Kentucky director/performer Bob Martin, sporting a nearly four-foot brown crocodile mask that nearly covers his head, nodded to dancers encircling him in the Lee County Care and Rehabilitation Center dining room. The tables and chairs had been cleared to make a stage to be part of Neverland.
This was Beattyville, Ky., but it was also part of an imagined frontier, a site-specific theatre work adapted from the world of Peter Pan and performed in May. The main character, Wendy, had been recast as a resident of this Appalachian facility, worried that no one around her believed her stories about pirates, fairies, lost boys, and a crocodile named Tick Tock . And she longed for people to believe her stories and who she was—then and now. At times throughout the play, the culmination of a project nearly two years in the making, she said simply, “I am Wendy.”
But the people gathered around Martin weren’t children. They were elders in wheelchairs who, like Wendy, also proclaimed their own names in a chorus, then executed a big production number—what cast and crew called “the wheelchair ballet”—to a recording of Frank Sinatra’s “Fly Me to the Moon.” These mature yet amateur actors in wheelchairs took to this nursing home stage just a month before Broadway gave a Tony Award to Ali Stroker for best featured actress in a musical for Ado Annie in Oklahoma!, making her the first Tony winner to use a wheelchair.
Much as Broadway entered a new frontier when it awarded Stroker, so did this tiny town of Beattyville when it mounted Wendy’s Neverland, as did Kentucky nursing homes in rural Morgantown and Hodgenville this spring. All three productions used the same script, with slight modifications to complement the settings and characters of each nursing home and their surrounding communities.
“Who would have thought that at 80 to 100 years old, they get to be in a play?” mused Nicole Gordon, a restorative nurse manager at Sunrise Manor Nursing Home in Hodgenville. Her clients “got to decorate, they got to make their own costumes, and they’ve been a part of it from learning lyrics to songs to actually the final presentation.”
It all began with a partnership between 2016 MacArthur Fellow and University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee theatre professor Anne Basting, who runs an elder-theatre organization called TimeSlips, and Angie McAllister, Signature Healthcare’s quality-of-life director. In 2017, McAllister teamed up with Basting and the duo obtained a $700,000 grant from the Kentucky Cabinet for Health and Family Services, collected from penalties levied on nursing homes and similar facilities for compliance violations. This enabled them to put together a team of Kentucky-based and national artists to launch this project the next January.
Decades ago, Basting began working with elders with memory issues and Alzheimer’s and dementia using improvisational theatre techniques. Rather than emphasize building stories with memory, she accentuated using imagination and intuition. And McAllister, who had been involved in theatre in high school in Columbia, Ky., had heard Basting speak at conferences about the Penelope Project, a theatre initiative Basting had spearheaded in Wisconsin with Sojourn Theatre, which was the basis of a documentary. McAllister was intrigued.
“I thought, what is this idea of immersive theatre, and what does that look like in a nursing home?” McAllister said.
After McAllister and Basting secured the grant, dozens of representatives from Signature Healthcare attended a workshop in early 2018. The grant also enabled Basting and McAllister to assemble a team of artists for the project, who helped facilitate the workshop. They included Martin, who produces theatre throughout Kentucky and the region; Kevin Iega Jeff, a Juilliard graduate and Chicago-based choreographer who has a dance company there and has performed on Broadway (Comin’ Uptown with Gregory Hines and the original production of The Wiz); and New Orleans-based set designer and visual artist Jeff Becker. Chicago native Nicole Garneau worked as production manager and performer, and Clare Hagen served as stage manager.
Also leading sessions were Kentucky singer-songwriter and music therapist Cheyenne Mize, who’s the resident artist at Hodgenville’s Sunrise Manor, and visual artist Andee Rudloff of Bowling Green, the resident artist at Morgantown Care and Rehabilitation Center. Director Martin, who served as resident artist at the Lee County center, directed all three productions.
In that first 2018 gathering in a cramped conference room in downtown Louisville, participants—many who’d never been part of a theatre, music, or art workshop—let go of their inhibitions and assumptions, and set about, as Basting put it, “getting to know who you are, making yourself vulnerable, and collaborating with other people to try to make something using whatever mechanisms—sound, movement, visual art, words, poetry, story, whatever it is—and engaging a community. I think people felt that.”
