Wanted: Older Minnesotans to play new roles

It’s never too late to act. Just ask growing numbers of older people who are climbing onstage to prove it.

Senior theater is an emerging movement across the country, where at least 750 acting companies are made up of people past midlife, say initiators of a senior theater conference next weekend in the Twin Cities. While Minnesota isn’t yet a leader in the trend, a three-day series of events Oct. 8-10 — including plenty of live theater — is expected to inspire more would-be players to take the stage.

The conference grew out of a campaign last year in Minnesota towns and cities to inspire more opportunities for older adults to express themselves through the arts, said Pat Samples, coordinator of the Minnesota Arts and Aging Network (MnCAAN), the events’ sponsor.

Some who get into senior theater have acted before. Some haven’t, but want to try something new. Some opt to write their own skits, plays, even musicals. Some form groups in community centers or senior residences where they live or work. Others think outside the box office and create a readers’ theater in their condo or host a night of improv in their living room with friends. “Some groups do high-quality work with theater professionals; some for the sheer the fun of it,” Samples said. “Some people find their funny bone. Some find stories they have to tell. As we get older, we have a lot of stories to tell. Through theater, we can share our stories — and our wisdom.”

Bonnie Vorenberg
Courtesy of MnCAAN
Bonnie Vorenberg

As Samples traveled the state to fling theater curtains open, she found that here and there, people were interested. “But they didn’t know quite how to do it,” she said. She and others knew the expert to call. Pegged “the guru of senior theater,” Bonnie Vorenberg of Portland, Ore., is director of ArtAge Senior Theatre Resource Center. She will be keynote speaker for next weekend’s conference during a daylong session Oct. 10 that will include performances by Minnesota groups and actors, along with workshops on performance techniques and how to develop senior-theater programs.

Come for wine, stay for the play
Vorenberg will also lead an afternoon session Oct. 9 featuring workshops on fundamental drama techniques, senior theater onstage and in the classroom, appropriate plays for older adults and methods of taking senior theater to older Minnesotans. A wine-and-cheese social the evening of Oct. 8 will precede the Midwestern premiere of “The King of Shadows” by Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa. (Go here for event locations, ticket prices and to register.) The registration deadline is Monday. 

There’s the camaraderie, community connections and the applause. Research shows involvement in the creative arts brings physical benefits, too. A three-year landmark study by Dr. Gene Cohen, director of the Center on Aging, Health and the Humanities at George Washington University, showed that people who engage in the creative arts live longer than those who don’t. They take fewer medications, seek less medical care, fall less often and experience less isolation, a leading cause of depression. And in dance groups that involve dementia patients at Kairos Dance in Minneapolis, data collected on participants showed a 43 percent gain in cognition and a similar increase in balance and agility.

A Kairos Dance group is among several performance groups on MnCAAN’s Saturday-morning conference program. Others include Shakesperience, which also works with people with dementia. The Prime Time Players‘ specialty is old-time radio theater. The Pretty Good Players write their own material and offer their perspectives on aging.

Platforms for change
The Pretty Good Players range in age from mid-50s into their 80s, said Jyni Koschak, who works with them as east metro coordinator of recruitment for RSVP, a senior volunteer organization. They perform once a month, usually for older audiences. “We tailor things for the audiences we present for,” Koschak said. “We script it, brainstorm it, work it and rework it.” The skit they’ll perform at next Saturday’s conference derives from an essay that troupe member Jim Miller, 83, wrote after undergoing heart surgery two years ago. Titled “Road to Recovery,” it captures his transformation from exercise “grouch” after surgery to enthusiastic cheerleader for the benefits of working out regularly. He’s enthused about the scripting and acting he does, too. “It’s fun,” he said. “It’s gratifying. Our audiences are very appreciative.”

The troupe has built performances around feeling “invisible” in society as they age and a frustrating search for comfortable shoes that look good, too. Koschak said she thinks of those issues as stereotypes. She asks: “If we don’t change them, who will?”

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