Tag Archives: seniors

The SPARC Grant: Part Two

8 Sep
These hands
Pain and joy
These hands
Changing my grandson’s diaper for the first time
These hands
Feeling my father’s stubble
These hands
My family
These hands
My dreams, touching the lions
These hands
Feeling strong
 

 “These Hands” was created by my students using a visualization exercise that guides participants to focus on their hands—where their hands have been, what their hands have touched, and who their hands have cared for—throughout their lives. Each week the group would reminisce on a different subject: superstition, holidays, and life lessons, for example. Sharing memories generated a palpable sense of community in class, but I couldn’t figure out how to turn these reminiscences into content suitable for a performance. Should the stories be scripted? Turned in to poems like “These Hands” and read? Made into songs?  In the 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 past.

Terry, one of my savviest students, suggested that the group develop an “immigration office” scene and with little effort they improvised a funny and moving story  of a poor widow, a skilled  tradesman, and a rich lady who interact with an immigration agent and police officer in Ellis Island.

Doris and Terry

The standout performance is Blanca’s portrayal of a rich lady who avoids the perils of Ellis Island due to her social standing. With nothing but a borrowed cane, she is transformed into an elegant  and wealthy woman from the 1920s. She doesn’t overplay it, she just lifts her chin and assesses the other characters—this is a woman who knows what she’s worth. Inexplicably, Blanca understands that controlled stillness is the key to capturing an audience’s attention. Watching her perform makes me want to keep trying, it reminds me of the reason why I feel in love with theater when I was six years old. The ability to transform into someone else is the only magic I’ve ever known.

In addition to the Ellis Island scene, it was decided that the students would share their American stories for the final performance.  There would be no forced theatrics, no songs or dances, it would just be them. It would be enough. Blanca’s story focused on her admiration for John F. Kennedy, Doris theatrically described her great love for the American flag: both her birthday and the anniversary of the day she became an American citizen fall on Flag Day.

Doris and the Flag

Andre discussed his many blessings in this country, while Ann and Terry shared their long and rich family histories.

Ann and her Dad

There was just one problem, at the end of our final dress rehearsal we’d never been through the show without stopping.  I (like many directors before) accepted this and hoped for the best.

The week before our final performance I received a cryptic email from my most dedicated student, Ann.

The subject line read: EMERGENCY! Call me immediately.

I raced to the phone to call Ann at home.  Luckily I caught her on the first ring.

“Everyone is fine, it’s not medical. Robin, our props have been sold.”

“What?”

“They took our props and sold them.”

Our props and costumes, stored in a locked closet in the senior center, were mistaken as a donation to be sold “garage sale style ” at the center. Thankfully, Terry was there to rescue most of the goods, but a few things went renegade. Apparently posters of Ellis Island and unmarked CDs are hot items in Sunnyside,Queens. I arrived at the center on Sunday for the final performance to discover that only a few essential items were missing. Poor Blanca had to run to the store to buy a new skirt, but we made it through.

I went backstage to lead the students through a final warm up and felt myself swell with pride when I realized that we made it, this show was really happening. Ann asked if she could lead us in a prayer and my eyes welled up with tears when I realized that this would be the last day of my class. The performance was perfect, the audience laughed, cried, and were right there with us.  Words can’t express how proud I am of my students and their accomplishment.  Their validation.  There is a heaven for has-been acting teachers like me.  And this is what it will be like.