she says, “Older people don’t want to talk about death, or Alzheimer’s, or loss or infirmities. They want to laugh! And they want to laugh a lot. They don’t want slapstick per se, but they want to laugh at something that has a message.”

4. Sex and the senior set
There was certainly a lot of laughter from people of all ages the evening I attended All the Sex I’ve Ever Had, a piece by the Toronto-based theatre company Mammalian Diving Reflex, which defies all kinds of expectations.

Comprised of interviews that members of the company conducted with selected senior citizens in different cities about their sex lives, All the Sex feels like an ontological exercise in the very best sense—one that is at once hilarious and deeply moving. After a “pledge to not gossip,” which requires the audience to stand and solemnly promise to keep what’s said during All the Sexrestricted to the theatre, six seniors seat themselves in panel-symposium style behind a long table with microphones.

When I saw the show at FringeArts festival in Philadelphia last autumn, an 80-year-old woman was the first to speak. The year is 1941. “I am eight years old,” she announces. “My older brother Bob takes me into the bathroom. He gets me to examine and go down on him.” An uncomfortable silence. “I’m interested, I’m really curious,” she says with detached bemusement, before adding with waggish intensity, “I don’t tell my father.” At this, the room explodes in laughter.

The years tick by from the oldest performer, born in 1933, up to the present: “1957,” a 68-year-old man announces. “I am 12 years old. I’m masturbating in the coal bin in the basement of my grandmother’s house. I only do it Friday nights or Saturday mornings. So I can get to church and confess before I die,” he adds, eyebrows arched.

The craftily composed snippets often take on the feel of punchy haikus. There is lots of laughter, both from the audience and from the performers themselves, who seem shocked that anything they are saying is funny at all. The delivery verges on stand-up—or, in this case, sit-down—comedy.

“The only directing we really do, other than asking the performers to speak up, is having them actually jump before they read the punch line in their text,” Mammalian artistic director Darren O’Donnell says. “We do that so there’s a physical separation, and they have it in their bodies.”

All the Sex I’ve Ever Had was born out of O’Donnell’s trip to Oldenburg, Germany, where a now-defunct festival commissioned his group for a new piece. Mammalian had had success with theatre for youth, including its 2006 show Haircuts by Children, and there was a desire in the company to work with a different age group. In Oldenburg, O’Donnell, who is 50, observed older women vigorously riding bicycles, and from there questions about sexuality arose. “Our pieces always start with a question that we can put into the civic sphere for participation,” he says.

Aging and sexuality can be uncomfortable themes—for nonmembers of the senior set, that is. But O’Donnell points out that according to a 2009 survey by the research group Waite et al. about 60 percent of women and 80 percent of men between the ages of 50 and 70 state they have regular sex. Mammalian uses an approach it calls “social acupuncture,” which draws on the metaphor of acupuncture to identify areas of the body that have over-energized or under-energized zones. “We apply this to the social sphere—it may be a question of financial resources, or how older people are represented. Seniors are rarely shown as sexual beings, so to address that we need to needle it a bit,” O’Donnell explains.

Mammalian leaves casting up to local festival liaisons, who scout for willing performer/participants in senior centers, or, in the case of Philadelphia, an erotic literary salon, among other places. Mammalian members then spend four to five hours interviewing subjects, asking for any and all memories about their romantic and sexual lives. The 24-plus hours of transcript, drawn from six subjects, are then reduced to a 90-minute forum delivered in koan-like verse. “I’m 76,” a performer says. He wears a jaunty beret and has a particularly dry drawl. “I’ve got myself a cock ring. I tell Alan to get on his knees and take it. We haven’t had sex in five years. I think he likes a little dominance.”

Though the text is read from a script, it never feels like a staged reading. Dance interludes to oldies songs and, in one mirthful instance, hip-hop music, break up the action. At times, younger Mammalian members reenter to pose questions to the audience. On the night I attended, Jon, a thirty-something Mammalian member, asked the audience, “How many people here tonight have been in a romantic relationship with a person they didn’t love?” As hands went up, Jon did a quick count before engaging in some live “needling” with a willing audience member.

