Discover more from Creative Aging Resource Journal from Lifetime Arts
Visibility, Creativity and Community: Theatre Arts Programming Offers a New Pathway for Older Adults
Diantha Dow Schull talks with theatre professionals, Ed Friedman + Julie Kline, on creative aging programming in the theatre arts + shares global programming efforts from a variety of theatre groups.
“Anytime we center older adults on stage, we are really fighting ageism, we are really making folks who sometimes feel invisible in society ‘visible’ front and center...Creative aging arts education programs in theater arts ensure that participants are building artmaking skills and provide in-depth opportunities for older adults to engage socially — with each other AND their audiences.”
— Julie Kline, Lifetime Arts
Those of us involved with creative aging are aware of older adults’ growing interest in participatory arts as they seek to develop creative skills, revisit earlier artistic efforts, or simply experiment with different forms of creative expression. Theater arts is one of the arts disciplines attracting older adults as students, performers, and creators.
This issue of the Creative Aging Resource Newsletter from Lifetime Arts explores how creative aging programs and classes engage older adults with the world of theater, how participants are benefiting from those experiences, and how their involvement is stimulating new awareness of older adult creativity and new forms of community theater.
What are Theater Arts for Older Adults?
We are exploring existing and emerging forms of theater that foster older adult creativity and participation including:
Professional theater that includes experienced older adult performers
Storytelling and reader’s theater
Playback theater or reminiscence theater
Play readings and digital dramas
These programs can be offered by professional companies that create older adult ensembles or by community theaters and art centers. They can be led by professional directors, organized by amateur companies, or spontaneously developed by peer groups.
Like all theater, participatory theater programming for older adults address a diverse set of themes. These programs also put older adult artists “front and center.”
Diantha talks with Julie Kline, Director of Education & Training and theatre teaching artist, and Ed Friedman, Lifetime Arts’ former Co-Founder/Executive Director, on this topic below.
The Research: Benefits and Impacts of Theater Participation by Older Adults
The expansion of theater learning and theater making by and for older adults reflects growing understanding that arts participation can benefit the health and wellbeing of older adults. Research studies are providing evidence for the value of creative expression, including dramatic expression, in the lives of older adults. Along with chorale singing, movement and dance, photography or painting, theater is a powerful vehicle through which older adults can continue to learn, to express themselves, to contribute, and to develop new social connections.
Despite an increase in participatory theater for and with older adults, research on the specific benefits of such participation is uneven. There are few rigorous research projects or randomized control studies, nor are there systematic qualitative studies. When scholars do focus on the impacts of older adult participation in theater, they almost always state that more scholarship is needed. However, several researchers and studies stand out.
Performance and Cognition
Drs. Helga Noice and Tony Noice have worked together for nearly two decades to understand how performing, and learning to perform, affects older adult cognition. Their studies provide evidence of significant improvements in memory, comprehension, creativity and other cognitive skills. According to Helga Noice:
“Good acting is a highly complex cognitive process…that involves retrieving the dialogue and movements from long-term memory, but using them spontaneously.”
Access the doctors’ related research studies below:
Social and Emotional Benefits
Pam Schweitzer, founder of the Theater Trust in London, is renowned for her early work on reminiscence theater, a form of Older People’s Theater. In a 30 year retrospective published in 2006, she discussed a cluster of benefits that derive from participation in the theater arts including:
development of new relationships and friendships
fostering of intergenerational trust and empathy
increased self-confidence and self-affirmation
Schweitzer also discusses the value of theater arts participation in creating “a community of memory.”
In 2016, scholars Michelle Rickett and Miriam Bernard carried out a literature review encompassing 77 studies of older adult participation in theater arts. Their conclusion:
“This literature highlights the benefits and value of older people’s theater and drama participation particularly on health and well-being; group relationships; and learning and creativity.”
These same scholars are collaborating with Keele University and practitioners at the New Vic Theater (UK) on a multi-year series of linked research projects, “Ages and Stages,” exploring “the role of older people in the theater and the impact theater has on older people’s lives.” Research to date has revealed: “…an increased sense of well-being, purpose, self-confidence and belonging that people derive from their theater participation.”
