Dhana Cartmell: GeriActors Performance Tour

Editor’s Note: The GeriActors and Friends are starting their performance tour today! Email Becca at geriactors.friends@gmail.com to book a performance.

Today’s blog post is by Dhana Cartmell the director of Tjalling Zonderland and Something From Nothing, two plays on tour this season.

Dhana Cartmell
Dhana Cartmell

My history with the GeriActors

     I first met the GeriActors in Spring of 2007 while finishing my BA in Drama. The collaboration between GeriActors and UofA students was still a new thing, and I started by acting in plays they were prepping for a tour. I had no idea what I was getting into! But I was eager to experience first-hand what “seniors’ theatre” was all about.

     Instantly I loved it! The people, their stories, performing – all of it. A few short months after joining, I remember leading warm-ups and helping GeriActors set-up a performance for staff at the University of Alberta Hospital. As I watched them perform Am I Invisible? something clicked – I was seeing in-action the many ways theatre could help enrich older people’s lives: as a means to share stories and give voice to relevant issues, to express and encourage creativity and build skills, and to foster a sense of community and belonging. By the end of the performance I thought I want to be a part of this.

     I’ve been fortunate to work with GeriActors, both administratively and artistically, since 2007. I’ve learned a lot – about theatre, aging, community art, myself, others – laughed a ton, been constantly inspired and surprised, made lasting friendships with people of many ages, and have gotten to be a part of many wonderful performances, workshops and festivals.

Graduate studies in the U.K.

     I recently finished my masters in Applied Theatre at the University of Manchester. The year-long program was challenging, expanded my theoretical knowledge, and gave me insight into the creative processes used by other community-based theatre groups around the world.

     My experience with GeriActors influenced all aspects of my studies. In a work placement, I drew upon interview and playwriting skills I learned with G&F to create and perform a play about a historic area in East Manchester. My dissertation examined the play-development process, with particular focus on the considerations that come to bear in community-based theatre when shaping personal stories into first-draft plays. My research and practice was based upon GeriActors play-development and a story graciously shared by one of our members.

Dhana performing in FEST
Dhana and GeriActors performing in FEST

Directing Tjalling Zonderland and Something from Nothing.

     The Story of Tjalling Zonderland has been in the G&F repertoire for a few years. I remember the writing exercise that prompted Melle, a former GeriActor, to share the story and have seen its ongoing development into a full-fledged play. The play’s message can appeal to all generations: unexpected turns in life that seem awful somehow end up being the best thing ever. The exciting part of directing Tjalling is looking for the extra little details that will enrich every scene, whether it be giving a certain character in the play more prominence, enhancing the setting of a scene, or adjusting the blocking or the pace of the action.

     Something From Nothing is a newer piece we’re working on. It’s a traditional Jewish folktale about a grandfather who loves his grandson dearly, and weaves magic into garments, transforming worn-out clothes into new ones his grandson can wear. So far we’re having fun re-creating “magic” through physicality – actors become the implements like needle, thread, and scissors. As we get further into the creative process, we’re continuing to uncover why we’re drawn to the story, and what it really means to us, and finding ways to communicate those meanings through the play. 

Future of the GeriActors

      I see the continuation of all the activities that have become key components of the organization: performances, workshops, FEST (Festival of Edmonton Seniors Theatre), collaborations with high schools, multicultural groups, research projects. I also hope that G&F continue to be recognized as a go-to anecdotal example of the many benefits of creative aging and intergenerational collaboration.

     For the actors, I see the GeriActors wherever they see themselves! They ultimately decide and shape their future by the stories they tell and the way they tell them. I hope they continue to express themselves, enjoy the rich community they’ve created, try new things, and above all, have fun.

Dhana and GeriActors performing for premier in 2009
Dhana and GeriActors performing for premier in 2009

Intergenerational Art

      Intergenerational art / theatre is a way for people to connect across the generations, and deepen our understanding of ourselves, and others. Something magical happens when young and old create together: it’s hard to capture in words but the energy of youth and the wisdom of age combine to make a complete picture, something that everyone can relate to on some level.