It’s the vibe of radical openness that interests O’Donnell. “There’s a feeling of tremendous generosity,” he observes. “The senior citizens share so much. Their fearlessness creates a different environment in the theatre. That’s the most special thing—in a way, that’s more important than the actual content.”

All the Sex has so far been made with seniors in Oldenburg; Bern, Switzerland; Singapore; Glasgow; Philadelphia and Prague—and it will bow again this June in Toronto as part of theLuminato Festival, using performers from previous iterations in a kind of greatest-hits event.

O’Donnell expresses concern that some of the imprompu joking in the Toronto version might fall flat, since the performers won’t share a common language. Still he adds, “American Apparel has a senior in their new ad campaign. It’s inevitable. Baby boomers aren’t going to their graves without having sex—or at least talking about it.”

5. The benefits
Laughter is the best medicine, so it should go without saying that the benefits for senior citizens engaged in theatre are numerous. (The same, in fact, goes for people of any age.) Vorenberg and Betley both cite such studies as the one conducted by Dr. Helga Noice and her husband Tony Noice, an actor, that document improvement of memory, comprehension, creativity and other cognitive skills for seniors involved in theatre (the journal Experimental Aging Researchpublished the results), and the creativity and aging study conducted by Gene Cohen in conjunction with the National Endowment of the Arts.

Studies aside, anecdotal evidence of the benefits to seniors doing theatre abounds. “A running story for our students,” says Stagebridge’s Betley, “is that they were involved in theatre at a younger age but lost track of it as they went on to different careers and had kids. They find that they are now looking for something meaningful to do, whether that’s volunteering in a school or looking for creative expression, as a way to keep discovering things about themselves. And isn’t that something we’re all supposed to do in life?”

Of course, the benefits aren’t just for seniors—they exist for their collaborators, too. Seniors Partnering with Artists Citywide (SPARC) in New York City is a collaboration of the Department for the Aging, the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs and local arts councils that pairs artists of all disciplines with senior centers for six-month residencies.

Julie Kline and Liza Zapol are two theatre artists who were placed at the St. Peters Church senior center for two consecutive years, where together they created Seniors and the City: Stories of Our New York, based on life stories in relation to the city, and Seniors and the City: Bodies of Knowledge, which centered around stories about health from birth to present (older) age.

Kline, who has also worked with the New York City–based Roots&Branches Theater, a 20-year-old company that focuses on intergenerational theatre, had previously observed the benefits of this work. Like Mammalian’s, Roots&Branches’s plays are known for stereotype-busting, and have taken on such subjects as sex in senior homes, first-versus-third-wave feminism and the uses of guilt in grandparent/grandchild relationships.

“I see so many benefits,” Kline enthuses. “The seniors in these programs and projects become vital, physically and mentally. It continually amazes me how deeply fulfilling creating and performing a show can be for them. It reminds me that theatre always has that power, regardless of the project or the population.”

Zapol, for one, was surprised by how quickly friendships were made. “The incredible social bonding experience that made me fall in love with theatre as a child is the same for these seniors. Older adults can create relatively fast close relationships with each other, in which they engage in play, discuss stories that are meaningful to them, and reveal their skills and talents and quirky parts of their personalities,” Zapol attests.

Zapol and Kline’s projects involved live song, ensemble dance, recorded voice and sound, as well as scene work and monologues. Zapol was concerned about how to approach physical movement. “I feared that the work would feel weird to them, and that they wouldn’t want to experiment with abstract movement—but boy, was I surprised!” she says, recalling how the group created a choreography centered around a bowling alley with abstract movements based on their stories of feeling healthy.

It wasn’t all easy. Zapol and Kline both point out that just because a group is made up of seniors doesn’t mean its members have much in common, “especially in New York, where you’re dealing with people with wildly different experiences, lives and economic classes,” Kline says.

And keeping an ensemble of seniors together can be difficult, especially when things like inclement weather, doctor’s appointments and illness get in the way. It can be easier to keep a group bonded when there’s a pre-existing umbrella organization like a senior center or retirement village. “I find sometimes there are gendered issues,” says Kline. “Men of the generation we were working with at St. Peter’s aren’t used to sharing stories around a circle—they tend to understand a more hierarchical power structure. The collective or ensemble-based element of the work was something that had to be learned.”

