Vin Kelly from Chevy Chase offered to drive anyone who needed transportation to Chautauqua. Encore paired him with 81-year-old George Lane from Gaithersburg. Turns out the two had been neighbors in Silver Spring 30 years before. In a chorale of 66 singers, they will be half of the tenor section.
This is not your grandma’s bingo game at the senior center.
For five days, these older adults will join dozens of others, ranging in age from 59 to 82, in a regimen of morning exercises, creative role-playing and exhausting rehearsals. Nurtured and cajoled by professional directors, they will create dance, theater and chorale performances from scratch. Then the three tracks will blend for a finale based on “West Side Story.”
“West Side Story”? Isn’t that about teenage street punks from the ’50s?
“We’re in uncharted territory here,” David Barnet admits. The Encore program at Chautauqua was started five years ago, but the music and dance tracks were added only last year. This is the first attempt at a joint performance.
A University of Alberta drama professor and founder of GeriActors and Friends, an intergenerational senior theater in Edmonton, Canada, Barnet is one of Encore’s theater instructors. The other is Stu Kendall, founder of Oakland, Calif.-based Stagebridge, the oldest and largest professional senior theater in the United States.
“We need to have as many people singing as possible,” says Encore founder Jeanne Kelly. She is peering over her red glasses at the Leonard Bernstein score adapted by her colleague Barry Talley for this event.
“Some people may not want to sing,” says Shula Strassfeld, a resident artist at the D.C.-based Dance Exchange. She is the dance instructor for the week.
“At the academy, those who said, ‘I can’t sing,’ only said it once,” Talley says, referring to the Naval Academy where he was chairman of the music department for 35 years. He hired Kelly to run the Academy Glee Club. They have always had the same goal: Get people singing.
Does aging pose any limitations?
“There’s an athletic aspect of singing, and as we age, strength, flexibility and endurance all fade,” Talley says. “If you are a 60-year-old pole vaulter, you don’t do the same jumps you did when you were younger. Maybe you change the height.” The same goes for singing. “We lose the extension of our range. The tops aren’t reliable and the bottoms aren’t pretty — we are still talking about music, right? — but adjustments can be made.”