Older Actors Are Taking To The Stage–WSJ

WallStreetJournal-logoClovis Clark, age 59, is a professional nurse. But she also has spent time recently as a conniving, murderous sister and a madam in a brothel.

Her latter roles came courtesy of an Atlanta theater group, the Past Prime Players.

“I love this,” says the Ellenwood, Ga., resident, who has performed in dramas, comedies, murder mysteries, skits and monologues. “Acting is an opportunity to become someone else.”

The 50-plus crowd is stage-struck. Across the country, growing numbers of older adults are joining theater companies and signing up for classes in acting, directing and playwriting. Many—empty-nesters or newly retired—have never set foot on a stage and are seeking new outlets. But many others, like Ms. Clark, caught the acting bug in high school or college, before pursuing other (paying) careers.

Return engagements

Now, they’re back. And finding new rewards.

“The experience of acting is very different as a 50-something-year-old,” says Karen Sellinger in Albany, Calif. She majored in theater in college but opted to be a psychologist.

Now, at age 60, she’s taking classes at Stagebridge, a senior theater company in Oakland, Calif.

“There’s not this dog-eat-dog competition,” Ms. Sellinger says. “It’s a…community where we’re all rooting for, and supporting, each other.

“We’re all struggling with health issues and memory,” she adds. But “I’m not thinking about my stage of life on stage. I don’t feel my knee hurt. Age is not a part of it.”

Stagebridge is evidence of the trend. Currently, 250 people take one or more of the 30 classes taught weekly in acting, playwriting, improv, storytelling, singing and musical theater, among other subjects. The number of courses has doubled in the past five years. At least half of the enrollees are ages 50 to 70.

In all, the company has eight performing troupes that visit schools, senior centers, public theaters and adult day centers. Every other year, the nonprofit commissions a play in which both professionals and students act.

“The appeal for many is that they know they’re going to be working with a group of people,” says Stuart Kandell, the founder of Stagebridge. “What they may not realize is that the group becomes a real family. Laughing, depending upon one another, making mistakes and recovering together builds a real bond.”

Bonnie Vorenberg, president of ArtAge Publications’ Senior Theatre Resource Center in Portland, Ore., which works with theater groups across the country and internationally, says she now has 791 senior theater groups in her database—up from 79 in 1997. While the growth is welcome, new organizations, she says, invariably face a steep learning curve.

Put another way: “King Lear” isn’t always the right play to start with.

“What works well for older actors is a very narrow genre,” Ms. Vorenberg explains. “Plays can’t be too long—short work is best, at 10 to 20 minutes—[and] they can’t be too difficult because that would require more rehearsals, and people will say, ‘I’m not doing this.’ But they can’t be too easy because then actors won’t be artistically challenged.” (Some companies have actors read their scripts on stage; others require them to memorize their lines.)

Scriptwriters, directors and actors say that, increasingly, shows with modern, realistic themes resonate. Audiences—and, in particular, older theatergoers—want to see older adults in positive roles, whether it’s having a new job or being sexually active.

Says Mr. Kandell at Stagebridge: “Theatrical literature has mirrored the popular cultural views of how we see older adults: either as pathetic victims trapped in nursing homes or as super grannies surfing huge waves and running marathons.”

Money trouble

Another challenge for senior theater groups: money. Actors are usually amateurs—not a big draw for donors. And funding for aging doesn’t usually go to the arts. Rather than considered life-enhancing, theater groups often are regarded as a frill.

The challenges haven’t deterred Monciella Elder, 61, from becoming a theater director and playwright. In 2009, the professional singer and actor had to stop performing due to multiple sclerosis. “I was so depressed,” she recalls. Then a nearby senior center asked her to run its drama club. Soon after, she left to found Past Prime Players in Atlanta.

Ms. Elder has taken the 18 or so actors, ages 57 to 68, “from ground zero,” she says. She trains them in voice projection, character development, improvisation and acting, along with lighting, sound and set design. In the past four years, she has written and directed more than 20 plays and skits.

For casting, she puts commitment before auditions. Actors must agree to attend twice-weekly, two-hour rehearsals, and three or four a week closer to production.

Her troupe has played at churches, women’s conferences, dinner theaters, schools and senior centers, as well as large venues in Atlanta, New Orleans and Atlantic City (where Ms. Clark played her role as a lady of the evening). Along with lighter themes, Ms. Elder has tackled spousal abuse, death and loss, and sexual orientation.

Before every performance, the actors tell the audience, “We may be past our prime, but we still love to play.” Through her work, Ms. Elder also hopes to dispel stereotypes about aging and to inspire others in their 50s and beyond. Her message: It’s never too late to follow your dreams.

Right on cue, after every performance, Ms. Elder says her phone rings with inquiries from audience members who want to join the Past Prime Players.

At a recent rehearsal, she suggested the group take a week off. They wouldn’t hear of it.

“I can’t get them to go home,” she says. “They’re enjoying themselves so much.”

Dementia and Art: Van Gogh at MoMA

Dementia and Art at MoMA–AARP

Van Gogh at MoMAPicture this: It is Tuesday, the day New York’s Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) is closed to the public, and yet I  am in their galleries surrounded by Van Goghs, Dalis, and Cezannes.  It is one of those “life moments” now etched in my brain.

There are no crowds or distractions, just seven caregivers, their spouses and parents with dementia, and a Museum educator, all animatedly discussing Picasso’s very abstract “The Seated Bather.”

The educator: “Why did Picasso choose to paint this way? There is no torso or brain. What do you see?”

“A hollow woman,” says one man with Alzheimer’s. “An empty-headed woman,” says another. “What a sexy broad!” he continues.

