GeriActors celerate aging on stage

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Bringing playfulness to serious issues

Getting a lesson on how to make an eggplant salad or how to scuba dive may seem unconnected. But at the SAGE seniors centre Thursday afternoons, when the GeriActors take the floor, these are perfectly compatible exercises.

The performances follow the premise that everyone can do drama, says David Barnet, who leads the group.

“We believe in creative ageing. When seniors are engaged in creative arts … they lead a happier life, a healthier life,” he explains.

Barnet is founding artistic director of GeriActors and Friends, an intergenerational theatre company that gives seniors the skills and space to put on original plays, partnered with students and alumni from the University of Alberta.

“Here, they have a safe space, they feel comfortable and safe (to) express themselves and not be judged or criticized,” says Barnet.

GeriActors write their own material, using improvisation and story-telling to fine tune their scripts. They give up to 20 performances a year at festivals and conferences, to audiences from seniors to health professionals to the public.

Barnet’s Shakespearean classes at U of A fit well with his intergenerational theatre classes.

“These two courses are very similar. Shakespeare and seniors tell wonderful stories, and both start with playfulness,” he says. “Everything with Shakespeare and seniors is rooted in our daily lives and the world around us.”

Barnet started GeriActors in 2001 to give seniors across all cultural and socio-economic backgrounds theatrical experience. Telling stories and turning them into simple performance involves what he calls “meaning-making”.

“We want to inform and provoke audiences. In order to do that, you have to have meaning,” he says.

But the common ground is playfulness and laughter.

“Even with a very serious subject, such as old age or homelessness, there is always the possibility of humour,” he says.

The Friends, U of A students from drama, human ecology and education departments, to name a few, help bring generational issues within one scope.

“Issues of ageing are not just for seniors, because students deal with the same issues in their relationships,” says Barnet. “For example, invisibility. Young people are saying – hey, I’m invisible, too.”

Jenna Wold, a U of A psychology major attending GeriActors, feels drama offers benefits that other therapies can’t.

“Drama allows you to be yourself, or play a role to help you release,” she explains.

Liz Reid, who with her husband has attended GeriActors for seven years, is attuned to the simplicity that the acting bug provides.

“At this point in my life, the goal is to have fun and make the world more beautiful, wherever I happen to be,” she says.

For John Grootelaar, GeriActors has given him the gift of selflessness.

“Before, I looked at life more based on my own needs, and was not so concerned with others,” he says, noting he appreciates working with the students. “Older people are often so judgmental of young people. It’s given me a new outlook, I see they’re engaged and concerned about others.”

Ranee Wickramasekera, who’s been co-producing plays or teaching drama since she was seventeen, says friendship is one of the lasting benefits of GeriActors.

“I’ve made so many friends. … I think it’s so good to share experience with young people.”

GeriActors rehearse Thursdays from 1:15 – 3:45 pm at SAGE, Sir Winston Churchill Square

For more information, contact Becca Barrington at 780-248-1556, or email to geriactors.friends@gmail.com. Their website is www.geriators.ualberta.ca

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Over 20 years ago Kate took up the reporter's pad and pen while living in northern Alberta. She now writes freelance stories in Edmonton, about Edmonton.