WIT and Wisdom Make Up Happy Hours in Golden Years

By Rachel Beckman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, August 3, 2006

About a dozen elderly people are sitting on floral couches in a circle, taking turns pointing at each other and yelling out staccato nonsense:

"Lo!"

"Woola!"

"Quack!"

"Nu nu!"

After that, they start making up a story about a woman -- dark glasses, wide-brimmed hat, low-cut blouse -- that soon turns into a tale of a high-class prostitute who loses her panties on an airplane.

The room erupts in laughter. Did we mention that they're a little tipsy this afternoon?

This is apparently what happens when you combine happy hour, an improvisational acting class and a retirement home, in this case the nonprofit St. Mary's Court in Foggy Bottom.

"I think it's a scream," says Rose Dickens, 91, the oldest student in Washington's new senior citizen improv class. Her classmates are mostly in their seventies. "What I like about this idea is it brings us together. . . . You see each other let go."

Oh, they're letting go all right. Don't get us started on the story about the woman who ends up naked at the bachelor party.

The "Improv Happy Hour" class began in June at St. Mary's Court. A resident there, Roslyn Freund, started the class with the help of the Washington Improv Theater and a grant from the D.C. Commission on the Arts and Humanities.

Freund was taken with WIT's tag line, "The revolution will be improvised," on a flier she picked up.

And yes, the happy-hour part of the name is legit, although it's no beer bash: Freund, 78, makes sure the class (which draws 12 to 15 students each session) has a bottle of wine and a six-pack of beer each session.

The senior citizen improv class is a first for WIT, a professional theater collective that puts on about 100 performances and teaches more than 200 students a year, says its artistic director, Mark Chalfant.

It was at a recent class that Chalfant led the group in the aforementioned warm-up exercise, a "ricochet game" where they make any sound and point to another person in the circle, who then makes a new noise and points to someone else.

Some of the residents got confused in the beginning, forgetting either to point or to make a new noise.

"The teacher definitely has his work cut out for him," says Margaret Pully, the associate director at St. Mary's, noting the students' hearing and vision limitations, "but he's risen to the occasion."

And while most improv workshops involve hustling around a stage, the St. Mary's group usually sits for their class.

"At first there was this shock of, 'These aren't like other students and I have to start from scratch,' " Chalfant says. But eventually he saw their strengths: "They've lived long lives and can tell great stories."

Those stories often involve dated pop-culture references. When Freund asked the class to free-associate with the word "bubbles," someone yelled out, "Lawrence Welk!," the iconic 1950s television host who popularized the big-band sound of "champagne music."

Freund feels "astonished" by the quality and quantity of material that her classmates have to draw from, "and they're dirty, and they're funny, and they're imaginative."

Freund is a sort of Renaissance woman: She writes, paints, sings and works as an usher at the Kennedy Center's Millennium Stage. (Her promotional Web site opens with a picture of her singing cabaret and has links to her paintings.)

After Freund finished her first beer, she asked if anyone wanted to split a second one with her. "I can't," one of her classmates said. "I have to take my medicines."

A Muse's Musings

Oh, to be a muse -- lounging on a couch, looking beautiful, with only the vague task "to inspire."

Actually, that's not quite how it was for Washington's star ballerina Michele Jimenez (she had to dance six or seven hours a day), whom Washington Ballet Artistic Director Septime Webre repeatedly featured in his works throughout her seven-year tenure with the company.

Soon Jimenez, 27, leaves Washington for the Dutch National Ballet in Amsterdam, so we caught up with her on tour in Vail, Colo., for a little exit interview.

On the role of muse: "I've had the opportunity to perform so many beautiful roles," she says. "It was very difficult for me to tell [Webre] I was leaving."

What she'll miss about Washington: The familiarity of her fellow dancers -- "We can sense each other very easily, through a movement or a breath; we know each other that well," -- as well as the Kennedy Center crew, "because they've seen me grow up."

Transatlantic love: Her boyfriend and fellow Washington Ballet dancer Alvaro Palau is staying here. She's "nervous," having never been in a long-distance relationship before, but says he's been "so supportive."

Picket line: Jimenez says her decision to leave had nothing to do with last winter's labor disputes at the company. "When a place is growing, things like that tend to happen," she says. "It was a difficult moment, one we all learned a lot from."

On her next move: "I've always wanted to live in Europe," she says. "I wanted to do more classical ballet before I stop doing it. . . . It's such a short career."

Improv Happy Hour plans to resume in September. Enrollment is open to the public, with preference given to seniors. Call 202-223-5712 for information.

Michele Jimenez will perform with the Trey McIntyre Project at 8:30 p.m. on Aug. 8 at Wolf Trap's Filene Center, 1551 Trap Rd., Vienna. $10-$34. Call 877-965-3872.

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