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.


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