There may be laughs, but this is a serious approach to improving the lives of caregivers and their impaired spouses and parents. The MoMA Alzheimer’s Project’s Meet Me at the MoMA, a free monthly 1.5 hour program that attracts around 90 participants (divided into six groups) at a time, is one of many such museum programs around the country and abroad.

ARTZ (Artists For Alzheimer’s) created a program for the Louvre and the National Gallery of Australia; it also runs free weekly museum tours among six museums in Massachusetts.

No doubt, it’s a challenge for an educator. People are at different stages of Alzheimer’s (although the programs are geared to those with mild cognitive impairment). Says Laurel Humble of MoMA: “You have to be on your toes. Some answers don’t make sense. There’s a fair amount of work to keep the conversation cohesive. I’m constantly reintroducing an idea.”

Not that it matters. As the caretaker, having that meaningful experience is a rarity. These initiatives are a break from the daily hum-drum caregiver/recipient interaction.

A New York University study of the MoMA program found other benefits: a boost in self-worth and positive mood that can last several days after a program for the one with Alzheimer’s.  And caregivers? Researchers discovered they feel less isolated by socializing with others also dealing with Alzheimer’s. Plus, they’re doing something for themselves–remember, they’re not the best at that taking-care-of-themselves thing.

“It’s my lifeline, my life support,” says one MoMA regular . “Without it, I don’t think I could do it. The program is intellectually stimulating for me and my husband. It’s not just looking at pretty pictures. Both of us get to use our mind.”

I met Tania Becker, who has just launched the Arts 4 Alzheimer’s program at the Columbus Museum in Columbus, GA. Here’s her take: “They’re so engaged! Sometimes when I walk out, I can’t tell which is the person with Alzheimer’s and which is the caregiver!”

Score! 6 Ways to Use Music with Mom

Talk to neuroscientists, physicians and music therapists and they sing the same tune: when people hear music they like or make music (singing, drumming, or dancing to it), good chemicals such as dopamine are released in the pleasure centers of the brain and make them feel good. Brain imaging and clinical studies on people’s psychological states back up these findings.Score! 6 Ways to Use Music with Mom

Music is used for depression and mood, agitation, social interaction, balance, gait, attention, pain and appetite, to name just some. Some long term care settings are seeing a link between music and the reduction of psychotherapeutic drugs.

Anyone Can Use Music

The beauty of music is that you don’t need to be a pro to use it effectively. It pauses the drudgery of the day, for both caregivers and their loved ones, and is a special way to bond.

Here are six ways to make music matter:

1. Figure out their favorites.

Music from early childhood or when they were in their late teens and 20’s seems to “stick” best. Those could be show tunes, swing, opera, or opera for instance. They may love Andy Williams, Dean Martin or Tony Bennett. You can start with famous songs like “Moon River” or “Yes, Sir, That’s My Baby” or any number of others. (Google “best songs of the 1940s” or Billboard’s top hits of the ‘40s and 50s.”)

“Most people enjoy music most familiar to them,” says Alicia Clair, a professor of music therapy at the University of Kansas, who studies the effects of music on dementia, Parkinson’s, stroke and physical frailty.

Ask them what their favorite songs were/are. If that’s not feasible, play songs and see how they respond.
Engage them, if possible, by asking what they remember about the song. It is likely to remind them of a time or person. Did they used to dance to certain tunes that might bring back memories?

2. Gauge the music to the activity and time of day.

If they’re just waking up, try something calming. Have to take a shower? The tempo can be peppier to get them to the task (“When the Saints Go Marching In,” perhaps?). When it’s time for bed, opt for something soothing and slow. You can also have them put on headphones. Before bed, try a song with a slow tempo. You get the idea. A good resource is: http://soundscapemusictherapy.com/posts/song-spotlights/.

Warning: Make sure they’re not too tired, the music is not too loud and frenetic or the environment is overly stimulating.

3. Make a playlist of songs they like.

Create your own playlist of your parent’s favorite songs.
Check out: http://musicandmemory.org/request-guide/ to tailor-make a playlist.

SingFit is a mobile app and program used in both senior living communities and by individual family caregivers. It gives you the lyric cues to a song so you don’t have to remember the words. Designed for such diverse conditions as dementia, autism and traumatic brain injuries, you can sing and record favorite tunes to a playlist.

4. Decide how to deliver the music.

Is it an iPod, CD, laptop, smartphone or MP3 player? Real vinyl records? With a Mac, you can download music from iTunes. Pandora Radio lets you match a music genre (i.e. classical, country, jazz,), and singer (Bing Crosby, Frank Sinatra?) or era, such as the 1930s. Spotify has thousands of songs to choose from, too.

5. Sing your hearts out together.

If you’re in the car, you can put on your playlist, or the radio and have a sing along. Try familiar oldies like “Take Me Out To The Ball Game,” “Home On the Range” and “Let Me Call You Sweetheart.”

6. Make music and dance.

Have Dad pick up chimes or drums. Drumming circles – where people come together to play – has become popular with older adults. It’s a physical workout with therapeutic benefits, too. “I know people who couldn’t dress themselves or talk but could still play an instrument,” says Concetta Tomaino, founder of the Institute for Music and Neurologic Function.

Music and drumming are not impacted by the loss of memory. (To find a drumming circle in your area or start your own, go to: www.remo.com/health.

Dancing is possible under any circumstances. Even if your loved one sits all day or is in a wheelchair, they can still clap their hands to the rhythm or march in place to music.

Two computer programs of note: Virtuoso is a “piano” for playing duets. Sound Prism also makes chords when you put your hand on the screen.

What type of music does your loved one like? Have you tried singing, listening to music with them, or drumming? Hearing your stories would be music to our ears!