Earl Dixon, Sr., has worked as the manager of a mess hall at Bolling Air Force Base, a maintenance man, an emcee in a New Orleans nightclub and the librarian for a concert band.
Now, at the age of 77, he is starting a new career - acting. In February, he will perform in "Midnight Moon at the Greasy Spoon," a new play by "Short Eyes" author Miguel Pinero, at the Back Alley Theater.
"I want to see if I can make it at this acting bit," said Dixon. If he does, he'll keep performing at the Back Alley Theater. And whether he's a star or a flop, he hopes to start an acting group at his church in Benning Heights.
Helen Oney, 55, a former X-ray and medical technician, has a leading role in the Pinero play. She will portray an over-the-hill actress who hangs out with other lost souls at a Broadway diner.
When she retired last August, Oney planned to paint, write, clean her house and go fishing. But her daughter, a local actress, "dragged me off my davenport and had me audition," Oney said.
Until that day, said Oney, her only stage experience was playing a carrot in her first-grade play. In the last few months, Oney has acted in one Back Alley production and made a training film for C&P Telephone Co. She also hopes to do television commercials and more film work.
Oney and Dixon are two of 12 members of SAGE, the Society for Artistic Growth of the Elderly, which functions as a theatrical training program and as a resident stage company for the Back ALley Theater.
SAGE is not made up exclusively of the elderly. Half of the company members are aged 55 to 78 and the others, 21 to 30. The goal of the program is to develop a cross-generation theater company and dramatic material growing, in the words of one company member, out of "cross-generational issues and cross-generational joys."
The idea for SAGE was conceived by Naomi Eftis producer-director of the Back Alley Theater, and the group was organised last September with a grant from the D.C. government under the Comprehensive Employment and Training Act (CETA).
Only one of the program's functions is to train seniors for a second career in the arts, said SAGE coordinator Otis Hayward. The company is now preparing a piece, dealing with the problems of the elderly, to perform at local community centers, housing projects and schools.
Hayward said that SAGE also is intended to have a snowball effect, with graduates setting up other theater programs for senior citizens throughout the Washington area.
Recently SAGE gave its first public workshop-demonstration at Our Redeemer Lutheran Parish Hall, 2001 N. Capitol St., for a meeting of the D.C. chapter of the Gray Panthers, an organization founded to fight age discrimination.
The company performed three of the series of vignettes it is now shaping into a full-length play. The scenes dealt with confrontations between the young and old - at home, in the office and on the street.
The material was developed during workshop meetings three times a week, when SAGE members start with a theme, improvise on it, record their work and refine it into a script.
For Oran Sandel, a recent graduate of Catholic University who has performed with several local theater and dance groups, the cross-generational approach is frustrating at times because it is a new and still uncharted technique.
"We've got so many different levels of theatrical experience, age and personality," said Sandel. "We're still in search of a method that will draw us together."
The SAGE experience, however, has changed his attitude toward the meaning of theater - and toward older people, said Sandel.
"I've begun to acquire an attraction to older people," he said. "I used to hold myself away from them. Now, it's easier for me to see them as individuals."
SAGE has changed Helen Oney's perception not only of others, but of herself.
"You wouldn't have known me six months ago," she said. "Now, I'm more outgoing, physically fit and self-assured. I've changed so much my friends have told me to change my haircut and glasses, because the old ones don't fit my personality any more."
SAGE has also offered its older paticipants real hope for a second career. In one skit performed at the Gray Panther meeting, Earl Dixon played an aging millionaire trying to explain to a young reporter why he gave away his fortune and became a cowboy.
"I'm as young as the spring," said the former millionaire. "My life is just beginning."
Other SAGE workshop-demonstrations are scheduled in February at Friendship House on Capitol Hill and at the Episcopal Church House, Mount St. Alban.