There is a type of theatre for everyone and one of the major trends in the US since 1999 has been senior theatre. Senior theatre is designed specifically for older adults. It is estimated that there are over 800 groups worldwide since 2016, according to Aging Well Magazine.
No matter your age it is never too late to take to the stage to perform, for the first time or get back up there and ‘break a leg’ metaphorically speaking. Theatre is the perfect way to explore yourself. For those just starting out, or getting back on the stage, senior theatre is made especially for performers who are 55+ with theatre customized for older adults. Local groups are often run by retirement centers, community theatre amateur theatre groups, or professional theatre companies. One of the beauties of theatre is that it can be flexible and adapt.
Evan Johnson is leading Cosmic Elders Senior Theatre based out of San Francisco. This senior theatre program was run by the San Francisco Parks and Recreation, where Evan worked for over 10 years. Through this work, Evan stumbled into senior theatre and has never looked back.
“My supervisor brainstormed how to reach seniors and had decided senior theatre. The initial teacher for it didn’t show so I raced across town to fill in. It was meant to be a one-time thing, but I fell in love with this improv group. Once I connected with that group I begged my supervisor to let me take the class. That was 5 years ago.”
Since then the program has expanded and become Cosmic Elders, an improv and senior theatre group that meets weekly. When the pandemic hit the Parks and Recreation budget dried up but Evan’s passion didn’t. He applied for a virtual summer artists residency program to help turn Cosmic Elders into a virtual theatre group. He took his theatre group online and engaged them using tech.
“We opted to explore the power of voice initially as one project since one of our members, Helen, accessed via phone. We explored how you can use voice for inner monologue, an object, consciousness, and so much more. We used creative inspiration and were able to have 2 great show nights!”
It’s nearly impossible to not get a bit down with a global pandemic, however, Evan didn’t want to abandon the troupe in this time of need. Rather he wanted to create a space for people to connect not just socially but in a deeper and more meaningful way.
“I mailed them all red clown noses. So we used this simple comic material to find moments of joy and delight in such a heavy and intense time. We were able to build community through laughter and joy. Now we share that on our Cosmic Elders YouTube channel.”
Using insights from Priya Parker’s The Art of Gathering: How We Meet and Why it Matters and his background in theatre as a playwright, performer, designer, director, and creative coach, he was able to be community-minded despite the distance. The group came together to use their creative problem-solving skills.
“I told them the sky's the limit and it was up to the group on how we would manage to perform together. They really came together and saw themselves as agents in the work creating both during our sessions and outside. They really highlighted all the things that keep us young at heart in spite of the challenges.”
The group chose to focus on the clown initially as their first project. These 'clowning around sessions' have been a focal point for their YouTube channel.
“The clown is rooted in resilience. Clowns don’t sink into tragedy. What makes clowns funny and light-hearted is they bounce back from the stressful moments. By just adding a clown nose it gives us joy and comedy to poke fun at everyday situations we run into.”
Taking improv and theatre online has meant that Evan and his group can reach so many more people through collaboration and partnerships.
“Improv is a valuable tool for building community and foundation and is afoot in the door to perform. Through low stakes, non-threatening fun, and games, actors can start to build experience with fellow actors who are there to catch them if they fall by picking up a line where one person leaves off. Improv can help lead to more performance experience for those interested.”
Evan’s unique approach to creative maintenance helps to build confidence through improv. He has used his work to help people prepare for job interviews, presentations, and theatre. Furthermore, he has been brought on to create further collaborations with a variety of organizations in hybrid digital formats. In these sessions, he helps participants learn how to stay relaxed on Zoom and really learn to enjoy interaction, improv, and theatre.
Evan is currently a Virtual Artist in Residence with Baycres@home and Toronto Center for Aging and Brain Health Innovation. Through this program he’s working remotely with older adults including those who are experiencing cognitive impairment and memory loss to explore creative ways to engage virtually. Evan hosts workshops open to the public on off-the-cuff acting, improv, group projects, and free writing. All of this will lead up to monthly open mic spaces for actors to ‘take to the virtual stage’ and share their progress.
To see what Evan and his theater group is up to next visit www.evanjohnsonplays.com.
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