     I love GeriActors and intergenerational art because it honours older people: their ideas, their concerns, their artistic abilities, their pasts and their presents. I believe their art, both the process of creating it and the product, have the power to shift many people’s ideas about aging, from those of deterioration and decline to ones of continued growth, expansion, expression, ability, mastery, relevance, and fulfillment. That’s what I saw watching the GeriActors perform all those years ago and I hope to see it for many years to come.


Meet the GeriActors: Charles Bidwell

Editor’s note: Charles Bidwell is a GeriActor, a retired minister, a teacher, and an activist. Here is an entry by Charles about the GeriActors and Friends and intergenerational art.

Tell us about your experience with the GeriActors and Friends.

GeriActors and Friends (G&F) has been a highlight of my week for four years now and I wouldn’t miss a meeting on Thursdays unless I was ill or on vacation. The spirit of comradeship and playfulness of the other members enriches my life. From the improvisation activities that spark our imaginations and foster creativity to the crafting of stories into scenes or playlets based on issues or themes in our lives, we share a common bond of enjoying each other’s contributions and giving ourselves permission to be child-like in our playfulness. Good humour abounds and the snack times are treats prepared with love that put the icing on the cake of our playtime so to speak.

I have been stretched by participating in several G&F workshops for seniors such as clowning, musical theatre, dance, performance storytelling and comedy improvisation. I have been happy to play roles in scenes we take to seniors’ centres and housing locations. It is interesting to discover what memories our scenes evoke in the members of the audiences; they seem to light up as they share these memories with us after our performances.

I have been privileged to lead a Performance Storytelling workshop and witness the spark that ignites the seniors as they play games and share stories from their rich life experiences. Who would have thought that at age 77 I would be an acting coach or mentor!

Charles Bidwell at a Comedy Improv workshop
Charles Bidwell at a Comedy Improv workshop

Could you share a bit about the process of creating intergenerational art?

Working/playing with a variety of people is always interesting when they come from different perspectives and life experiences. The seniors in GeriActors come from different countries and career paths and they bring that diversity of experience to the circle when we play improvisational games and tell stories from our lives.

I had only known mono-generational acting groups (high school drama club and later in amateur theatre groups) until now. The difference I have experienced is that within our intergenerational group there seems to be a more playful atmosphere. Perhaps this is because we are not trying to impress or out-perform our peers or because the director has always encouraged impromptu play at the beginning of every Thursday meeting and workshop gathering.

The university students come with such enthusiasm that it is inspiring and energizing to us seniors. They in turn get an opportunity to share with us the theatre skills they are developing. I have found that both generations have been moved beyond stereotypical generalizations about members of the other generation. Even the high school students we have interacted with shared their appreciation for getting to know, even briefly, the seniors in our playful mode.

Charles Dance
Charles Bidwell and Helen Klemm performing dance piece at FEST

Where do you see the GeriActors in the future?

I think as we (G&F) mature we might form a couple or three troupes in addition to the current historic group of Thursday gatherings. The membership of these groups would be open to more folks than we can accommodate in the current troupe. One might be an improv-focused group – The GeriImps? Another might be a group interested in rehearsing and performing pieces more often than we do now – The GeriPlayers? This performing troupe might also incorporate pieces involving expressive movement/dance.

It used to be that we had only one person taking a leadership role and that limits what can be done. We are now mentoring and offering leadership experiences to others and so branching out to form another group is more realistic. More frequent workshops are another area for growth and expansion of the public’s awareness.

I look forward to expanding our reach out to more seniors through providing more workshops in different locations and running a full-year, weekly drop-in drama group at the city centre Seniors Association of Greater Edmonton to make playing acting experiences accessible to more and more seniors.


The GeriActor’s and Friends Experience

Editor’s Note: The GeriActors and Friends are filming a Documentary! Here is a glimpse into the filming experience by Bill.

