Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Intergenerational Theater

Sharon Wildwind

I had a wonderful time playing on Saturday afternoon.

As part of the second Creative Aging Calgary Symposium, I attended a drama workshop taught by David Barnet of the University of Alberta. David is the Artistic Director of Geriactors and Friends, an intergenerational theater company based in Edmonton, Alberta.

In Geriactors and Friends about fifteen people over the age of sixty-five and an equal number of graduate students in drama from the university come together to write and present plays that center around issues of aging and personal experiences.

David showed us some of the ways that he brings a group of people together to get them started working on ideas that might turn into plays. We started with a standard ice-breaker: dividing up into pairs, learning a little about the other person and then introducing that person to the group.

Then we started playing.

Again, in pairs, one person in the pair could only say “Yes” and the other person could only say “No.”

Two people had to say only “good-bye” to one another as they parted. Move apart a few feet, say “good-bye” again, and keep doing that until one person reached a door and left so the people were out of sight of one another. They they were to wait a few seconds, the person who had left re-entered and the two people moved closer to one another a few feet at a time, saying only “Hello.”

We sat in a circle and were each given a colored ball. We learned a short song in Spanish and on the chorus, which was a single syllable sung over and over, each person passed a ball to the person on his or her right.

On the first try, everyone ended up with a ball at the end of the song. As we picked up the tempo, some people inevitably ended up with two balls or none at all. Then the balls began to disappear. David looked around at one point and there were only 5 balls still in play; we’d started with 25.

It turned out that one of the participants had decided to toss a ball over his shoulder each time he felt himself falling behind in passing balls along. The really funny thing was that no one in the circle had noticed him doing it, except for the woman sitting next to him, who then began tossing balls over her shoulder, too.

If you have any experience in drama you’ve guessed by now that we were playing acting games. David described this play as a non-threatening way to teach people who have no acting experience something about stagecraft.

We divided up into groups of five each. Everybody picked a prop that reminded them of a story from their lives. We told our stories to each other and from the five picked one or two stories to turn into an improvised play.

Okay, I’m bragging, but our group’s playlet brought down the house. One of the women in our group had chosen a Barbie doll for her prop. She told us a story about her mother.

Back in the 1920s, when things on the farm were good, her mother received dolls and toys at Christmas. In the 1930s, when things weren’t good, she had to give away all of her dolls and toys to younger children in the family because there was no money to buy new toys. The woman in our group had only learned decades later that her mother had never been allowed to keep a doll for herself. When her mother was eighty-five she bought her mother a doll from the 1930s so that she would finally have a doll that she could keep.

This is exactly the kind of story that Geriactors and Friends are looking for.

If you have the opportunity to see some intergenerational theater, do it. Even better if you, as a writer, have a chance to participate in or assist this type of theater company, do it even more.

The Seniors Theater Resource Center has a lot of background material about and for such companies.

In addition to Geriactors and Friends, here are some other well-known intergenerational theater companies:
Target Theatre, Victoria, British Columbia
Act 2 Studio, Toronto, Ontario
Roots & Branches, New York City
Elders Share the Arts, New York City
Stagebridge, San Francisco, California
Young at Heart, Northampton, MA (If you haven’t seen the movie by the same name, it’s another must see.)
Magic Me, London, UK
Age Exchange, London, UK

Quote for the week:
I had a conception of seniors that did not include playfulness. The laughing, playing, and silliness caught me off guard. . . There is a powerful energy created in playfulness.
~ Matthew Gusul, Assistant Director, Geriactors and Friends, 2009


Elizabeth Zelvin said...

I'm astounded to see two groups in New York City on your list--I'm gonna look them up! About throwing the ball over the shoulder: if you've ever seen close-up magic, you know how effective that simple disappearing trick is. Are you sure the person who started that wasn't a plant? Fun post, Sharon. :)

TheaMinPA said...

That sounds like a wonderful group! Wish I was closer to one of them - theatre was one of my great loves in my youth, but haven't made time for it in decades. Maybe it's time to try it again?

Anonymous said...

Liz, the two NYC groups were pivotal to the start of the Creative Aging movement. They've been going for a long time.

From the look on David's face when the balls disappeared I suspect that the guy in the group was definitely NOT a plant.

Thea, while it's great to have these organized companies, any community can start doing activities like this on a smaller level with church groups, seniors centers, and care facilities.