The voices of theater participants echo the findings of scholars. As one example, a participant in the Elders Company of the Royal Exchange Theater (Manchester, UK) reported:
“My life has changed so much since joining the Elders Company. I feel so happy, so confident, so creative, and I feel so safe and respected. You have helped me shine."
Beyond the cognitive, social, and emotional benefits of theater participation, there are also cultural/social impacts that merit consideration by researchers and practitioners.
Participatory Theater Showcases Creativity
Participation in theater offers older adults multiple avenues for creativity: playwriting, performing, designing sets and costumes, integrating music and movement, and more. These activities benefit participants in innumerable ways, from greater confidence to heightened well-being. They also have another kind of impact: they demonstrate to audiences, to the cultural community and to the larger world the creative capacities of older adults, capacities that are often undeveloped or invisible. With growing theater participation 50+ adults are increasingly recognized as contributors to the dynamic landscape that is theater arts.
The Leeds Playhouse (Leeds, UK) houses two groups of older actors: the Performance Ensemble, a professionally led group of older, experienced actors, and Feeling Good theater, for older adults with no prior theater experience. The two groups offer very different types of productions. The Performance Ensemble has gained recognition for the high quality of its more formal productions, while the Feel Good theater is known for its experimental work showcasing local adults’ experiences and talents.
VIVA Theater in Boulder, Colorado (USA) is a community theater dedicated to “encouraging healthy, vibrant aging through creative expression. We provide opportunities for older adults to participate in the arts as performers and learners.”
VIVA is dedicated to a variety of theatrical experiences: one act plays, full plays, radio plays, storytelling events, staged readings … “whatever our members want to try.” These varied formats both stimulate and showcase members’ creative talents. The company includes experienced artists who want to perform along with complete theater novices who are encouraged to study and to work behind the scenes.
Selected Programming Examples
Creative Aging Arts Education Model (sequential, skill-based, socially engaging)
Plan-B Theater in Utah, a company with a strong social justice mission, is unique in its emphasis on developing playwrights whose experiences reflect the diversity of our national culture and of the people of the state of Utah. In February 2022, the company offered a first time Creative Aging Playwriting Workshop that engaged a selected group of older adults in the development of new plays. The workshop was designed to facilitate creation of new productions while also facilitating social engagement.
The Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts in Los Angeles offers creative aging programs for adults 55+ including two current courses: Staged Stories and Beyond Words. The classes are “for those 55 and older to tap their creativity and find new ways to share their personal stories.”
Ping Chong + Company, New York, NY is an interdisciplinary theater company that develops projects in multiple forms that emphasize collaboration with partners, social justice, and community engagement. Their Artful Storytelling program is “a theatrical storytelling workshop series for ages 55+, offered in collaboration with the Educational Alliance and 3 senior centers on the Lower East Side.”
A recent radio theater workshop offered by the Westchester County (NY) Department of Senior Programs and Services, in collaboration with Lifetime Arts, illustrates the model. Vinny Mraz, a theatre arts professional, led the 6-session program that included basic skills in playwriting, storytelling and sound design. Participants explored what makes a story effective on radio, and how to use household objects to create sound. Developed during the COVID pandemic, the program was offered via Zoom, enabling participants from varied parts of the country to work with one another and to socialize.
In San Francisco, the Stagebridge Senior Performing Arts Institute offers professionally led courses in a wide variety of theater skills such as storytelling, acting, storytelling and more. “The classes provide both lifelong learning spaces for older adults as well as performance opportunities at the end of every quarterly session.”
Professional Companies + Community Theater Groups
Classes offered by professional companies or community theater groups are another source of introduction to and engagement with theater arts. While they vary in emphasis and approach, they share a common commitment to improving the lives of older adults through theater education.
