Elders Share the Arts: Transforming Memory into Art

Article excerpt

I had the experience hut missed the meaning" wrote T.S. Eliot in The Four Quartets. The work of Elders Share the Arts is all about reflection and revelation: looking at the experience of one's life and rinding its story. It is ahout discovering the beginnings, middles, and ends -the stories within the stories, the emergent shapes and recurring patterns, the narrative thread of meaning.

For more than twenty-five years. Elders Share the Arts has worked with ciders in community-based sites throughout New York City to help them find and give creative voice to their stories and life experiences. Starting in 1979 with a single "living-history theater" workshop at the Hudson Senior Center (the nation's first senior center located in the heart of the poverty-ridden South Bronx), ESTA soon grew to include five other senior centers in the Bronx. The performing groups that emerged - all working with material drawn from their own lives-laid the basis for formation of the Pearls of Wisdom, an acclaimed ensemble of elder storytellers that tours New York City to this day.

ESTA'S beginning coincided with and responded to major developments in the fields of gerontology and oral history. In gerontology, the psychiatrist Robert Butler, in his provocative book Why Survive? Growing Old in America (1975), challenged the long-held medical belief that reminiscence was an early sign of encroaching senility and, as such, should be vigorously discouraged. Instead, he argued that reminiscence-an activity engaged in by people of all ages hut in a heightened way by older adults -is an essential part of healthy aging. Telling stories, and repeating those that hold particular significance, is a part of the creative process of achieving psychological integration, a process rooted in the discovery and passing on of one's legacy.

Concurrently, the field of oral history, initially revived in the 1960s, had gained new respect and attention as a method of recovering and validating the lives of ordinary people and, in particular, the lives of ethnically diverse people, of women, and of those lacking official power or status.

At first, ESTA found theater, with its emphasis on ensemble and public presentation, to be the ideal medium in which to work. …