Jeff began by taking them on an imaginary flying lesson, first requesting that they close their eyes and imagine their journeys before asking them to physically stretch their limbs and bodies as if in flight. Becker supplied them with simple art materials—paper, tape, markers—to construct areas in the conference room and just beyond in the lobby of the Brown Theater building, a property of the Kentucky Center for the Arts, to think of ways to reconstruct space. Mize had everyone create different sounds at varying tempos and intensities as a group and notice and describe the energy.
Before sending participants on their way, session leaders encouraged them to think about how to find partners in the community—i.e., other artists and those who could partake in activities that would help build a story, set, props, and other theatrical trimmings related to Peter Pan. The show still didn’t have a script, or even a name.
From that winter until early this year, the team of artists and trained nursing home staff working on quality-of-life matters coordinated workshops in music, poetry, and art that helped brainstorm ideas for the play. Mize said she kept note of songs that would continually resurface in their gatherings. There was “Where We’ll Never Grow Old” when they talked about Neverland, and “This Little Light of Mine,” when they talked of childhood. They also spoke of separations and death, and the song “I’ll Fly Away” came up. All three went into the Wendy’s Neverland so everyone could sing them.
Mize also conjured some original songs for the piece. “Cheyenne could just put their thoughts into a song right there,” marveled Donovan Dame, the administrator at Sunrise Manor. “That spoke volumes to me.”
Nursing home staff reached out into the community for props pieces, like the hundreds of canning lids used to make Tick Tock’s scales in one scene. And staff in all three locales helped the resident artists track down actors, musicians, and artists to pitch in. This kind of community engagement was part of Basting’s design. Her goal for these productions was to use all the arts to center nursing homes as community hubs, involving families, ongoing volunteer organizations, surrounding schools, and other institutions. The idea: to take these places out of isolation and make them into cultural centers. “This isn’t about pity,” Basting said. “It’s about jointly exploring an artistic endeavor.”
Behind the scenes, Basting’s TimeSlips distributed videos to the artists and participating nursing home staff about how to run the workshops to best nurture the creative process that would help shape the play. In one video, Jeff gives a demonstration for low-mobility viewers in how to dance to “Fly Me to the Moon,” his arms and legs seemingly defying gravity while he sits in a chair. It’s difficult to resist joining him, with his eyes transfixed on the camera and his infectious smile.
While Basting’s Milwaukee-based TimeSlips has its headquarters in an urban environment, she was drawn to work with McAllister and Signature Healthcare in Kentucky precisely because it allows TimeSlips to work in a rural setting. “Aging to me is a rural issue,” she said. “This drives the power and the meaning of the project.”
Basting hits on a statistical reality, as demographic research shows that not only is America is getting older, the country’s rural population is getting even older, with a median age of seven additional years over urban dwellers, according the Brookings Institution’s numbers based on U.S. Census data.
Martin, the director, who was a past board chair of Alternate ROOTS, is a Kentucky native who’s worked with the community theatre series and art project Higher Ground out of Harlan County and with other communities on theatre projects to help them tell their stories. Theatre in Kentucky, he said, has traditionally played a role in sharing with the world the stories of the Bluegrass State. He points to the decades-long summer production of The Legend of Daniel Boone at a Central Kentucky state park, and The Stephen Foster Story, a musical about the life of the songwriter, another summer perennial since 1958.
While the tradition of outdoor theatre in public parks is on the wane, he sees people from different generations with a desire to connect. This project with TimeSlips, he pointed out, builds on the work of Robert Gard, who founded the now-defunct Wisconsin Idea Theatre and nurtured Grassroots Theater, which often highlighted history and legends. He also sees the TimeSlips methodology as a way to use theatre and art to help give different segments of local communities a voice and to better network communities. “People maybe don’t see off the bat how their work is allied with the work of a theatre artist to be in service to the community,” Martin said, but productions like Wendy’s Neverland can make it concrete.
