Sure enough, “Research has shown that the arts have the amazing capacity to increase social engagement and improve health, cognitive functioning, quality of life, and longevity,” according to the National Endowment for the Arts.
As I write this, the National Center for Creative Aging is hosting its annual conference in Washington DC; according to its website, “Studies show that those over 65 involved in art programs have fewer doctor visits and take less medication.”
Case in point: the effervescent joy and poise evident on stage in front of Oakland’s City Hall earlier this month during a live medley of '60s-era protest songs and love ditties performed by Oakland’s own StageBridge theater company.
StageBridge is the country’s most well-known senior theater company. Growing in popularity and influence, “senior theatre” is enjoying a nationwide boom. Sign up for the StageBridge newsletter and try to catch one of their shows!
According to the Senior Theatre Resource Center in Portland, Oregon, there are some 770 senior theatre companies in the U.S. (an increase from 79 in 1999).
Senior Theatre performers range in age from 50 to 90+, with the majority in their 60s and 70s. Not only seasoned performers make this scene. It's ideal for people who have never acted before or did so in the past. That’s because Senior Theater incorporates techniques designed to accommodate a range of abilities, and scripts and repertoire reflecting the rich life experiences of those who have been ‘round the block a few times.
For example, scripts feature mostly older characters in situations based on occurrences in older persons’ lives. Productions span multiple genres, including plays, follies, variety shows, and musicals, ranging from low-cost to extravagant staging.
The East Bay’s own award-winning, nationally acclaimed StageBridge is the pioneer in this field.
StageBridge debuted in 1978 as an acting class at a senior center. Today, with more than 100 members (average age, 70), StageBridge creates and produces theatrical works for multigenerational audiences to showcase the rich, varied experiences of older adults. Every year the members stage several hundred performances, presented at schools, senior centers, and assisted-living communities in the East Bay and beyond. Most of StageBridge’s performance material is original, commissioned from local playwrights.
Headquartered in an historic church across the street from Oakland's Whole Foods market, Stagebridge also offers classes and workshops on acting, storytelling, playwriting, singing, and improvisation; matinee school performances providing specialized messages to students; and even summer camps for older adults. Fees are sliding scale.
Regardless of whether one has a physical disability, or struggles with memorizing lines or even speaking, the focus is on developing participants’ talents and offering a creative and social opportunity. The flexibility and adaptability inherent in senior theater make all the world a stage.
Some performers memorize their lines, others read from cards. Some have physical limitations and use canes and walkers on stage. Some performers try to avoid going on stage with a walker or cane; I read an AgingWell magazine article on StageBridge that said: “One lung-cancer patient … hid her oxygen tank beneath a humongous skirt.”
Whether you're interested in performing or helping to stage plays, follies, variety shows, or musicals, senior theater provides a fantastic way to challenge your abilities, meet people, and savor the special team spirit that characterizes the theatrical production experience.
If going to Oakland isn’t feasible, maybe you can place an ad in your community newspaper to create your own senior theater group. Dozens of senior-savvy scripts and production materials are available for affordable fees from ArtAge’s Senior Theater Resource Center.
Break a leg! Metaphorically speaking, of course.