Filmmaker explores best ways to stay young

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Dan Collins

Mention a “perpetual motion machine,” and one conjures up visions of a Rube Goldberg-like device of glittering gears and whirling wheels.

Turns out this mythical device is neither a myth nor a device at all, but a stylish sprite who describes herself with the following chain of adjectives: “blonde, left-handed, first generation Polish/Belorussian, only child, Catholic-schooled, mother, actor, teacher, storyteller, muse, writer, psychotherapist, healer through art, yogi, runner, vegetarian, shoe addict.”

Meet New Jersey native and Baltimore resident Alexandra Hewett, whose newest project involves filming older adults about the wisdom they have gained and their views on how they stay young.

If you’re a fan of theater, film or television — in particular, programs like Investigation Discovery Channel’s “Kidnapped” and “House of Horrors” — you may know Hewett already.

You can find her on the world’s most popular and authoritative source for celebrity content, the IMDb website, which lists her film credits, including Dangerous Deception: Tales of the Fixer (2012), Ready for Action (2015) and Moving Mountains (2014).

She participates in the annual Baltimore “48-Hour Film Project,” in which teams make a movie in a single weekend. Her team won the Best Acting award in 2014 for the film What Does It Matter?

Hewett, 46, is also a performer, producer and story consultant for Mortified, the Baltimore/D.C. Chapter, where adults regale audiences with stories about their lives “by sharing their most mortifying childhood artifacts (diaries, letters, lyrics, poems, home movies),” according to the Mortified website.

Trained as a psychotherapist, Hewett also teaches theater, improv and writing as creative therapy at Sheppard Pratt Hospital, teaches summer theater camp for the New Century School, and is a teaching artist for the Chesapeake Shakespeare Company.

Oh, and she is also a single parent, raising two precocious sons.

Being the lady in perpetual motion, Alex is now in the beginning stages of making a documentary film, or “perhaps a series,” that will examine people who, in terms of their boundless energy and expression, aren’t much different from herself.

She calls it the “How to Stay Young” project.

Beacon: What is the “How to Stay Young” project exactly? What inspired you to take this on, and why is it important?

Hewett: I love stories. That is my mission as an artist: to write, perform, develop stories. I have been a psychotherapist for over 20 years. I have heard so many tragic and true stories.

Life is hard. Everyone experiences pain, tragedy and illness. Some people get stuck, and some are resilient.

I want to explore the resilient. I want to celebrate inspirational people who defy society’s perception of aging, and have them share their story on how they stay young.

This project will involve interviewing people who are young in spirit in their 70s, 80s and 90s.

This is inspired by a recent Story Corps interview I conducted with my father, who is 87 and the most vibrant active person I know. (See https://storycorps.org — a nonprofit organization that records, preserves and shares stories of Americans from all backgrounds and beliefs.)

What have the people you’ve interviewed thus far been like?

I’ve interviewed five people so far, all based in Baltimore, ages 70 and up. All are pretty amazing.

My oldest subject is 93, and he still drives, visits his girlfriend in Annapolis every weekend, plays golf, croquet, participates in a singing group, and more. I have a woman who is 74 and an author, artist and teacher.

What has struck you most about the stories you’ve heard? What challenges does it pose working with seniors?

Everyone has overcome something, some big hurdle in life, that seems to have inspired them to move forward. They are constantly moving; I’ve been struck by the amount of energy they have and their willingness to learn new things. There’s no stopping or retiring. They’re all so busy, it’s very difficult getting them booked for an appointment!

I’m encountering more women than men, so would like to add more men to my subject pool. I like to ask them, “What have you learned about love?” And I’m interested in hearing all the different points of view, to find out where they differ, but also connect where there is similarity.

You hold a Certificate on Aging from Johns Hopkins University, and you’re trained in counseling psychology. What do you find most intriguing about working with those who are 70+?

It seems the more you’ve been on this earth, the more you learn about life. I see this in the stories they tell. Our society often fails to celebrate people who are older, and this is one reason I want to share their stories.

One question I ask is, “What’s your earliest memory?” One interviewee said that when she was 7, a neighbor presented her with a box turtle, and shocked her by smashing it on the concrete.

 It affected her so much that even today, as an artist, she is driven to take broken things and put them back together, to make something lovely from the pieces.

She could have simply said, well, people are terrible and do terrible things. But her response has been to repair, to spend her life making things beautiful and whole.

You’ve found ways to marry your passions — your interests in theater and counseling. How do these two connect, particularly in regards to your work with seniors?

In my first job after grad school, I worked as a research assistant on a National Institutes of Health study about suicide and depression in the elderly. I found that many in their 50s were depressed, complaining. But the older participants, people in their 80s and older, were often very vibrant, had something to do, a book club to go to, and that stuck with me.

I was a therapist for 20 years and spent a lot of that time looking at the darkness and negativity of the human experience.

Now I’m seeking out the light. I love listening to these stories of older people staying young. I just love stories — and that’s true whether in the theater, in a therapy room, or in a concert hall with music.

What’s next for you and the “How to Stay Young” Project?

Currently, I’m in the process of shooting a trailer that would be used to attract grant funding. I’m working with my production team, Lions Eating Poets in the Stone Den, which is handling the editing and tech side of things. 

It’s definitely a film — that’s my favorite way of telling a story. In creating a film you can go back and revisit it, but with theater, once the performance is over, it’s gone. The subtleties are enormous in film, and I love that. What you can see in a human face and to capture that on film, it’s just tremendous. And that’s what we’re doing with this project.

To learn more about the “How to Stay Young” Project, or if you know someone who might like to participate, contact Hewett at Alexhewett@msn.com.

Collins is a Baltimore freelance writer.