Statistically, men die earlier than women, a fact that came up in conversations with Vorenberg, in terms of the need for roles for senior women. Nevertheless, “Doing work with SPARC confirmed again the radical nature of this work,” Kline says. “To put seniors, so often invisible members of our society, onstage, front and center, is a revolutionary act to me.”

6. Staging the impossible
As my reporter’s folder labeled “silver fox” grew with press releases and articles, one e-mail in particular caught my eye.

Dr. Annabel Clark, a former Denver University theatre professor and teacher at the Iliff School of Theology, described a recent production of Fiddler on the Roof that residents of the Clermont Park Retirement Center (part of Christian Living Communities, a chain of retirement villages) had performed under the direction of Alison Mueller, Clermont’s life enrichment coordinator. Clark, a 90-year-old retiree who lives at Clermont, was the assistant director.

Mueller was a professional actor in the Denver area before starting work at Clermont. But more than her professional theatre background, Mueller spoke about the two philosophies that Clermont has embraced within the last few years, called “Masterpiece Living” and “the Eden Alternative.”

“These are successful, research-based aging initiatives that focus on cultural change as related to aging,” Mueller explained. Retirement communities get certified in these philosophies, which encourage treating people with respect and dignity. While some retirement centers may inadvertently foster loneliness and boredom, the Eden Alternative and Masterpiece Living approaches espouse principles that engender individualism, so that residents do things for themselves. “The idea is that the staff is here to support them in growing, and not to do things for them,” says Mueller.

Since the two initiatives have been implemented at Clermont, Mueller has witnessed a change in staff and residents. For the center’s annual variety show this year, Mueller initiated a medley of music from Fiddler on the Roof, and began to think about doing a full production of the show, as well. “I approached the enrichment team, and they were excited about the idea, so after the variety show, we announced that we’d purchased the rights to Fiddler and we’d be having auditions. The crowd gasped.”

Mueller decided on an abbreviated, hour-long Fiddler that MTI licenses. “I figured it’s one of those stories that everyone connects with on some level. Plus, who likes intermission, anyway?” Eighteen residents between the ages of 72 and 93 and two staff members joined the Fiddler cast—about 80 percent had never been involved in a show before. “High schools do this kind of thing all the time. Why can’t someone who’s 90 play Hodel?” Mueller wonders.

In keeping with the Eden and Masterpiece methodologies, Mueller and company took an inclusive approach. “Our maintenance crew built the huppa, and we had residents helping with costumes and painting the backdrops.” Throughout the 10-week rehearsal process, Mueller observed changes in the participating residents. “Memory is a challenge for anyone—it’s a use-it-or-lose-it concept. Yet the people we had to call with rehearsal reminders early on ended up being the first ones off book and the first to know their blocking. The neurological transformation was very apparent. Any time you challenge your brain, whether it’s by learning a new language or learning a new instrument, you benefit. Being in a show is one of the best brain workouts you can get at any age! Theatre in and of itself is an intellectual, physical and social activity, which is the embodiment of the Eden Alternative and Masterpiece Living philosophies that we have in place.”

Still, worries about memorization persisted. But Dr. Clark worked with people one-on-one and served as a backstage prompter. “Once we had Annabel in place, the performers calmed down and remembered their lines,” says Mueller, adding that Clark’s professional background was key to Fiddler’s success.

For Mueller it was important to tailor the show to the residents’ abilities (a theme that also came up in many other conversations) while striving to push them toward new accomplishments. And, incidentally, vanity regarding costumes never wanes. “Worry about fittings doesn’t go away. Some of the performers asked if they should color their hair or trim their bangs,” says Mueller. “I said it was best to just be you!”

That admonition had special implications for the performer who played Hodel—she had had a very difficult relationship with her father. Years before, after he had died, she wrote her father a letter requesting forgiveness for the wrongs that they had done to each other. “The writing of the letter took away bitterness and regret. It healed the wound but left a noticeable scar,” the performer, who wished to remain anonymous, wrote after the performance. She found, though, that playing Hodel—Tevye’s daughter who must fight for her father’s blessing to marry the young radical Perchik—was transformative.