What is your primary artistic medium?
Theater – actor, director, writer, producer.
How did you get started as a teaching artist?
I started teaching theater in college – for kids all ages from 4 to 18. I was going to acting conservatory at The Theater School, DePaul University in Chicago and would go back home to California in the summer and teach. It was a great way to share what I was learning with younger actors and to reconnect to what I had loved about theater as a kid.
How does teaching inform your own artistic process?
I remember a great discovery I made early on working with 4-5 year olds. I had to really break down “what is theater” in order to communicate it to them. In the end, it is simply an agreed-upon story that a group of people tell all together to an audience. It’s all about working together, playing make believe, and sharing with an audience. The simplicity of that is important to come back to with all my theatrical projects! I also feel like some of the best performances I’ve ever seen have been young people and older adults with little typical acting “training” – they don’t pretend their fear of this crazy thing of being onstage isn’t there – they face it and struggle with it while performing. This honesty is in fact the most riveting thing to watch on stage.
Why do you think working with older adults is important?
Giving everyone a chance to experience what it’s like to be in a play is really important to me. The sense of camaraderie and a deeper sense of self that comes from being in a play are things I’ve always treasured about the theater and I want as many people to experience that as possible. With some older adults, I’m able to provide that first chance, and possibly give them a new form of self-expression in their lives. I am also always moved by the rich lives older adults have led, and how much they will share once they find themselves in an environment where they and their histories are valued.
What led you to working in Creative Aging?
I was invited by director Kirsten Kelly to work with a group she had recently started directing, an intergenerational theater company called Roots&Branches Theater, founded by Arthur Strimling. The company brought young professional actors (Branches) together with senior actors (Roots) to create new plays based on the life-stories of the ensemble, each year was a new topic. I fell completely in love with the work. Especially watching the spirited Roots work and getting to be a part of telling the incredible stories of their lives. I was deeply inspired and knew I wanted to continue working creatively with older adults.
What has been the biggest surprise in working with older adult learners?
Every single person always has a story to share. Often the most quiet participant will end up surprising everyone with the most dynamic story, or the most enthusiasm and excitement for the final performance. You never know who might end up having a natural flair for the stage, for storytelling, or acting. Or who might have a really strong vision for the piece we are creating.
What skills are most important when working with older adults?
A flexible approach is necessary because each person is so singular and distinct. You must have a deep respect for the years and experience everyone has and, as a younger teaching artist, a humility related to the fact that you may have as much to learn as to teach. I also think patience is important so as to not push people to share but to stick with the encouragement until they feel comfortable. It’s just as important to know how to facilitate well because people may have very strong opinions and come from different backgrounds. You need to make sure all voices are heard.
What advice would you give someone that wants to do this work?
Find any chance you can to hang out with older adults. Volunteer at or just go check out your local senior center. You’ll start to get a sense of what incredibly busy, lively communities they are and begin to imagine what creative work might complement what is already happening. There are wonderful Creative Aging training programs out there – Lifetime Arts, the Creative Center, and Elders Share the Arts (where I work) are incredible resources! Offer to volunteer as a class assistant, or go to program final events, exhibits, or performances to get a sense of the work that’s being created in collaboration with older adults.
What have been your biggest challenges? How do you respond?
Recruitment is often a challenge – getting a group to take a chance on a project and then to stick with it. I often work with the center administrators to identify leaders who might be interested and will encourage others to join. Then I try to explain the process of devising theater – which is often hard to do! – to impress upon participants that their continued commitment is necessary for the success of the project.
Another challenge is “catching up” to the different culture of each site/center, and adjusting plans accordingly. I do something that I’ve also heard Creative Aging master Anne Basting speak about. I attempt to treat everyone at the center as possible creative collaborators; the maintenance workers, the person at the front desk and all volunteers. If everyone feels involved and invited to be a part of the project, it will have a greater impact and work smoothly within the community.
Tell us a short story from one of your classes that demonstrates the benefits of Creative Aging for participants.
In 2012, I was awarded my first SPARC grant (Seniors Partnering with Artists Citywide) and created a performance piece entitled SENIORS AND THE CITY in collaboration with oral historian Liza Zapol and the community at St. Peter’s Church Senior Center in Manhattan.
Early on I met Charles, who brought a rolling suitcase with him everyday to the center filled with binders detailing his life’s work as a Naval engineer. The Department of Veterans Affairs chaplain, knowing Charles’ diagnosis of advanced prostate cancer, had encouraged him to share his stories as a way of processing his life and encouraged him to attend the senior center in Manhattan. Though he was attracted by the flyer for my theater project he was hesitant to join my group as it seemed opposite of his quiet scientist demeanor. Over many weeks I was able to involve him in our project and he eventually shared all of his stories with the group, including detailed descriptions of life on a submarine in WWII.
For the final performance, I transformed his stories into vibrant scenes – the ensemble of fellow adults playing soldiers and engineers – and his stories were brought to life around him, making it possible for the audience to fully see and experience the memories that he was so passionate about sharing. I received a call from his daughter four months after our performance that Charles had passed away peacefully in his son’s home in Westchester. I feel incredibly moved that I was able to provide a place for Charles to share his stories, and that in the transforming of them into theater, he received the true “seeing” of himself that he deserved.
What are your current and upcoming projects of both your own work and teaching assignments?
In Creative Aging: I am the Program Director of Elders Share the Arts, where I create, plan, and administer creative aging and intergenerational programs all around the city, as well as lead trainings for teaching artists and professionals in the field of aging.
Theater work: My latest full-length play, BACKYARD, will have a workshop reading at Rattlestick Playwrights Theater on Sunday, March 5. (Email producer email@example.com for more information.) I am also directing a new adaptation of Chekhov’s The Seagull entitled STUPID F**KING BIRD at the Kumble Theater in Brooklyn opening March 28, presented by Long Island University Brooklyn’s Theater Department. www.kumbletheater.org
Thank you Julie for your wonderful work with Lifetime Arts.
Check back each month where we will feature a new Teaching Artist who has excelled in their work with the Creative Aging process.