Putting the Age Back in Stage: Senior Theatre Companies Around the Bay - Theatre Bay Area

Last year my son and I were invited to perform in a holiday revue with a local group of singers and dancers, most of whom would qualify as seniors. There were young children and families in the show as well, but the bulk of the performers were from a generation I’ve now learned is termed the “Golden Boomers”—those folks born at the front end of the Baby Boomer generation who comprise more and more of the general population. The master of ceremonies (a Broadway veteran) commented upon looking at the range of ages onstage (roughly three to 90 years) on how ageless art is. Certainly art is ageless in theory, but I wondered how many opportunities are out there for folks as they move through each consecutive decade. Some folks will tell you the roles have dried up. Others say they’ve never been busier.

So I decided to look at the opportunities across the Bay Area for folks who fit this demographic and have had a life in the theatre, or maybe just harbor a dream to tread the boards someday. Yes, roles exist here and there in the mainstream theatre for people “of a certain age”—the occasional grandparent or maybe even a King Lear—but these can hardly be enough to satisfy and utilize this bulging Boomer population. So where does a 60-something-plus go for broader opportunities in the Bay Area or to hone and update his or her skills?

Other than the venerable Stagebridge theatre company in Oakland, which has been around since 1978, these opportunities aren’t easy to find. Still, there are flourishing, if less officially established, organizations that offer ample opportunities for seniors to sing and dance including the Golden Follies in Dublin and the Santa Cruz Follies in Santa Cruz. It is probable that more of these organizations exist across the Bay Area, but chances are that you’ll hear of them via word of mouth before you’ll see splashy websites and social networking campaigns recruiting members and audiences given the slower migration to the Internet among this demographic.

Missions across senior-focused performing organizations vary, but a key commonality is the desire to break the stereotypes of aging and provide a place where aging members of the population can go to continue in or dabble in the performing arts. Stagebridge, the oldest—and possibly most innovative—senior theatre company in the nation, is striving to become a home for aging professionals in the arts while at the same time creating more opportunities for people aged 50 to 100 (or older) to study and perform.

Under the artistic direction of lifelong theatre and screen veteran Josiah Polhemus, who joined the organization in 2007, Stagebridge boasts a thriving community of elder artists and abounds in opportunities to perform, including acting, improv, storytelling, singing and dancing. Each week up to 140 students attend as many as 17 classes in these disciplines. With these classes, Polhemus strives to bring in professional instructors and artists such as acclaimed playwright Anthony Clarvoe, former ACT associate artistic director Joy Carlin, Emmy Award winner Terrance Kelly and veteran improviser Barbara Scott. Carlin says she’s been “hooked” ever since Polhemus recruited her to teach acting at Stagebridge. As an active director/actor, she occasionally has to give up teaching, but she says, “I love my students and the whole concept of the organization and the way it is run. It’s a social service with a very professional faculty and outlook.”

Polhemus, who turns 45 this month, finds that in working with Stagebridge, he was required to reassess his own views of aging. “I used to think seniors were different from me because they were older and wiser,” he says. “I came to realize they were exactly the same as me but had just lived maybe 20 to 40 years longer.”

Polhemus says a key goal with Stagebridge is to bring together professionals and nonprofessionals and allow them to perform side by side. An advanced study program through the company’s Performing Arts Training Institute gives elders more opportunities to grow as professional performing artists. Via this program and in collaboration with the Aurora Theatre last year, Stagebridge offered two internships to seniors to work with professionals on the company’s production of “Collapse.” Jobs included assisting production management on lights, set construction and shadowing the director during the rehearsal process.

Members of Stagebridge are a mix of aging professional actors and amateurs, with the majority being amateurs. For the company’s professional shows, there is typically one Equity contract, with the balance of actors being paid on a sliding scale depending on the size of the role. The type of work the company produces is exemplified in the current world premiere of “Counter Attack”—an original play by San Francisco playwright Joan Holden inspired by Candacy Taylor’s book, “Counter Culture.” The story aims to break the stereotypes around career and aging by examining the lives of career waitresses. It illustrates how happy, successful and fulfilled many of these women are. San Francisco theatre veteran Joan Mankin starred in the show, which closed March 3 at the Ashby Stage.

The Santa Cruz Follies just celebrated its 56th year, although it has undergone numerous name changes during that time (starting as Seniorama). The Follies’ parent organization is Senior Citizens Opportunities of Santa Cruz, devoted to providing social and educational opportunities to elders, and 60 percent of the yearly operating revenue for SCO comes from Follies ticket sales. The Follies are open to anyone aged 50 to 100. Auditions are required to perform in the Follies, which culminates in a weeklong yearly spectacle held at the 2,000-seat Santa Cruz Civic Auditorium. The company also provides less taxing monthly shows that offer opportunities for members who don’t qualify for the annual Follies to get their show legs or try their hand at directing. Children are encouraged to participate in the monthly shows in an effort to bridge the generation gap.

