Senior Theater

By Tawny Maya McCray

May 21, 2010 6 min read

There's a growing movement in the theater scene as more and more people older than 50 are taking to the stage.

"People are living longer, healthier, more active lives," says Doug Hill, associate director of the senior adult theater program at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. "We've got all these baby boomers who are retiring any minute now. They have the energy, the creativity and the funds to do theater."

June Gottleib, 72, discovered the artist in herself by accident about 10 years ago, after she and her husband relocated to San Diego from Michigan, where she had worked as a psychotherapist for 26 years.

"I wasn't sure exactly what I wanted to do, and I decided I didn't want to continue doing what I had been doing," she says. "I never, ever in my life thought of acting, but I happened to see an ad in (a local newspaper) that said, 'Do you want to be in show business?' and I thought, 'Well, that sounds like fun.'"

Bonnie Vorenberg, president of ArtAge's Senior Theatre Resource Center, says the number of senior theater groups in the United States has grown from 79 in 1999 to more than 700 today.

"There's a new attitude toward aging. It's not cool anymore to just sit around and not do anything," Vorenberg says. "Also, there's a higher educational level of seniors who are out there now. And a lot of them are women who have been in the work force, so they have done speaking in front of a group, perhaps have done writing, maybe have familiarity with literature, so theater is a natural for them."

Gottleib, who received her master's degree in social work from the University of Michigan, says the community workshops and therapy groups she and her fellow students had to orchestrate back when she was in school no doubt helped her in being onstage.

"I feel at ease in front of other people, and that might really be a plus," she says.

Gottleib says she enjoys wearing wigs and different costumes and will play pretty much any part, though she knows the roles are limited because of her age. Some of the characters she has played include a grandma, a wife, a helper in the house and a prostitute.

"That was a fun, fun play," she says of playing one of five older prostitutes in a stage reading.

Vorenberg says that one thing she likes a lot about senior theater is that the form is so flexible. People can use scripts if they don't want to -- or can't -- memorize lines, which can play out as readers theater, or script-in-hand performances. If someone likes music, he can do a musical review. Others may use personal recollections to tell life stories or war stories.

"If you have a passion, you can express it," Vorenberg says, adding that the benefits of senior theater include physical, mental, social, cultural, psychological and spiritual well-being.

Hill says a big benefit for seniors who come to the "retirement mecca" that is Las Vegas is the fact that senior theater lets like-minded people, who have moved from all over and don't necessarily have communities or friends to surround themselves with, form peer groups.

"A lot of them have said it's really helped keep their minds alert," he says. "Some have said it's psychologically good for them. Some wives have husbands who are extremely challenged, whether it's physically or mentally with Alzheimer's, and doing this class once a week gives them a chance to get away from that responsibility and literally play. They don't have to think about medication, the next doctor visit, do we have the insurance filed, all those things that eat away at your time and your well-being."

Gottleib says her husband of 50 years has dementia and recently was transferred out of her care and into an assisted living facility. She says that though she does make daily visits to him, the level of stress she was under being his full-time caregiver has subsided, and she's now able to invest even more time in being an artist.

"I'm slowly getting back into my own creative things that I like to do," she says, adding that it's nice to lose yourself in a character when you're going through so much personally.

Unfortunately, Hill says, with the budget cuts Nevada is facing, his university is looking at the possibility of eliminating the senior theater program. They most likely will know their fate soon, but in the meantime, Hill is continuing to plan for upcoming seasons.

"We're going to start writing scenes and monologues that we can take out on tour, as well," he says. "So it's no longer a 20-year-old assuming what a 60- or 70-year-old lives through; it's a 70-year-old saying, 'This is what I'm going through; this is what I think is important; this is what I think needs to be talked about.'"

ArtAge continues going strong and has hundreds of resources -- including plays, books, DVDs, CDs, script sheets, e-documents and e-scripts -- that cater to both the active and the frail senior. To learn more, visit http://www.SeniorTheatre.com or call 800-858-4998.

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