Theater workshops keep creativity flowing

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Michael Toscano

“Everybody shake those arms. Janice, can you shake those arms?”    

Patti Green Roth is trying to invigorate a group in a sun-drenched and well-appointed activity room. Several are in wheelchairs; others relax in a variety of seats arrayed in a semi-circle.

“Up to the sky and down to the floor,” she cajoled, raising her arms. A few moments later, the petite bundle of energy had her audience rotating their heads to relax neck and shoulder muscles. Next, they are loudly “ooohing” and “aaahing” to loosen up their mouths.

It’s not physical therapy. It’s art. Welcome to one of this week’s Creative Age “theater workshops” at the Jefferson, a  retirement community in Arlington, Va.

Roth is an instructor with Educational Theatre Company (ETC), a non-profit organization of theater professionals who share their love of the art form by bringing it mostly to children in Washington-area communities through a series of in-school and vacation programs.

The Creative Age workshops for older adults at area senior living communities represent a branching out of their effort to “change the world by unlocking the creative and collaborative potential of children and adults,” as its mission statement declares.

Laughing with Neil Simon

It’s definitely unlocking something this morning in the Jefferson’s assisted living wing. Today’s focus is a reading of the old Neil Simon play, California Suite, with each participant playing a role.

Brandishing a wireless microphone like a daytime TV talk-show host, Roth rushed from reader to reader, pointing to lines and helping each senior negotiate Simon’s dialogue.

Laughter filled the room, amplified through recessed speakers, as they rolled through the comedy. Jack had seemed disengaged at the beginning, slouching in his wheelchair. But as the reading progressed, he gradually became more animated, sitting straighter, his voice rising and falling with dynamic inflection.

“I love the company here,” said Grady, another reader. “It energizes me.” He clearly relished the jokes, especially the ribald jests.

But when he stated he’d like to take part in a more formalized performance, it’s not the ham in him that is speaking.

He doesn’t read plays on his own or think a lot about theater. No, it’s the disciplined lawyer he was for decades who is emerging here. “The organization of rehearsal and the discipline it needs would be helpful to us,” he explained.

For Ginny, the enjoyment of performance sparks a memory from a long-ago childhood, and she began softly singing a traditional French hymn, her light voice undimmed by the passage of years. “Il est ne, le divin Enfant…” she sang.

“My Daddy couldn’t carry a tune in a bucket with a lid on it,” Ginny laughed, enjoying the memory. “But he taught us to love music.”

According to Tom Mallan, ETC’s director of professional development and one of its teachers, “it’s really about participation. Our goal is to get them reading a character and interacting.

“When the characters are speaking back and forth, we can get a volley going, like a tennis match, and then we know we’ve succeeded for the day.”

Drama discussions, too

Later in the day, Mallan’s class for residents in the independent living wing of the Jefferson will split its time between guided discussion of drama and reading from a play.

This workshop is more formal than the earlier session, and Mallan leads a classroom-style discussion ranging from Shakespeare to Restoration Comedy, and touching on symbolism in such serious plays as Death of a Salesman.

It’s not all heavy going, though, especially after he compares a scene from 1773’s She Stoops to Conquer by Irish playwright Oliver Goldsmith, to TV’s “Seinfeld.”

It becomes a two-way, animated discussion between the teacher and the eight participants. And the teacher finds his students teaching him.

“I don’t think I had been listening enough to people older than me,” Mallan said. “I was accustomed to reaching out to children to give them a voice, but this has been exciting because, while I’m offering something to them, it’s really about what I learn from them.

“With our kids and teens, we study theater to instill wisdom or help them learn about life. Well, all that is out the window here. There’s no point in me giving life advice to these folks,” he said.

He motions to Laura, sitting in a wheelchair with a massive volume titled The Complete Works of William Shakespeare perched on her lap. She also has an orange highlighter poised over her script of the Goldsmith play they had been reading.

Laura moved to D.C. during World War II from her native Georgia to work at the brand new Pentagon. She and husband Bob raised two sons and did some acting together in community theater.

In January 2010, they moved to the Jefferson and quickly signed up for the ETC workshop. Laura recently lost Bob, however, just as the workshop class was studying the 15th century play Everyman. It’s a serious work, examining salvation after death and how humans can earn it.

“Suddenly the play took on an incredible depth because it’s a warning that you can’t take anything with you but your good deeds,” Mallan said. “Death tells this man he has to take this journey, but nothing but his deeds can go with him, not strength, not beauty, or anything else.”

Mallan continued, “This is very significant to people at this stage of their lives and, boy, did they ever have some profound reactions to it. I asked Laura if we should switch plays, maybe do a romantic comedy. But she said ‘No, this is helping me reflect.’”

Laura agreed, adding, “I think most of us would enjoy these workshops, especially if you like learning something new.”

ETC receives grants from such groups as the Arlington Arts Commission, corporations and civic organizations. Students pay tuition fees for the vacation time or after-school programs, but the Creative Age workshops are offered by the Jefferson to its residents.

The funding supports ETC’s teaching staff of about 40 theater professionals. Mallan, for instance, has taught and directed theater and opera across the Washington area and overseas for more than 15 years. Roth has been a director, producer and actor and an educator of children and adults with and without disabilities.

Differences of opinion

At a later workshop for the independent living residents, a visitor finds the discussion continuing even after the class is over. Roth has filled in for Mallan and had the class read from Neil Simon’s Lost in Yonkers, rather than the classic works Mallan usually has them study.

But not everyone was pleased. Resident Roseline was one of them.

“We started with ancient Greek theater and worked our way up to modern times. We’ve had Shakespeare, Restoration Comedy, and now this.”

She paused, considering her words. “This, which I find unpalatable, really….I don’t like these characters. They are all stock figures. It’s not funny.”

Lila jumped in, telling the visitor, “Well, I don’t agree with how she feels about the play at all. I’ll bet we could find analogies with any of Shakespeare’s comedies, or even the Greek and Roman plays, with all the characters who would resemble these modern characters.

“I feel right at home with Neil Simon’s plays,” she said with a satisfied smile. “Oh, and it’s such a pleasure to hear how people come in and read the parts,” she added.

Roseline laughed. “I never know what it’s going to be when I come here,” she said, gathering up some papers and preparing to leave. “But it’s always fun to find out.”

For information on Educational Theatre Company’s Creative Age workshops, visit www.educationaltheatrecompany.org or call (703) 622-5139.