Seniors On Stage

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By Anne Levin

Photos Courtesy of McCarter Theatre Center

Professional actors spend years perfecting their technique. But sometimes it can be the untrained who deliver the most affecting performances. Consider the 16 members of McCarter Theatre’s OnStage Seniors program. This ensemble of amateurs—most of them retired from professions such as teaching, medicine, and writing—have come to acting late in life. None have had formal training. But being on stage has become an important part of their lives.

The performances they give in senior centers, community centers, theaters, libraries, prisons, and schools are the culmination of a process that begins with the interviewing of fellow seniors throughout the community. From these interviews come scripts, which members craft into monologues and scenes. This is a fact-based method of performance that explores issues relevant to members of a particular community.

While the group’s shows are not always about aging or the senior experience, it is a recurring theme. The texts can be funny, touching on subjects like dating and sex over 65. They can be serious, about making end-of-life decisions and dealing with the infirmities that come with advanced years.

Each performance is followed by a post-show “talkback,” where audience members get to share comments about what they’ve just seen. More often than not, members of the ensemble discover that their work has struck a chord.

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“For me, one of the most satisfying things has been reaching people who don’t usually go to theater and don’t usually feel their stories are validated on the stage,” says group member Mimi Schwartz, a retired teacher and author. “Last year we went to the male and female prison at Bo Robinson (Albert M. “Bo” Robinson Assessment and Treatment Center in Trenton), and they were totally engaged. At the talkback, people started telling their own stories on the same subjects we had covered.”

Director Liz Green, who took over last year from the program’s initial director Adam Immerwahr, likens the process to “telling stories around the campfire.” An experienced director and a candidate for a master’s degree from Temple University, she has learned as much from her 16 charges as they have from her.

“I am totally honored to work with this group,” Green says. “They have an artistic mission to hone their skills as performers and storytellers, and also to bring those stories to a wider audience. I tell people that it’s so rare that someone in her thirties would have a chance to get to know people of this generation whom they aren’t related to. So I feel really, really lucky to get to know them and hear their experiences and perspectives. It’s a rare opportunity and I don’t take it for granted for a minute.”

Before becoming a part of McCarter Theatre Center in 2014, the program, founded in 2007, was under the aegis of Community Without Walls (CWW), a Princeton non-profit dedicated to seniors aging gracefully in their homes. When Immerwahr became their director, the group at CWW changed from a focus on skits and revues to a more documentary-theater, community-based model, according to Erica Nagel, McCarter’s director of Education and Engagement.

“Adam was responsible for making that shift. He said, ‘We’re going to gather stories from the community and turn them into monologues, and then bring them back to the community,’ ” Nagel said. “When I joined McCarter’s staff, I saw that this was something so in line with the McCarter mission and also with artistic director Emily Mann’s legacy of work. Because she was one of the first people to do documentary theater and was a real pioneer in the field.”

The theater group became too big for Community Without Walls to handle, and began looking for another company that could serve as a non-profit sponsor. Following several conversations to figure out a model that made sense, the group joined forces with McCarter. “They’re now in their second year with us, and they really retain their identity as an ensemble,” Nagel says. “They’re gathering the stories and getting the ideas connected. But a lot of the administrative work that was hard when they were a small, community-based ensemble is more easily absorbed by being part of McCarter.”

Mann describes OnStage Seniors as “a thrilling way for McCarter to directly connect with our community.” Every element of the program “values the input and interaction of people who love the arts, but do not consider themselves professional artists,” she says. “And the group makes terrific work! These exceptional senior ensemble members continually grow and develop in their artistry as they gather and perform stories that matter to our friends and neighbors in the region. As someone whose career has included decades of deep work on theatre of testimony and documentary style theatre, I also love that this group is working within that art form.”

In its early years, the group’s focus was on Princeton. “The goals were to include men as well as women,” says Schwartz, who has been involved from the beginning. “It has a spread across economic and racial lines. I don’t think anyone has left the group for the past couple of years. It’s been a very satisfying combination of doing something new, giving back to the community, and gathering stories.”

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As a professional writer, Schwartz has learned through the program about other aspects of the theatrical experience. “I’m used to putting stories to the page. It has been so interesting to see how a memoir gets transferred on stage, and to tell people’s stories other than my own,” she says. There is a real difference between what you put on the page and what you perform. It’s not about the craft and the words coming together in the most aesthetically satisfying way. It’s about the person who says those words.”

The ensemble meets every Wednesday, developing a script and rehearsing the scenes and monologues they create. “One way to look at it is as a collage,” says Green. “A narrator guides the audience through the entire play. Some scenes have two people together, and some are monologues. What’s new this year is the fact that some scenes are built in a framework where one character begins to tell a story, and you’ll see three other people come out and tell related stories. The original character wraps it up at the end.”

Ensemble member Dick Blofson still works for Telequest, the video production company in which he is a partner. But he has made time over the past four years to participate in OnStage Seniors.“What I really like is the challenge of working as an ensemble group,” he says “I appreciate that Liz is pushing that. I was a lighting designer and stage manager on Broadway, always behind the curtain except for when I had to deliver two lines in Finian’s Rainbow when someone was out. After all those years backstage, getting a chance to feel seriously what the actor has to do is a very different event.”

The payoff is important to him, Blofson continues. “It’s not the personal success. It has more to do with sticking with it, feeling the support, and engaging both within and outside the group.”

Each year, the performance has a different theme. This year’s production, Growth and Change, has already been presented at McCarter, as well as several senior centers. Upcoming shows include centers in South Brunswick, East Windsor, and Robbinsville, as well as Pennington Presbyterian Church and Princeton Public Library.

“I love that this ensemble is a group of community artists,” says Nagel. “They don’t consider themselves professionals, but there is such a commitment to the work they do. They want to grow as an ensemble, and as artists.”

Members of the group play an active role in other aspects of McCarter’s operations. “Some of them come to every new play reading, and to all of the shows,” Nagel says. “One of them is an audio describer for our accessible performances. Next year’s direction of A Christmas Carol will actually involve them in some way. These are people we value so much. They are woven into the fabric of the theater.”

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