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Senior Theater Groups Offer Self-Expression and Socializing

Senior theater keeps seniors sharp and helps them meet new people


Happy senior couple hugging in theater audience
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Senior theatre thrives. What was once a trend is now a movement. New books, plays, research, academic programs, funding and some healthy media coverage help expand the field. It's challenging, rewarding and fun. With all this vibrancy, it's a great time to be in senior theatre.

Senior Theater Performing Groups Increase Across the Country
The strongest development in senior theatre is the incredible growth in the number of performing groups. In 1999, only 79 senior theatre companies existed. In 2001 there were 291; in 2002 there were 378, and in 2003 there were 419 groups. You can imagine my excitement when the number of senior theatre companies in the United States topped 530. The growth is astonishing.

A Diversity of Senior Theater Groups
Senior theater companies range from amateur to professional and are sponsored by such diverse groups as educational institutions, retirement communities, senior centers, and community theatre groups. Anywhere seniors gather has become fertile ground for program development.

An ongoing trend in the field is a proliferation of many different performance styles.

  • The most popular form is readers theatre and script-in-hand performances. These less threatening techniques help participants leap over the memorization hurdle so more performers can be on stage with confidence.
  • Playviewing, playwrighting, acting in commercials, play reading groups and using life history to create theatrical works are a hit with seniors.
  • Also popular: creating theatre to educate audiences about issues such as aging awareness, fall prevention and a wide assortment of disease related concerns are well received around the country. These "edudramas" provide an extra bonus because they are very fundable.

Though plays of all lengths are chosen, the most useful ones are shorter scripts that run from 10 to 30 minutes long. They provide a maximum of flexibility so groups can present several for a longer performance or fewer for shorter ones. Directors can tailor performances to accommodate cast absences and they often come with less expensive royalty fees.

New Venues for Senior Theater
Senior theater activity continues to expand into areas which have been untouched. Some of these innovative programs include a travel agency which specializes in senior theatre trips to New York, London and Chicago.

Another unique senior theater program is at New York's Dorot University where they use theatre with home-bound elders. Each week a group of seniors gather around their phones for a conference call to read plays. The organizers believe the drama experience will help participants form supportive and lasting friendships.

As senior theater grows, so do advancements in funding. Most performing groups are supported by personal gifts and a smattering of small grants. However, major funding recently awarded to Stagebridge indicates that theatres with successful track records may be able to win substantial awards from larger foundations and corporations. Currently, we only have testimonials that document the value of senior theatre but new research into the statistical viability of the field is underway. Its release, in a couple of years, will make senior theatre grant applications even more attractive.

Resources for Senior Theater
Until the research on senior theater is completed, we are guided by practitioners and playwrights who add their insight to our body of knowledge. Arthur Strimling's book, Roots & Branches: Creating Intergenerational Theatre, is a solid resource for how to use theatre to blend young and old. In addition, playwrights are crafting works of all lengths from comedies to dramas and the first contemporary musical, A Bag Full of Miracles, in a comprehensive production kit has been released. Playwrights of all ages find senior theatre very fruitful.

Academic Senior Theater
Growth is also being seen in the area of academic senior theatre. Though many college and university campuses offer adult and continuing education, there is a lack of degree programs. This is changing as administrators realize the demographics in the country and the need for trained professionals to direct senior theatre.

At the Senior Theatre Festival, we released a sample syllabus for an "Introduction to Senior Theatre" course as a guide. This summer's Association for Theatre in Higher Education conference features senior theatre seminars to promote added growth in academia.

Senior theatre has gained the attention of the national media.

Senior Theater Gaining Media Attention
Over the past few years the senior theater was featured in Time Magazine and on NBC's Search for America's Most Talented Senior. Recently senior theater has been highlighted in Innovation from the National Council on Aging, in the Friends magazine and in The Spotlight bulletin from the American Association of Community Theatre.

All signs point to "go" for senior theatre! You can feel the joy, passion, and community spirit that fuels our work. It's a wonderful feeling. It's a wonderful field. It's a wonderful time to be in senior theatre.

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