The Golden Follies in Dublin is a group started by two sisters—Susan Bostwick and Diane Stawicki—who have been teaching seniors for 20 years and who have been performing and dancing professionally their entire lives. Their primary offerings are song-and-dance revues for people aged 55 to 86, performed anywhere they are asked to perform: philanthropic organizations, senior centers, casinos and theatre restoration openings, to name a few. Members of the Golden Follies are primarily students in the sisters’ dance studio from all walks of life, many of whom are still in the workforce.

Most senior performing groups claim they’d like to reach a younger audience even though the bulk of their audiences are seniors, if for no other reason than to transfer an appreciation of the performing arts to younger generations. The Santa Cruz Follies tends to draw a more elderly audience given its choice of material (musical revues, nostalgia pieces, etc.), but those audiences are huge. Approximately 30 bus tours visit the show in one week, carrying 1,300 to 1,400 people and that doesn’t include the average 1,200 walk-ins. The Follies are a major boon to the local economy, bringing in an estimated $100,000 in tourism income to local businesses, restaurants and hotels during the performance week. Bari Morgan Miller, artistic director for the Santa Cruz Follies for the last four years, recounts a story of outreach to a classroom of drama students in an effort to expose younger artists to the work they were doing. “The kids were griping and grumbling about having to be there, thinking this would just be a lesson in music history,” she says. “But they loved the show. More than once we heard comments like ‘old people rock.’” Thank-you letters sent after the show echoed that sentiment, with one writer noting, “the make-up was so good you couldn’t even see the wrinkles.”

For Stagebridge, Polhemus says he would like to appeal to a broader range of ages, but he fears that too strong of an appeal to younger audiences might alienate the bread-and-butter subscribers and supporters of so many years, who tend to be seniors. He does aim to keep ticket prices low so that families, seniors and people of multiple income levels can attend.

So whom can you expect to see on stage at some of these venues? Almost anyone, really, if they have a love of the performing arts. It could be your real estate agent, an ex-Broadway hoofer, a Lawrence Welk champagne lady or your grandpa. A common theme among participants in performing organizations for seniors is that it gives them a new lease on life. At a time when individuals can easily feel sidelined by family or society at large, many senior performers find a rejuvenated outlook when they have a place to go, a community of like-minded people to interact with, and a goal to achieve, whether that be learning a timestep or landing a lead role in a play. “I listen to feedback I get from people I’m around every day,” says Polhemus. “I think art saves lives. That is one of my main philosophies. I’ve seen it, and I think it can save lives.”

Polhemus relates a story about a student from one of the first classes he taught. It was an improv class, and he confesses some nervousness about taking over a class that someone else had taught for 25 years. “Three weeks into class, a woman came up to me. Her knees were in such bad shape she could barely walk. She said, ‘I want you to know something. For two hours every week, I feel no pain.’ If I’ve done nothing else in my life, to know that through art, the pain of an aging elder was taken away…these people really give back to you.”

Lynn Knudsen was a Broadway singer/dancer in the 1960s. She performed under Bob Fosse in “Sweet Charity” alongside Gwen Verdon and Chita Rivera. She played the title role in the national tour. She played other Broadway shows including “The Unsinkable Molly Brown” and “Fiorello.” Today, at 71, she performs with the Santa Cruz Follies and directs some of the company’s monthly shows. “This is my opportunity to unretire,” Knudsen says. “It’s an opportunity to rejoin an activity I’ve always done.” When asked what it’s like to perform in this capacity having spent a decade on the stages of the Great White Way, she responds that there are no small stages. “It is just as fulfilling for me to perform at the Santa Cruz Civic Auditorium as it was on the stage at the Winter Garden Theatre in New York. When I perform, it is an altered consciousness. That’s what theatre is—a community of consciousness with the audience. It’s a very special place. If there is a divine force somewhere, I feel connected with it when I’m in performance.”

Jeanne Gualco, who turned 93 in December and took her first tap class at the age of 71, retired from the Santa Cruz Follies in 2010 after 19 years of performing with them. Her signature act was a Charlie Chaplin impression, which she had performed enough times that audiences began to request it. It was during her 2010 performance of Chaplin at the age of 91 that she decided it was time to retire. She recounts, “It was time to go onstage, the music had started, and I couldn’t find my mustache. I panicked backstage. You can’t do Charlie Chaplin without a mustache. Our director stopped the music and put the next act on. I was refusing to go onstage, and they told me, ‘No, you’re going on.’ Just then, the stage tech who was running the curtain grabbed a roll of electrical tape, ripped off a piece, slapped it on my lip, and pushed me on stage.” Folks who saw the performance say it was her best ever.

It’s hard to think of many better ways to spend your 91st year than the way Jeanne did. Even if the one small concession is a piece of black electrical tape stuck to your lip.