Stagebridge: The Magic of Theater with Real Older Actors

Article excerpt

In ancient times, roving troubadours, actors, and storytellers traveled the land. When they came upon groups of people, they unfurled their rug and performed their plays. Time stopped and the audiences were transfixed in magical, timeless, unforgettable moments. When the play was over, they rolled up their rug and traveled on.

Stagebridge has been creating such magic for the past quarter-century. Our troubadours walk with canes. Our actors have wrinkles. And our storytellers wear bifocals. They roam the deserts of the senior landscape and the hills and valleys where children spend their days. The caravan (a Dodge Caravan, that is) winds its way in search of appreciative audiences. Finding them, we unfurl our rug in a variety of venues: lunchrooms abuzz with elders eating, cramped living rooms in convalescent hospitals, cafeterias with noisy schoolchildren, passageways between stacks of books in libraries, and even occasionally on stages actually designed for theater.

Audiences arrive curious, bored, tired, hyper, or upset that they have to stop eating or be quiet. But a silence falls quickly when the show begins. Audiences are stopped in their tracks by the sight of these "ancients" on their magic carpet. Elder audiences witness the enthusiasm of people their own age; younger audiences are shocked by people their great (or great- great) grandparents' ages doing things they never expected.

Time stops. For those moments, the cafeteria walls dissolve into tar-off lands of adventure and mystery. The crowded living room fades into distant familiar places tucked away in collective memories. The actors take their audiences on journeys that stir up laughter, joy, hope, and memory. When they finish, the journey often continues for the audience. They touch the actors, ask questions, make comments, come up and tell their own stories. Finally, the rug is rolled up and the actors depart. The distant lands recede and the cafeteria or living room returns to normal. People are wheeled out, return to their classrooms, go back to their bingo games-but they are never the same.

Since 1978, Stagebridge has been creating theater that brings old and young together. Based in Oakland, California, the company is the nation's oldest senior theater. Our mission has always been to make theater and storytelling an opportunity for older adults and ase these arts to bridge the generations. What began as a drama class at a senior center with five shy white-haired women has grown into a company of 100 members who average 70 years old. The theater continues to be run by the founders and supports an eight-person staff with grants from government, foundations, and corporations; donations from individuals; and earned revenues.

It is just a few minutes until curtain time at the theater, where we are performing our Grandparents Tales play tor thousands of schoolchildren. The annual play brings to life popular children's books about grandparents and is performed by a cast ranging in age from 10 to 85. "Hurry up, the play's about to begin," calls the director to a dawdling nine-year-old in the bathroom. The girl turns to her and asks, "Can't they just rewind it?"

Our concept of theater is changing-from the "live" collective world to the manufactured virtual variety that can be purchased in most stores and installed in the privacy of our own homes. …

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