Jeff, who lives in Chicago and has worked on other projects in Kentucky, feels that theatre has a promising role to play here. “At its basic roots,” he said, “theatre was transformational when it started in America, because it was accessible in communities.”
None of the elders involved in the show were required to memorize lines, though many knew and sang the words to the songs. In each production, successive scenes traversed through each nursing home along routes animated by staff and Becker’s designs to illustrate a journey. In Beattyville, that journey even took viewers on a stroll parallel to the Kentucky River’s north fork, where the production crew had built a pirate ship.
Rehearsals usually started 10 days before the 2 days of previews began, and then 4-day run. With each, some residents were asking if they could join in, right up until nearly opening day. At rehearsals, those who weren’t participating came to watch.
The main cast included a handful of musicians and actors from high schools. Other more seasoned musicians came from surrounding communities. They and the actors formed a core team of artists Basting assembled to round out the cast. At each site, one elder was cast in the role of Wendy, but her lines were pre-recorded using the voice of another person, particularly in a long, touching scene in which she says goodbye to Tick Tock, the crocodile. (Becker constructed an inventive costume with a wheelchair at its core to create the body of Tick Tock.)
This loving moment between Wendy and Tick Tock—whom many fear, but not her—is the heart of the play, said Basting, and was the first scene she wrote. Angry that people don’t believe her stories, Tick Tock threatens to make them believe her.
“They remember the fullness of her life and experiences,” Basting said. “He’s protective of her. And it’s very tender and sweet between the two of them. So that was actually a really joy to write—when I could stop crying.”
From there, Wendy coaxed viewers to the scene of the wheelchair ballet as musicians and singers launched into “This Little Light of Mine.” The whole spectacle became something like a jazz funeral march in New Orleans.
Despite all the commotion, facilities actually reported a reduction in falls during those periods of rehearsals and productions.
“I saw a transformation for our residents,” said Gordon, the nurse. “I saw emotions that actually had never been expressed by our residents. I’ve seen tears. I’ve seen residents get out of bed who don’t ever get out of bed but maybe once a week, and every day they’re participating, they’re coming down and looking forward to it. They’re asking to get out of bed. It’s amazing.”
Gordon initially thought the project sounded like a waste of money, and she wasn’t the only skeptic. But Dame, Sunrise Manor’s administrator, described the whole project as “impressive.” Dame said he regrets never having been to any theatre production outside a handful of high school productions of friends and family he want to support. “It would be cool to see more theatres around here and in the larger cities,” he said. “I have more respect for theatre than I ever did.”
Others were making similar pledges. Some in the relatively remote town of Beattyville were even vowing to make the 90-minute drive to Prestonsburg or Lexington to see live theatre. Those in Hodgenville talked of seeing productions at the nearby Hardin County Playhouse, or making the under-an-hour trek to one of the many theatres in Louisville.
Indeed those who worked on the Neverland project have started to think about how they might get elder patients to see more theatre in nearby communities, even participate in productions outside their facilities. Turner of Sunrise Manor was talking to people with the Hardin County Playhouse, and hoped to open up conversations with the local high school about opportunities for a few residents who might perform there when scripts called for elders.
Meanwhile, Signature Healthcare and TimeSlips are beginning to make a deeper examination of the data to analyze the project’s medical impact. “We are really excited to dig into the next phase and see how the numbers changed,” said Dr. Arif Nazir, Signature’s chief medical officer and a TimeSlips board member. He said they would review not just falls but also use of medications, cognition scores, functional ability scores, depression metrics, patient weight, and food intake. In addition they will look at the impact on staff engagement and staff turnover.
For her part, Basting hopes that anyone who’s been involved in the program to realize that the creative process can be a source of power at any stage of their life.
“Wherever people are they can have that feeling,” she said. “They should have access to meaningful culture shaping their world and expressing who they are. You never should have to stop that—even if you have memory loss or any physical disability. It is what is going to bring you out of social isolation and into connection with your community.”
Elizabeth Kramer is an arts journalist in Louisville, Kentucky.