Two years ago, Juniper Village at Brookline, a senior living community in State College, piloted a program that provided residents with opportunities to perform and produce Broadway musicals in their own communities. Now, as they began preparations for their next production, other senior living communities are following in their footsteps.
“I think that’s terrific that we showed that (it could be done) and that we showed our families that we could still do things,” said June Brown, an 88-year-old resident at Juniper Village. “I think that’s important. Because I think a lot of people here think, ‘When my mother comes here, that’s the end of her life.’”
The idea of adapting musicals for senior citizens was born at the Music Theatre International, a theatrical licensing company that permits theaters to perform various Broadway plays. In 1996, the company launched Broadway Junior, a program that tailored Broadway shows to the literacy levels and attention spans of school-going performers. When a community theater in Nebraska pitched the idea of using scripts from the Broadway Junior program for elder community theater actors, MTI decided to create a new program called Broadway Senior.
Katie Kensinger, the senior director of community relations at Juniper Village, said that their production of “Guys and Dolls” 18 months ago made them the first senior living community to adapt a classic show for their residents to perform. Since then, the troupe has performed “And The World Goes Round” and “Singing in the Rain.”
“The thing that’s unique about this is we actually have the rights to be able to adapt these classic shows so that they are achievable for our population,” Kensinger said.
The Perennial Players, Juniper Village’s all-resident theater troupe, is the first senior community to put on a Broadway Senior production, but a senior center in New York City and a retired actors’ home in New Jersey recently followed suit.
“I have found that our residents do kind of enjoy being pushed a little outside their comfort zone, first just singing in front of people in general and then trying something new,” said Jill McKenrick, the campus-wide connections director at Juniper Village. “And just like myself, they were a little nervous for performances but they enjoyed it. They got a thrill out of it.”
A senior production involves modifying the play to accommodate for the needs of elderly performers, whether it’s to accommodate hearing loss or physical limitations.
McKenrick said that the key and tempo of the songs were changed to make it easier for the residents to sing along. The plays were transformed to allow for a seated-readers-theater-style production with highlighted scripts and reading assistants. Some dance scenes were cut as well.
“When we started, we didn’t know what this would look like. So we really allowed our residents to inform the changes that we made,” Kensinger said. “We enhanced (the production) with costumes and props for seeing in the rain, we projected the lyrics behind them so the audience could sing along. So, it was this big community experience.”
Residents would bring up any troubles they were having or anticipating with the production and the staff would find a way to get over the hurdle. Kensinger and McKenrick enlisted help from Penn State’s School of Theatre and Department of Communication Sciences and Disorders throughout the process.
Ed Bellis, a 92-year-old resident at the community, raised issues about his hearing during the production of “Singing in the Rain.”
“This is just for the volume but I hear different things ring than other people when I’m taking a part, when I’m singing with them,” Bellis said. “If you played a Beethoven symphony to me now, it’s not very much like I did before my hearing was impaired. It isn’t the volume so much, I just hear something different. It’s hard for me to adjust.”
Bellis is not the only member of the troupe to experience issues due to hearing impairment. To overcome this, Nicole Etter from Penn State has planned to organize voice workshops for the actors alongside the existing workshops through the School of Theatre and the School of Music to help sharpen their improvisation and rhythmic skills.
“What we tried to do is address any barrier or any concern for why somebody wouldn’t want to participate,” Kensinger said. “We try to eliminate that.”
Residents rehearse for eight weeks, with the first two weeks dedicated to making sure everybody feels comfortable with the script. There are no auditions and casting is open to residents from all wings of the community, from independent living to skilled nursing.
“It sort of takes you out of yourself,” said Susanne Henricks, an 89-year-old resident at Juniper Village. “You get awfully ingrown, particularly in a place like this where you don’t get outside the building that much. So, this gives you something that’s different to do.”
In addition to the cast members, 10 other residents had volunteered to help out during rehearsals or as ushers during the day of the performance. Kensinger said that future developments to the program would be to include residents backstage in the costume-designing and props-making part of the process.
“To make new friends, when you maybe have, you know, hard of hearing, it’s hard to converse with new people. It’s hard to get out. You don’t want to just invite yourself sometimes,” McKenrick said, adding that the average age of residents in the community is 89-90 years. “So our hope was that by creating this group, we create some new friendships. And that did happen.”
McKenrick said that resident participation in activities and events organized by the community has increased dramatically since the beginning of the program and continued to show improvements even after the final performance.
“We hope (the program) gets bigger because we hope more people come out to see with us, because we do lose some people,” Brown said. “We’re all here. And thus, some people’s lives end. But there’s always new people coming in. And we hope that we can say to them, ‘OK, there’s lots to do here.’”