The SPARC Grant, Part One.

4 Sep

In September of last year, an email from Queens Council on the Arts landed in my inbox to announce SPARC: Seniors Partnering with Artists Citywide, a community arts engagement program that pairs teaching artists with senior centers across the five boroughs of New York City.  As I scrolled through the email I thought, there is a grant program for artists who want to work with seniors? Why haven’t I heard of this? The answer was simple, it was a brand new program and this was the very first round of grants. I nervously applied, wondering if it was the right choice for a washed-up, has-been, failed acting teacher like me.

A few years ago I spent some time teaching in a nursing home on the Upper West Side and—as rewarding as interacting with my students could be—I felt a little like a fraud. Acting is just so touchy-feely and weird.  Selling the merits of improv was especially challenging.

“Improvisational theater gives us the opportunity to write our own performance as we go. You’ll be stunned by how fun and engaging it is. Who’s ready to give it a try?”

Stan’s eyes glaze over. Lena breaks into a coughing fit as a nurse rolls her away. The rest just stare back at me, bewildered. The silence is broken by the BINGO caller next door, “B 93. 9-3.” I continue on, wishing I were a BINGO caller instead of an acting teacher.  At least I’d have more than five participants.  I continued the lesson.

“There is only one basic rule to start improvising, it is imperative that you keep the scene going by saying ‘yes, and…’ rather than saying ‘no’ to your scene partner.  That’s the only key: never say no.”

Syd, a former judge, chimes in,

“I’ll say no whenever I damn please”

“Of course that’s true in real life, but in improv its better to say ‘yes, and…’”

“But that’s not reality honey. What if we’d said, ‘yes and…’ to Hitler? Where would we be now?”

“I see your point”

My students quickly mastered “yes, and…” but I ultimately couldn’t shake this feeling of being miscast as an acting teacher. Something just wasn’t right. Eventually, I invited a talented colleauge to take my place.  I sighed to myself and thought, well that wasn’t for me…

Despite my initial hesitation, I decided to take a leap of faith and apply for the SPARC grant, resolving to make up for my shortcomings as an acting teacher by focusing what I am good at: theater production. In the grant narrative, I proposed to develop a play—written by and starring the students—that answers one question: what does it mean to be an American? The idea came to me while visiting Ft. Ticonderoga in upstate New York. Everything there felt so “American” the trees, the green-green grass, even the solemn reinactors manning the cannons. The air even smelled American. (In case you are wondering, America smells like cut grass, pine trees, and lake water.)  I thought, this is America to me, Robin Benson, but what is America to somebody else? Somebody who lived through WW2 or someone who emigrated here? As cannons blasted around me, I closed my eyes and wished that half of my students be old-school die-hard lifelong New Yorkers and the other half be new Americans, ready to share their stories with me.

On an icy December day, I found out that I received the grant. Not only that, but I was placed in Sunnyside Community Services in Queens, home to one of the nicest senior centers in New York City.  After the initial thrill, a felt a pang in my gut:  how am I, a known acting teacher hack, going to pull this one off?  Panicked, I dusted off my old senior theater and intergenerational theater books off and came up with a plan.  The class would broken up into three major components: a development segment (12 sessions), a rehearsal segment (8 sessions), and a technical or final rehearsal segment (2 sessions).  Instead of focusing heavily on improvisational exercises or acting games (as I had with Syd and the gang), I resolved to activate students’ memories through reminiscence exercises, visualization, and sense memory.  The resulting content would then be woven together to create the final performance.

The class met in a small classroom adjacent to a much larger multi-purpose room that housed Sunnyside’s daily BINGO game (also known as the hottest ticket in town). Sometimes living in BINGO’s shadow is the best one can hope for.  I came prepared with a laptop, my iPhone (to capture whatever needed recording), and pages of typed notes.  I quietly prayed, asking God to meet me halfway. I assumed that this would be the biggest failure of my life, that my students would hate me, that there would be no final performance.

“Good afternoon, everybody. The purpose of this class it to develop a performance piece by asking ourselves the question, what does it mean to be an American? I don’t know what the final performance will look like, but I do know that the content will come solely from you.”

Ann looked thoughtfully at her hands, remembering someone, something important.  Andre broke into a huge grin. Terry leaned forward in her chair and nodded. The rest smiled back at me.  Ready to engage.  Ready to remember.  Half were immigrants, half were old-school die-hard New Yorkers from Queens. I could feel my heart lifting out of my chest.


One Response to “The SPARC Grant, Part One.”


  1. The SPARC Grant: Part Two « Silk Purse and Sow's Ear - September 8, 2012

    […] meantime, I worked with the group on basic acting and long-form improvisational skills (despite my prior difficulties with Syd and his cohort, I couldn’t abandon the genre entirely) and we continued delving into the […]

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