Support, open, safe, vulnerable and invigorating: these were the words that the GeriActors and Friends used to describe themselves this weekend as the company reflected on their process and its impact on their lives. This Saturday and Sunday we began filming the G&F documentary as a part of a research project with the Canadian Institute of Health Research and the U of A’s Human Ecology Department on how theatre is the pathway to healthy ageing. The film will feature interviews from GeriActors and Friends about our experience and thoughts about the company, an audience talkback and our three original plays Prodigal Son, Felixstowe and Lear.

GeriActors performing Lear at Holiday Party.
GeriActors and Friends performing Lear at Holiday Party.

It was an inspiring two days as both the seniors and students asked ourselves the questions that brought us together: What makes the GeriActors so unique? What does  intergenerational mean to us? In what ways has art and theatre enriched our lives? Although everyone had their own unique reasons for joining and how it has affected their lives, we had all come to consensus that what makes the GeriActors unique for us was its supportive, open, safe, and vulnerable yet invigorating environment. Here we can feel safe to bring our stories, the challenges we face in life and utilize theatre as a medium to explore, understand and appreciate.   

During an interview I was asked if the GeriActors had a performative style. I was startled as I knew that the GeriActors had a very unique way of acting, but had never really compared it to anything else. “They are story-based actors” I said. Every gesture, every line, every emotion they portray reinforces the story, the story is the precedence of everything. I realize that as an actor, sometimes I would get all caught up on HOW I would tell the story, that I began to neglect WHAT the story is, and more importantly WHY the story needed to be shared. A lesson I have taken from the GeriActors: to never lose sight as to the significance and impact of the story I am sharing. 


Intergenerational Art: Crossing borders and Disciplines

Note: This January, Becca and Bill (friends) went to Washington DC to participate in Dance Exchange’s first ever Winter Institute. Check out Bill’s entry about the experience.  

Now that the Winter Institute has come to an end, Dance Exchange seems so distant, yet the experiences and the reflections of our time there are so close to home. As we begin to settle back into Edmonton and begin work with the GeriActors and Friends this winter season, we come in with a fresh mind, but more importantly, with many questions.

Our journey with Dance Exchange started in May 2013 when two members of the company did a five day residency with the GeriActors and Friends. Our company was in an exploratory phase, looking for different prompts, styles, ways to discover and create stories. We knew the seniors still had many stories to share, but  needed a new approach. Despite our initial impressions of dance: learning confusing and meaningless choreography and lamenting at how limited our bodies are, we were eager to experience this new form of storytelling when Dance Exchange came. By the final performance, everyone had soared through their choreography as the audience’s jaws dropped  watching our 73 year old artistic director fly over a chair and then under it during our hour long dance performance. We realized that dance didn’t have to just be about learning choreography or showcasing flexibility, it became a liberating and visceral way of telling our stories. It was moving to see everyone open up as their narratives began to unfold; it was as if these memories were stored within waiting to be released.      

GeriActors Dance

 Click here to see a section from the GeriActors dance performance, “She’s asking for too much” performed by David Barnet (Artistic Director) and Shula Strassfeld (Dance Exchange), choreographed by Sarah Levitt.

Fast forward six months, we’ve flown into Washington DC to attend the Winter Institute at Dance Exchange. Becca and I have had a taste of DX, but we still had many questions: What are the communities that they work with? What are their rehearsals like? How do they create and develop work? What type of facilitation methods do they use? As we began to meet the various artists, dancers, teachers, actors and facilitators who were to take part of this journey with us, we began to share our stories: where we come from, what we’re curious about and what we hope to accomplish. By the end of our two-hour  potluck, there was a real sense of community, as this group of artists had realized that we all had come for one purpose: our love for art and the communities that we live in.

The next three days became a whirlwind of ideas, questions, creation and dance. We started every morning with a technique class, where we spent an hour and half playing around with various ideas of dance. I emphasize ‘play’ because these were the moments I found I had the most fun. One moment I could be ‘tracing’ a senior from Maryland, the next I’m doing plies with a ten year old boy then suddenly I’ve got someone on my back flying around as if I have a jet-pack.

