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Actress Holly Twyford has been teaching acting to 90-year-olds during the pandemic — and learning a few things about living

Actress Holly Twyford, sitting on bench, travels each week to Ring House and a nearby sister facility, Revitz House, in the Charles E. Smith’s Life Communities in Rockville, Md., to teach seniors the art of monologue delivery. (Marvin Joseph/The Washington Post)

In the courtyard of an independent living residence in Rockville, Md., Holly Twyford brought her acting class to order. With the script of “Spoon River Anthology” in front of them, one of her students, 93-year-old Shelly Weisman, recited the words of Lucinda Matlock, a character who speaks of a marriage that lasted seven decades.

“I spun, I wove, I kept the house, I nursed the sick. I made the garden, and for holiday rambled over the fields where sang the larks,” Weisman declaimed, as Twyford — long one of Washington’s premier actors — listened.

“I love that piece,” Twyford said at last.

“I do, too,” Weisman replied. “I love her.”

And so it went for an hour with Twyford and several residents of Ring House, in the Charles E. Smith Life Communities, off Rockville Pike. Organized by Theater J, an arm of the Edlavitch D.C. Jewish Community Center, the class wasn’t just an exercise to nourish the artistic spirits of theater-loving seniors. It was an invigorating lifeline, too, for Twyford. Sidelined by the pandemic from pursuing her customary evenings-and-matinees vocation, the actress was hired by Theater J Artistic Director Adam Immerwahr to teach enrichment courses and earn some needed cash.

“The pandemic has been a nightmare for us who depend on large, live audiences,” said Twyford, a ubiquitous presence on Washington stages, in everything from Shakespeare to Sondheim. When covid-19 collapsed the theater industry, Twyford lost two acting and two directing jobs. “I can only say Adam subsidized many out-of-work actors and directors by saying, ‘Hey, you should teach a class,’ ” she added. “And that’s what he did for me.”

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Employees across many fields have been furloughed, laid off or seen their livelihoods vanish during the pandemic. The nation’s more than 5 million arts workers have been especially hard hit. Some who were eligible have taken early retirement; others have sought enterprising applications of their talents in producing podcasts or segueing into retail.

Theater J, with only a handful of full-time staffers, took on a sizable mission, hiring dozens of theater folk to teach more than 50 classes, most of them virtual. Craig Wallace taught “An Actor Transforms”; Felicia Curry, “How to Listen to a Song”; Aaron Posner, “Beyond the Script: A Director’s Approach.”

Angela Hughes, a die-hard theatergoer who lives in Northern Virginia, has enrolled in 16 of Theater J’s virtual classes. “It was a way to have theater in my life,” she said in a phone interview. “Who doesn’t want to see behind the curtain? It may be one of the few professions where it is actually interesting to see how the sausage is made.”

The combination of pandemic isolation, audience fascination and artist deprivation created highly favorable circumstances for Theater J’s initiative: From July 1, 2020, to June 30, more than 700 people from 23 states and Israel, Canada and Australia took the company’s Zoom courses, according to Immerwahr. During that period, he has paid out more than $40,000 in fees to his improvised faculty.

That might not boil down to a king’s ransom — national philanthropic organizations, such as the Actors Fund, have doled out millions. But every extra paycheck helps when one is scrambling.

“At times, it’s been serious,” Immerwahr said of the need in the D.C.-area theater community. “We’ve had people who couldn’t qualify for unemployment, because they worked in seven different states.”

Naomi Jacobson, another familiar talent to Washington theatergoers, has taught six courses for Theater J, including “Inside the Actor’s Process” and “Inside the Rehearsal Room: ‘Collected Stories,’ ” the latter with actor Emily Whitworth and Immerwahr. “I had nine months of work lined up, and it all went away,” she said, noting that she took her pension early to make sure she and her husband, actor John Lescault, could pay their mortgage.

While Lescault carried on in the recording booth in their basement for his side business, narrating books for the Library of Congress, Jacobson built up a coaching practice for actors and public speakers in other professions. How she’ll balance the pedagogical pursuits with her acting life remains an open question: She is scheduled to return to the stage in September to portray Ruth Westheimer in Mark St. Germain’s one-person “Becoming Dr. Ruth” at Theater J. But that’s the only acting gig in Jacobson’s datebook.

“This is the longest break I’ve ever had,” she said. “I need to get back into fighting shape.”

It so happens that Twyford is directing Jacobson in the piece, a process they began before the shutdown. When that assignment abruptly ended, Twyford, who lives with her wife and their daughter, looked far afield for employment. “I did apply for a job at a hardware store, and I was turned down,” she said. “I know tools and I build things, and it was really harsh to get that rejection.”

But Immerwahr came calling, which was why on this warm August day, Twyford had driven to Rockville to teach the weekly sessions of her monologue-preparation class to students in their 80s and 90s, one at Ring House and another at its sister building, Revitz House.

“I do want to say Holly is the best part of it,” said Weisman, who was on the residences’ staff until her retirement. “She is forceful. She just comes at you.”

The students had been asked to choose speeches from the script, a compendium of the more than century-old poems that make up Edgar Lee Masters’s cycle of ordinary townsfolk, narrating their personal tales from the afterlife.

Weisman wasn’t sure at first about the material. “I said, ‘Why on earth did you pick this? It’s people speaking from the grave! We’re close to the grave!’ ” The teacher thereby learned quickly that these pupils were not shy about speaking up.

“She was taken aback,” Weisman recalled, grinning. Over several weeks of talking and rereading, though, she came to understand the value of immersing herself in the persona and hardships of her character. “As I was reading it over and over, it became much more real to me,” Weisman said. “Every life has disappointment and tragedies. Lucinda didn’t dwell on it.”

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As Weisman read the poem for the teacher and classmates, including Elesa Kassoff, Phyllis Burka and Alan Eisenberg, Twyford sprang into director mode. She wanted more emotion, so when Weisman mentioned a sense of jubilation in her character, Twyford pounced. “You said ‘jubilant’ — so let us see how you felt!” the teacher commanded. “Your mission is to take that jubilance and put it in your face!”

Twyford has also taught an online class for Immerwahr about evil. “The idea was to look at characters who are villains and try to explain them by stepping into their shoes,” she said. “The themes of that class drained into these classes that I’m teaching at Charles E. Smith, about empathy, about stepping into somebody’s shoes.”

Twyford seems to have done some slipping into footwear herself.

“Shelly asked me, ‘What have you learned about 90-year-olds?’ I gotta say, talk about some role models! [Shelly] is also learning how to play the violin, by the way,” the actress recounted.

“I said to them, ‘Oh, my, I want to move in here!’ ” Twyford added, laughing. “I try to live by doing work that kind of frightens me a little bit — and these folks, they just haven’t stopped learning.”

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