At the Chautauqua Institution, a sprawling educational resort in western New York, the regular nine-week season has ended. But Florence Crisp has come from Alexandria to attend a special 10th-week event sponsored by the Maryland-based Encore Creativity for Older Adults, an arts boot camp for those 55 and older. She has joined Encore’s dance track. She is 67 and has two artificial knees.
Noel Miner has arrived by motorcycle from just outside Orlando. She has signed up for the theater track. At 61, she finally is pursuing her lifelong dream to be an actor.
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.”
At the first dance class, Strassfeld asks Crisp about her knees. “My brain doesn’t communicate as quickly to my feet,” she explains. “So I fall a lot.” Crisp joined the dance track to improve her balance. She makes it clear that she doesn’t want to perform before an audience. Strassfeld assures her that she can do some, or even all, of the routines sitting in a chair. Crisp looks skeptical.
In the afternoon, the dance and theater tracks meet to rehearse the songs from “West Side Story.” Many have never sung before.
“Pretend you are out in a boat and you need to throw out an anchor,” says Kelly, bobbing back and forth between the sopranos and the altos, her snow-white coif looking like the bouncing ball in a Mitch Miller singalong.
The class produces a weak “Ooh.”
Kelly pokes a singer in the belly. “Sing from your diaphragm. Find your upper-head voice, like Miss Piggy or Julia Childs, who was always in her upper head.” She is imitating the French chef’s lilting voice. “Lips shouldn’t go east to west,” she adds, grimacing like the Cheshire Cat.
“Believe in yourself,” Kelly says. “Believe a little more,” she says after another round of singing. Then at the end: “How many are singing more than you thought possible?”
Several hands shoot up.
Kelly beams. “It’s never too late to learn voice technique. Never. If you can talk, you can sing.”
That’s the mantra of Encore, the largest choral program for adults 55 years and older in the nation with more than 600 singers in the Annapolis-D.C.-Baltimore area. Encore also offers a choral camp at Maryland’s St. Mary’s College. The average age is 72.
Recently, the nonprofit received a MetLife grant to expand the concept across the country. “Our goal is to have a chorale in each state,” Kelly says. Why would an insurance company fund an arts program for the elderly? According to a study by the late gerontologist Gene Cohen, which prompted Kelly to found Encore Creativity in 2007, participation by older adults in arts groups under the supervision of a professional artist not only promotes good mental health but also has physical benefits: fewer visits to the doctor, fewer medications, fewer falls.
Cohen wasn’t talking about stringing beads. He was referring to serious arts activities that push seniors to learn new skills. Only then would they create the new neuron paths in their brains that promote better health. As Cohen was fond of saying: Substitute pills with intellectual sweating.
At this arts boot camp, participants are sweating all right.
“Find your inner juvenile delinquent,” says Talley, pounding out the “Jet Song” on the piano.
More than half of those who signed up for chorale track this week are regulars in one of Encore’s 14 choruses. “When I saw an ad for Encore Creativity that read, ‘If you can talk, you can sing,’ I thought, ‘That’s ridiculous,’ ” says Joan Smith, a Smithsonian resident associate, “but I thought I’d try it.” She joined the Smithsonian Chorale three years ago. She was 71.
George Lane worked at the Department of Education for 25 years. He was 62 when he started singing. Then life intervened. Triple bypass surgery. Three stents. A pacemaker. After his wife died, he moved to Asbury Methodist Village in Gaithersburg. Now, thanks to Encore, he’s singing again. “It’s important to have a creative outlet,” he says. “It gives you a sense of personal worth that you can’t get any other way.”
Vin Kelly, who says he is “70-something,” started singing at 3 (or so his mother told him). In high school he impersonated Rudy Vallee, singing into a megaphone. “I had curly hair then,” he says wryly, pointing to his receding hairline. At Georgetown University, he was in the Chimes. Still working part time as a psychiatrist, he is a regular at the Potomac Theater. His first role there was 21-year-old Frederick in the “Pirates of Penzance.” “I hope you have a very large makeup budget,” he told them. They gave him a ponytailed wig. Even his own sons didn’t recognize him.
Men are at a premium in arts programs aimed at older adults. Here only five of the 13 signed up for theater are men. None signed up for dance. The chorale track is 66 souls strong but still has only 10 men.