The Queens Theater (Queens, NY) partners with several senior centers to create performing ensembles of older adults. Company members offer acting classes for each centers’ guests, and assist in the development of a production based on participants’ lives that is performed at the center and at the theater. The courses are designed “to enhance their cognitive skills, take part in physical activity, and form new and lasting bonds with ensemble members.” See also, “We’re Not Done: Creating Ensemble Theatre and Community with Senior Citizens.”
In Orlando, Florida, the Central Florida Center for the Arts offers CFC Arts Narrators!, a series of weekly classes, held over 4 months, that focus on basic skills in public performance, script reading and related movements. The series culminates in public performances at community locations consisting of improvisation, monologues and short scripts.
Theater 55 (Minneapolis, Minnesota, US) was founded in 2018 to provide opportunities for participation by people over 65 interested in theater. The Company’s productions have included “HAIR: By Those who Lived It” and “Jesus Christ Superstar.” Older adults take on roles in these and other plays notwithstanding their looks or their age. For some plays, such as HAIR, the actors’ real life experiences during the same time period helped make them especially convincing performers. Many bring experiences and talents to other roles that are advantages. One company member stated:
“As mature performers, we bring lots of stage and life experiences. I think the energy and wisdom and talent developed over the years by everyone in our cast bring more depth and understanding to the production.”
GeriActors & Friends is an intergenerational theater group based in Edmonton, Canada that offers weekly workshops for older adults, acting opportunities, traveling productions and radio plays. The group was founded by a group of older adults who shared an interest in theater arts. Over the years, they have created a model of a peer-founded and peer-led organization that is a leader in the field of senior theater in Canada.
The Elders Company, a program of the Royal Exchange Theater in Manchester, UK, is “for people aged 60+ to take part in regular sessions to develop performance skills, learn more about theater and work intergenerationally with our Young Company.” Each year the Company recruits up to 20 individuals who receive training and develop their theater skills. Participants work on 3 projects over the course of a year.
The Altentheater in Cologne, Germany is one of the oldest “senior theater” companies in Europe. It has been part of a professional company, the Freie Werkstatt Theater (FWT), that performs literary works with performers of all ages. Members of the Altentheater range from their mid-60’s to mid-90’s. They use their personal histories to co-create productions that they then tour all over Germany and beyond. They perform in public spaces and local theaters for audiences of all ages. Members have built strong ties with one another; for some, Altentheater is a second family. As of September 2022, this company has announced that its founders are retiring and that the work will come to an end at the FWT.
The Company of Elders is an acting ensemble developed by Re-Live, a Welsh Arts-in-Health non-profit in Cardiff, Wales, UK. Members of the group work together closely to create plays that are based on and are relevant to their lives. These are performed locally or online. “Constellations” an online performance that has been widely viewed, is a recent production focused on “loneliness and belonging in a hyper-connected world.”
This summary of current trends in older adult theater participation cannot capture their scope and depth. In the UK and in Europe there are many new groups, and here in the US, senior theaters and community theaters that engage older adults are a widespread phenomenon.
As this movement towards older adult theater is taking place, so is the movement towards creative aging. The two trends are not only aligned; they are intertwined. The concepts and the practices overlap.
To the extent that creative aging as a concept and a practice continues to grow, so will participatory theater for older adults – and vice versa. Both would benefit from a unifying network to help advance information exchange, research and experimental practices.
About Lifetime Arts
Lifetime Arts is the national leader in the development and dissemination of creative aging capacity building services. Training, technical assistance and innovative resources help catalyze arts education programming in organizations that serve older adults including museums, public libraries, arts and senior service organizations.
About Diantha Dow Schull
Diantha Dow Schull is Principal and Founder of DDSchull Associates LLC, providing advisory and training services for museums, libraries, foundations and nonprofits. She is also a cultural organization program specialist and has led the development of major national creative aging programs for public libraries in collaboration with Lifetime Arts. She has written articles and books for museum and library professionals, including, Boomers and Beyond: Reconsidering the Roles of Libraries, with Pauline Rothstein, PhD. Diantha has been part of Lifetime Arts’ extended team for over a decade.
The Creative Aging Resource Newsletter is made possible through the generous support of E.A. Michelson Philanthropy.