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Innovative Broadway Senior program gives Juniper Village residents a chance to prove it’s never too late to connect with the power of theater

by on August 30, 2019 10:45 AM

An intrepid group of residents is learning to come out of their shells on the stage in a new musical theater program at Juniper Village at Brookline, proving that it is never too late to learn, grow, and try new things.

Broadway Senior, a program started by Music Theater International, adapts Broadway musicals, allowing older adults to experience the thrill of theater. The pilot program has taken off at Juniper Village at Brookline – one of a handful of senior communities across the country running the series – making quite a splash at the State College retirement community and beyond.

“All of this enables our residents to go from audience to center stage,” says Katie Kensinger, senior director of community relations at Juniper.

While it is common for theater groups to come to Juniper to perform for the residents, residents didn’t often get to experience the thrill of performing in the past, Kensinger says.

“This is meeting a different need that we didn’t even know was there,” she says. “I think one of the key highlights is that it allows our residents to see themselves differently, and see what they are capable of. It also allows them to show their peers and their family members what they are capable of. It is celebrating people for who they are now, and what they are doing now, rather than the person who they used to be. That is still important, but I had a resident say to me, ‘I want people to know that we are still here and we can still do things.’”

That sentiment seems to have struck a chord with the 25 members who have participated in three shows during the past two years.

“It means I’m not dead yet,” says performer Suzanne Hinrichs. “It’s something new that most of us haven’t done before. You have to put yourself forward, and be there. I think sometimes as we get older, people worry about their image. This is a great way to just have fun and to play a little and experience what it’s like to be another person. It’s important to be open to new things.” 

“As we get older, I think we have a tendency to withdraw sometimes. It’s important for us to blossom,” says performer June Brown. 

Kensinger adds, “It is an incredibly transformative program. We thought that it would be something fun to do. We never attempted anything like this before, but we are very innovative in our programming and we thought that it would be fun ... it was that, and it was so much more. It helped build our sense of community within our community and it helped connect us with the broader community.”

Juniper couldn’t have done it without the help of many outside agencies, she says.

“We say it truly takes a village, and this program enables us to bring in different community partners who we might not have been working with before,” Kensinger says.

The troupe worked with folks from Fuse Productions, Penn State School of Theatre, the College of Communications, and other technical people and volunteers to help get ready for the shows. 

The fact that this pilot program is taking place at Juniper Village at Brookline is a story in itself. Freddie Gershon is the co-chairman and former CEO of Music Theater International. In 1994, MTI started the Broadway Junior program, which adapted Broadway musicals to be performed by elementary and middle school students. The program was a hit, cultivating young theater performers and lovers and earning Gershon a special Tony honor in 2012.

Gershon became friends with Juniper Communities founder and CEO Lynne Katzmann when they served on an arts council together in New Jersey.  

“Now, Freddie just turned 80 years old and he was thinking” about what else he could do to give back, says Kensinger. He came up with Broadway Seniors to give musical theater opportunities to older adults.

“And he talked to Lynne and asked her if she would like to collaborate on this.”

Kensinger herself has a theater background, and with her being in house at Brookline, it seemed like a perfect match. The rest is history. 

The average age of cast members is 87, and there are performers from personal care, memory care, and skilled nursing, along with a couple from independent living housing. One of the biggest benefits has been that residents have gotten to know new people outside of their typical groups and it has really helped them open up, according to Kensinger.

“Oh, it was fun. I really enjoyed meeting all the people in the cast. I laughed more than I thought we’d laugh,” says performer Barbara Mahute. “I love to see the audience so happy and enjoy it like we do. I keep thinking about what is going to be the next one.”

“I like that this gave me the opportunity to perform and to meet other people – people who live here, but I might not have known because they live in another part of Juniper,” says Brown.

Because MTI has the rights to many musicals, the Broadway Seniors series is able to get permission from authors to adapt the shows to the needs of older adults. Shorter run times, larger-font scripts, and the ability to turn solos into duets, among other adaptations, make the plays more accessible to seniors.

“When we did Guys and Dolls, at first I thought, 'How are we going to do this?' But then, everybody makes it so easy and it just goes,” says Mahute. “It made me feel so good. It made me feel happy my family came.”

The actors perform in front of small audiences of other residents at Juniper, along with family and friends, creating an environment that helps the performers feel secure.

The program will be branching out to Juniper’s Lebanon facility soon and is getting a lot of positive feedback. Kensinger will make a presentation on the program at the International Council on Active Aging in October and she hopes it inspires a broader movement after the pilot is complete.

“It was really exciting to see people connecting with the power of theater,” she says. “I know, from my own experience, just how powerful theater can be for expressing emotion, being creative, for kind of getting outside of yourself and seeing the world through another character’s eyes. So, to see people discover that for maybe the first time and get excited about it was exciting for me. It brought all these people together and created a sense of community, and that is really beautiful to see.”

 

Vincent Corso is a staff writer for Town&Gown and The Centre County Gazette.

 



Vincent Corso is writer for Town&Gown and the Centre County Gazette.
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