“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.
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. [For more resources, see AT’s online exclusive.]
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.”