The introverted James Harding has come into his own in an over-50 acting troupe
(photo by Lee Blankenship Emmert)
March 17, 2003
Theater gives seniors an outlet for self-expression, therapy, socializing and sheer fun
by Sally S. Stich
For a self-described melancholic, James Harding, 59, has undergone a radical transformation since he joined the Masters Theatre Ensemble at Kilgore Junior College in Longview, Texas. This group of 12 people, all over the age of 50, studies acting and performs short plays for audiences of family and friends, who cheer them on enthusiastically. Melancholy is permitted only if a part requires it. “I’ve always been too introverted to mix really well,” says the retired claims examiner for the Texas Workforce Commission. “But when I read an article in the local paper about acting classes for adults, I remembered acting in high school plays–and that had been a happy time for me.” He decided this was an opportunity to recapture some of that joy.
Within two months of starting class, Harding auditioned at the Longview Community Theatre, where he got the part of Buffalo Bill in Annie Get Your Gun. “I’m still a serious guy,” he says, “but I’m having more fun than ever before. I get onstage, and I relax. Even my wife says she’s seen a change in me.”
Harding is one of thousands of seniors across the country who have ventured into theater as an arena of self-expression, therapy, social benefit–and sheer fun. According to Bonnie Vorenberg, author of Senior Theatre Connections, a resource guide, the number of senior performing groups has grown from 78 in 1999 (the first year she collected data) to 409 in 2002. And senior theater is getting a serious nod from the academic world. In August 2002, Ohio State University’s department of theater served as host of the first International Senior Theatre Festival and Conference ever held in the U.S., and the university is considering offering a master’s degree in senior theater. Meanwhile, at the University of Nevada at Las Vegas (UNLV), 25 students are working toward a B.A. . in senior theater–a major first offered just three years ago.
Most of the students in the UNLV program are over 50. One is retired home contractor Jack Winston, 68, who in his early 20s performed in off-Broadway plays. He gave up the actor’s life when he married, had a family and needed a “real” job. After he retired and moved to Las Vegas, he started dabbling in local theater. Four years ago, he enrolled in classes at UNLV. “It’s not only fun,” he says, “but it’s forcing me to use parts of myself that have lain dormant for years.”
The upsurge of interest in senior theater stems from several factors, according to experts. “There is a larger population of people 50 and older,” says Ann McDonough, director of gerontology and senior adult theater at UNLV. “These people are healthy and active and want to either return to something they did earlier in their lives or take up something that they always wanted to try.”
For Lou Tudor, 56, of San Diego, joining the Late Bloomers Comedy Improv Troupe, which is geared to people over 55, started as an adventure but turned into something therapeutic. “When I retired last year, I wanted to keep busy,” says the former corporate executive, “and improv sounded like a blast, even though I had no prior stage training.” Tudor had recently suffered several bouts of serious illness and had lost a beloved 49-year-old brother-in-law to a heart attack. Doing improv not only became an exciting new hobby but also taught her to live emotionally in the present. “When you have to think on your feet,” she says, “the present is the only place you can be. Fortunately, that realization has carried over into my offstage life as well, and I think it’s helped me cope.”
Experts in health and aging agree that participation in the arts is a powerful antidote to the ravages of time–a view that has only recently gained popularity in the health-care world. “Historically, we looked at aging as a medical model,” says Susan Perlstein, executive director of the National Center for Creative Aging. “People got older, got sick and died. Now we look at it as an ‘assets model.’ Older people still have much to contribute to society, and what keeps them alive and healthy is the ability to be engaged.”
The arts, including theater, engage people socially, spiritually and cognitively. The National Endowment for the Arts is co-sponsoring a three-year study, conducted by Dr. Gene D. Cohen, director of Aging, Health and Humanities at George Washington University and author of The Creative Age. His hypothesis: engagement in cultural activities like theater can promote independence, thus lowering the risk factor for long-term care. “Unless we look at the potential in the aging population,” Cohen says, “we won’t be very creative with social policy.”
Being part of a theater group has plenty of benefits besides good physical health. Because theater is a collaborative effort, there tends to be a great deal of camaraderie. For some people, it’s like having a second family. It’s also a chance to share and revisit a life’s worth of emotional experiences. And it can teach you about yourself. “Often people’s first reaction to joining a theater group is ‘I’m too old to memorize lines,’” says Joy Reilly, associate professor of theater at Ohio State University. “And I tell them, ‘You’re never too old to memorize; it’ll just take longer. And it’s good for your brain.’” Then those naysayers memorize their lines, and they’re amazed at themselves.
Playing different roles is also a wonderful way to leave your problems behind–at least temporarily. “Studies show you can actually change your emotional frame of mind by acting a certain way,” says Sally Bailey, director of the Drama Therapy Program at Kansas State University. “And there’s a circle of energy between the audience and the actors that creates a natural high.”
The range of opportunities for older thespians is vast. It includes amateur groups that have no budget, like the Atherton Players in Alhambra, Calif., who perform unmemorized scripts written by their leader, Pat Lane, 77. They put on three or four plays a year for their fellow residents at the Atherton Baptist Home, a retirement community. Lane’s one rule is that every member of the troupe–even those with limited mobility–be treated equally. “Whoever comes to rehearsals is guaranteed a part,” she says.
Other groups offer musical reviews, oral histories or improv, like the San Diego–based Late Bloomers, who perform at a local theater, charge for their performances and pay the actors. And there are groups that use the theater to tackle social issues relevant to the aging population. The Heyday Players, a troupe of 44 volunteer actors between their mid-50s and mid-80s who perform under the auspices of the Round House Theatre–in partnership with the Montgomery County, Md., Department of Health and Human Services–tackle such themes as alcohol abuse, bereavement, family relations and isolation.
“We have an award-winning playwright on staff who writes original plays dealing with those issues, which our company performs in readers’ theater-style productions,” says Kathy Feininger, director of education and outreach for the Round House Theatre. Its free productions take place at libraries, community centers, medical conferences and senior centers. “I know from talking to audience members that we’ve made a difference, particularly in the area of alcohol abuse,” says Feininger, “and that makes our actors feel they’ve contributed significantly to the community.”
Indeed, theater has the power to transform both the audience and the actors. All the performers who participate–even if their first attempt is at age 50–are keenly aware of that. “Not only have I discovered I can memorize lines, relax and even make a fool of myself without falling apart,” says James Harding, “I’ve also become more aware of the needs of others. After all, if the audience has chosen to spend a few hours in the theater with me, I want them to feel it was time well spent.”
“It’s not only fun, but it’s forcing me to use parts of myself that have lain dormant for years.”
Copyright 2003 Time Inc.