“Tracing” in Saturday’s Technique class (Photo by Matthew Cumbie)

On Friday, Liz Lerman the founder of Dance Exchange came in to facilitate a Critical Response Process workshop. To paraphrase this four-step feedback process, the idea is to allow both the artist and the responder to be able have a discussion through inquiry and questions rather than having a responder based dictation of their own ideas. I suggest reading Liz Lerman’s book called the Critical Response Process, which extensively walks the reader through this process.

Perhaps the most significant aspect I took out of the workshop was how the CRP can be adopted into various situations in our lives. For example, Liz had us shake everyone’s hand and find something objective about each other to have a conversation about. We found that the way we touch, our degree of eye contact, the distance between us and even the way we said goodbye shaped the conversations and the impressions we had of each other. The feedback we had from these cues ultimately defined the entire experience.  I realized that if we really thought about the feedback we gave and received in our day-to-day lives we could open ourselves up to more meaningful interactions and conversations.

An interesting detail I picked up while observing Liz speak, was how she always started her sentences with “It’s interesting that…” whenever there was a comment that startled or confused her. In a way, I feel like I’ve witnessed Liz’s internal feedback: rather than beating herself for not knowing, she framed this moment of not knowing as an opportunity of discovery. I find this inquisitive frame of mind extremely grounding, a lesson I will also begin to adopt into my own practice.

Walk and Talk
“Walking & Talking” during workshop (Photo by Matthew Cumbie)

On Saturday we facilitated a workshop at Arcola Towers, a seniors’ centre on New Hampshire Avenue. The experience was invigorating, eye opening and heart-warming; all the elements of the GeriActors. The biggest difference for me was the level of social and cultural diversity in the room. This intergenerational group of people involved youth from a high-school program called Identity, seniors from various cultural and age ranges, middle aged facilitators from Dance Exchange and caretakers who all participated in the workshop. I was astounded by how all the perspectives and stories came together to create a collective “movement-collage” by the end of the workshop, it was so pertinent and inclusive, a defining feature of intergenerational art.

I encourage everyone to read Amanda Newman’s poetic entry about our experience at Arcola Towers. In this blog entry, she provides a glimpse of our planning process and the actual facilitation experience. You may find it through this link: http://danceexchange.org/2014/01/12/if-i-told-you/

Arcola Towers
Dance Exchange at Arcola Towers (Photo by Matthew Cumbie)

So now that we’re back in Edmonton, this question, “Okay, now what?” has resided over my mind for the last few days. We’ve taken a glimpse of the realities of community and senior arts in Washington DC, we’ve experienced and facilitated approaches to telling stories through dance, we’ve utilized discussion and dance to explore some of the questions we carried with us… so now what? How can we take this whole experience and make it pertinent to the work that we do with seniors in Edmonton? How can we take these methodologies developed through dance and apply it to theatre? How can we better collaborate and learn from various artists in our communities and around the world? These will be the questions that guide us as we begin working this next season.


The Start of a Larger Conversation

At the final symposium of FEST 2013 we began discussing ways we could make our work more accessible to the community. How can we be more inclusive? How can we reach the seniors who aren’t necessarily ‘active’ in the community? What methods can we use to achieve this?

We realized that in order for this to work, the discussion could not longer be exclusive to June and at FEST, that we would need to continue this conversation throughout the year. We hope this blog honours that intention, as we share highlights, discoveries and questions facing the GeriActors and Friends through our process of creating theatre about intergenerational issues.

If you or someone you know is interested in senior issues, community art making or intergenerational theatre keep posted on this blog! We will be updating you on upcoming G&F events and would love to hear what you have to say.

All are welcome in this discussion, and we hope these entries will be the beginning of a larger conversation. Please feel free to comment below on this post and any future posts.

GeriActors and Friends at FEST
GeriActors and Friends in Tjalling Zonderland