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Bitten by the bug: Seniors hit the stage

The Seniors' Acting Lab in Calgary and Edmonton's GeriActors offer a creative outlet for older playwrights and performers

Have you ever dreamed of acting on stage or even writing a play and seeing it brought to life? Plenty of people have that dream, whatever their age. Case in point: After time spent exploring theatre through Calgary's FLC seniors acting club, 70-year-old Calgarian Louise Day took her passion a step further and created the Seniors' Acting Lab: a semi-professional troupe now touring a film and launching two one-act plays at the city's PumphouseTheatre--plays Day and colleague Faye Brown wrote that focus on issues like ageism and elder abuse.

"This has been my retirement life--learning about and writing plays," said producer/director Day, who adds that she and many other active seniors have plenty of energy and ideas to offer to the arts. "We create original theatre that reflects issues and tells stories seniors should be talking about. There's great response from middle-aged people, seniors, their families and caregivers, but we hope to see the audience expand beyond that too."

After COVID-19 scuttled plans for in-person events, Seniors' Acting Lab is set to be one of the first to offer live, socially-distanced performances this season. From Nov. 2 to 7, the theatre's 'Senior Matters' series features Brown's 'Lady in Waiting' and Day's 'A Pernicious Arrangement'. Both plays look at isolation, unresolved family issues and strained relationships that can have a profound effect on the lives of seniors.

"We try to keep 80 per cent of the cast in the 55-plus range," said Day, who holds auditions for her plays, and is using a Calgary Arts Development Grant to offer the six-person casts and crew a small honorarium for their efforts. 

Calgary senior and cast member Tom Carver says memorizing lines and attending regular rehearsals keeps him physically and mentally sharp. "I love being backstage, waiting to go on," said Carver, who also helps set the budget for Seniors' Acting Lab. "I'm a big history fan, so I'm hoping to be part of a Shakespeare play one day too."

Last year, Carver and Day worked together on More Than A Number, a spoof on ageism that was well received when played at Calgary-area senior's homes. This year, Day and company even venture into the world of film with Signage, which offers a window into the world of grief and isolation. Day says the film aims to "tackle senior abuse head on--like a ball crashing through the window." See seniorsactinglab.com for more on auditions and performances.

GeriActors Theatre uses improv and exploration to discover themes for plays

Edmonton's GeriActors Theatre offers older adults a similar creative expression via improvisation and performance. Established through the University of Alberta, a core group of about 14 'Geris' and a few 'friends' (drama students who spend a term working and playing with the troupe) take a season to create an original work. It's an organic process that comes from the friendship and trust among troupe members, says long time artistic director David Barnet.

"I write and direct most of the plays, but we're really a collective. Everyone contributes, and everyone is part of every play," said 80-year-old Barnet, an accomplished artist whose work in the theatre has taken him across the country. "We all really look forward to our weekly get togethers. No one ever seems to leave the group!"

GeriActors Theatre has tackled subjects like senior (financial) abuse, and 'coming out' in older life. We Decide--a play about agency in later life on where and how we die; and Our History - encompassing big life events like the tragedy of 9/11, have likewise been staged for appreciative audiences. 

Though the pandemic has meant weekly meetups are online, Barnet says the Geri's will likely have a performance-ready piece by the end of the season. "We explore through play and see what emerges. Then we develop a script, rehearse and perform. Everything is organic and alive; we take our time. I call it slow theatre," he said.

GeriActors Theatre associate director Becca Barrington says the Geri's will produce audio plays and listening sessions this year; a natural outgrowth of the group's online efforts and a way to engage with an even bigger audience. The first audio play, Way Back, is a series of true stories – growing up during WWII, farm life in Alberta and Sri Lanka, growing up in Trinidad, and more--the moments of joy, hardship, triumph and magic we all experience. 

See geriactors.ca for more.