This Playwright Wrote His First Play at 80, and Became a Part of the Growing Senior Theatre Community
Scene from Mother’s Day by Arthur Keyser ©Don Walker
by Kate Silver, Pfizer Get Old / October 8, 2018
When Arthur Keyser was 80, he wrote his first play.
Now, at 89, it’s fair to say he’s become something of a silver-haired Shakespeare: the award-winning playwright has about 40 shorts, a half-dozen full length plays and a book, Short Plays by the Dozen: A Collection by Arthur Keyser, to his name. “I wake up in the morning and I can’t wait to get to my computer to write,” he says.
The late-in-life start has led him down a path that he’s passionate about. In fact, today, with writing plays, attending performances, participating in a playwriting group and more, he may be about as busy as he was when he was a corporate lawyer working 70 hours a week. “This last year I made about as much for the entire year as I charged for one hour as a lawyer,” he says. “It’s not about the money for me – I get such pleasure out of it. I’ve always loved to write.”
Keyser got into the world of theater in a fairly un-theatrical way. He and his wife, Ellen Kramer, were attending a play in Sarasota, FL, where they’d recently moved, when they learned that a senior theater group was forming and holding auditions. Theater-going is one of their main hobbies — Keyser says he probably sees 100 plays a year. So he thought he’d give it a go. He went to try out and was accepted immediately, because, he was told, the woman-dominated group needed more men. Not long after, when given the chance to act, he realized he was lousy at it. However, he soon discovered he had a knack for writing after asking if he could rewrite some of the sketches that he’d acted. That’s when he decided to throw himself into playwriting, reading books, attending seminars, and mixing and mingling with the theatre community at large.
A number of Keyser’s plays have been performed by theatre groups — many of which are senior theatres — across the country. That’s thanks to their quality, but also thanks, in part, to a woman named Bonnie Vorenberg, who is president of the ArtAge Senior Theatre Resource Center. Vorenberg met Keyser and was impressed by his plays. She says they really play well on an elder-dominated stage, because they’re short plays about feisty characters in modern situations, and they’re frequently comedies, which are especially popular in the Senior Theatre Resource Center catalogue. “People want to laugh. We have no shows about Alzheimer’s. We have no funeral shows, because the people are going through that all the time,” she says. “We intentionally run shows to lighten the mood and not make you cry.”
Vorenberg says that she’s seen interest grow in recent years around senior theater, because it’s such a fulfilling endeavor for participants and audience members. She says that many people she speaks with are relieved when they learn that actors don’t need to memorize lines when they participate, and they don’t necessarily need to move around the stage. Script reading — and sitting — is just fine, and no experience is necessary. “The thing about theater that is wonderful is it uses every part of your body — physical, mental, social, cultural, emotional,” she says. That social element, she adds, is especially helpful to older people, who may be experiencing the loss of friends and family, as well as the loss of mobility, driving and other life changes. “All of a sudden, they have a group,” she says.
Vorenberg says she works with a lot of retirement communities, theater companies, community centers and anywhere that older adults gather that might be interested in producing plays for seniors. She has a collection of more than 400 pieces – all for seniors – that range from short skits to three-act musicals. Last year, she says, there were more than 700 performances of those plays at different venues across the country and around the world.
While not all who try it will become tireless actors and playwrights, there’s always the chance that someone will find a new hobby and run with it, like Keyser. And he’s incredibly grateful that he did. “I can’t tell you how lucky I’ve been,” he says. “People say to me, ‘if you had your choice of any age, what would you be?’’ “I say, what I am right now. It’s perfect. I can’t think of a time in my life than I was happier than right now. Being able to write and see my work done on a stage — that’s really exciting.”