Some widowers, though, obviously use the program as an opportunity to meet women. “The first night, I had five men at my table for dinner,” says Terri Sorota, who at 59 is the youngest at this year’s program. “I made sure to bring up my husband in the conversation as much as possible. Next time, I’m going to wear a big fake diamond.”
On Day 2, Barnet and Kendall hand out scripts. Two are by Ken Gough, a Canadian who began writing plays in his 80s. Miner pairs up with 69-year-old Dan Brown, a burly businessman from nearby Amherst. They opt to do a scene from A.R. Gurney’s “The Middle Ages.” It will take counterpoint precision to pull it off.
“Much of senior theater is just song and dance,” says Kendall who says there are 700 such groups in the United States. “They don’t have either the professional level or the intent of deepening people’s artistic skills. It’s demeaning. We attempt to raise the bar.”
“Everybody, everybody is capable of good acting,” Barnet says. “But you have to really help them get there.”
But what would take months in their own theaters, these instructors have to do in five days. “We are literally skimming the art form at 85 miles an hour,” Kendall says.
By midweek, Crisp has decided to perform. She is working on her routines.
“How do you feel?”
“Sore,” she replies.
“An Epsom salt bath works wonders,” Strassfeld tells her.
On Thursday a contingent of seven from Michigan talks to Kelly about setting up an Encore program in that state. One of them, 74-year-old Liz Droulard, has COPD, a lung condition that makes it hard to breathe. “I’ve been doing a lot of lip-syncing,” she says with a laugh. A friend tells her, “Just say, ‘watermelon, watermelon, watermelon’ and no one will know if you’re singing or not.” But in a program that requires no auditions and where everyone is welcome, Droulard doesn’t need to hide behind watermelons.
“It’s been a challenge, but it gives me a warm, fuzzy feeling that I’m doing it,” she says.
But nothing compares with the challenge faced by her best friend, the person who persuaded all the Michiganders to come: Alice Pompea, also 74, has Stage 4 lung cancer. She hasn’t missed a rehearsal, but every chance she gets, she goes back to her room to lie down. “Singing is what’s helping her hang on,” says Droulard, eyes glistening.
On Friday morning, the final rehearsal is dismal. “You know what they say,” says Kendall cheerfully. “A bad last rehearsal means a great performance.”
The dance performance begins at 11. Seated on a chair, Crisp does a variation of the old hand jive while her fellow dancers swirl and pivot around her. She stands and moves her hands vertically and horizontally suggesting a building and a turret. The dancers bring their favorite Chautauqua buildings to life. Crisp looks radiant.
Then the actors take the stage. “Ida, no one buys a mink because they need it. You buy support hose because you need it,” says 75-year-old Joyce Haines, from nearby Fredonia, flawlessly delivering the lines from Ivan Menchell’s “The Cemetery Club” that she had flubbed earlier. The audience roars. Miner and Brown have donned costumes. They find their rhythm and get their share of laughs, too.
In the afternoon, the chorus sings a medley of songs, led by an animated Jeanne Kelly. Then the dancers and actors join them for the finale. Everyone is dressed in black T-shirts emblazoned with the words Encore Creativity.
“When you’re a Jet,” sing the tenors and baritones. “I Feel Pretty,” sing the sopranos and altos. The dancers are twirling around one another, gazing into hand-held mirrors, primping like teenagers.
But this “West Side Story” is not about pretending to be young. The decades lived by those onstage are not hidden under wigs and makeup. The lines delivered between songs are culled from personal experiences and reflect the joys and pains of lives long lived. “As a child, I never knew you could choose the part of the chicken you wanted,” says Muriel Garfinkel, 75, a former New York City teacher.
“We climbed the mountain, and we liked what we saw,” says Alice Pompea, reflecting on the week as the audience disperses. Today she is a singer, not a woman with Stage 4 lung cancer.
If you can talk, you can sing. If you can move, you can dance. If you can talk, move and feel, you can act. And if you can breathe, even badly, you still can create.
“There’s a Place for Us,” indeed.
Journalist Hammond is co-author of “Between the Covers: the Book Babes’ Guide to a Woman’s Reading Pleasures.”