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 Research published 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.
“In this imaginary interaction, the love Tevye gave to his daughter seemed to be transformed into the love that I wish I had received from my father,” the actor said. “And in a sense, in a substitutionary way, I must have received it.” As the rehearsals continued and the performances took place, “Papa Tevye’s words and actions softened the scar, took away its redness and made it well.”