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 Sex restricted 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 interest 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 the Luminato Festival, using performers from previous iterations in a kind of greatest-hits event.
O’Donnell expresses concern that some of the impromptu 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.”