Even if you have more years behind you than ahead of you, your story is important, engaging, and fun — and you deserve to tell it.
This is part of the message and mission of OnStage Seniors, a community project of McCarter Theater in Princeton. The ensemble likes to tout itself as “the positive face of public aging.”
The program, founded in 2007, had been part of the Princeton nonprofit Community Without Walls, known for its support of creative aging in the senior community. OnStage Seniors has matured since becoming part of McCarter in 2014, and now features full-length, documentary-based productions, rather than skits and other lighter fare.
The theatrical troupe, whose members are all over the age of 55, don’t just put on performances of interview-based plays and monologues, they are part of the process to create and shape true stories into performances.
The plays run the gamut of emotions from humorous to bittersweet, and the audiences get involved in the narratives, enjoying a good tale or recognizing a story line as similar to their own.
OnStage Seniors brings these presentations to theaters, libraries, schools, hospitals, and senior and other community centers in central New Jersey. The group has also appeared at institutions like the Albert “Bo” Robinson Center, a halfway house in Trenton.
Afterward audience members are invited to speak out and share their thoughts about what they might have in common with the performance.
It’s all a bit revolutionary, too, because the works help break down misinformation about the over-55 demographic and refute the anti-aging bias that purveys our youth-obsessed culture.
“It’s been well-received everywhere,” says director Liz Green, 34. “The performances, which can be so entertaining, are followed by a talkback session, which can be equally entertaining.”
“In our talkback sessions people will stand up and say, ‘This made me think of something,’ and then tell their own story, so there’s a transaction between the performance and the audience,” Green says. “It sparks a kind of permission for others to tell their stories. In this way the OnStage ensemble can see that they are empowering the people in the audience in a healthy way.”
Having recently performed at the Arts Council of Princeton, Princeton Public Library, and Pennington Presbyterian Church, OnStage Seniors will now perform this year’s play “Aha Moments,” which explores the theme of “realization,” at Passage Theater in Trenton, Sunday, December 3.
The group will then soon launch into developing and rehearsing 2018’s new play. Once again, in the new work, the characters and text were all taken from interviews and collected stories, which were initiated from the talkback sessions following the various performances.
In the fall of 2015 Green took the reins of OnStage Seniors from Adam Immerwahr, who left McCarter to become artistic director at Theater J in Washington, D.C.
Describing herself professionally as “a theater artist working with organizations to use the arts as a tool for community engagement,” Green is also a 2018 candidate for a master’s of social work at Temple University.
Using oral history and group writing techniques, Green writes and directs collaboratively created plays, community art projects, and audience engagement programs. She has a long resume and an even longer list of completed productions outlining her abundant experience in this field.
It’s a passion that goes back to her teen years, when she participated in a professional theater company based near her native Danville, Pennsylvania — but more on Green’s education and accomplishments later.
Each OnStage season has a theme, which the ensemble and director agree on, and 2018’s theme is “Choices and Chances.” According to Green, it’s the idea of how the choices you made, the opportunities you took — or turned down — directed your life journey.
From there, OnStage Seniors’ performances are carefully crafted, built from the ground up.
“We begin by talking about what’s important to us. We have lots of conversations about that,” Green says. “We collected a lot of stories, and they’ve been transcribed (from interviews), I’ll edit them, select them, and then we’ll piece it all together into a script.”
“Each season folds into the next,” she says. “We’ll be out performing last year’s show, but the members are also in class, honing their acting skills, working on scenes, learning vocabulary, all of which is part of getting ready for the next show.”
Often audiences think the OnStage members are recounting their autobiographies, because it all feels so real. “We work in (weekly) rehearsals to build acting skills and character development, because they really are acting; they’re not telling their own stories,” Green says. “We do say in the introduction to the performances that, ‘these stories are not our own, but are performed as if they were.’”
As a result of recent auditions, the OnStage troupe now numbers 18 players, 5 men and 13 women from all around the central New Jersey region, all over the age of 55, with a fair number in their 60s and 70s. Many are retired professionals with backgrounds in medicine, education, and other highly skilled vocations.
A few have theater experience, but the majority do not, Green says. Although she guides and directs the ensemble, Green emphasizes that it’s really their group.
“I have the skills to facilitate and make (OnStage) artistically successful, but they are running their own theater company,” Green says. “It’s an opportunity for me, as a director and facilitator, to let them take the lead, and determine how they want the group to run — and they should have agency in their group. It’s their group, not mine.”
Green’s current work reflects her past. Her father was a professor of journalism at Bloomsburg University in central Pennsylvania. Her mother ran an upholstery business, then pursued a career as an administrator for a nearby hospital’s emergency room. Both are now retired.
Green’s interest in stories about people who are not usually in the public eye may have been sparked when she discovered Studs Terkel’s 1974 book, “Working: People Talk About What They Do All Day and How They Feel About What They Do,” as well as the noted oral historian’s other interview-based books.
She also loved how Oprah Winfrey presented regular folks on her TV talk show. “For me, that was new,” Green says. “Instead of having just famous and successful people on her show, Oprah brought on real people, families, and kids. She interviewed the ‘not famous.’”
When she was just barely a teenager, Green got involved with the Bloomsburg Theater Ensemble, a professional company with a mission to engage with a wide range of audiences throughout rural central Pennsylvania.
Perhaps this spirit of community engagement at BTE was a foreshadowing of Green’s current work with OnStage Seniors.
“I first began seeing this type of theater at 12 years old,” Green says. “They had a couple of people there, but especially Laurie McCants and Jerry (Gerard) Stropnicky, who did what they called ‘theater of place,’ shows based on community stories. I also acted in a show about teens in the area, and that was based on interviews.”
“I was only 13, in this inter-generational group, and I loved it all.” she says. “I loved the social aspect. I loved the audience and how they responded. I loved all this from the beginning.”
“I also loved acting and organizing plays, and of course writing — I wrote and wrote and wrote all the time when I was a kid,” Green adds. “I was always writing and collecting stories, and my parents encouraged me all along.”
Green decided to explore a more traditional kind of theater at Drew University in Madison, where she earned a BA in sociology and theater arts (with a focus on directing) in 2005. At the same time she took a position as a casting intern with Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey, learning the ropes alongside some of the region’s most experienced writers, actors, and directors.
From 2007 to 2010 Green worked for Two River Theater Company in Red Bank, first as an artistic associate and casting director, then as director of artistic programs. Her roles ranged from managing contracts and department budgets, to teaching in the company’s education department, to facilitating the organization’s popular pre and post-show discussions.
“I returned to interview-based theater when I started at Two River Theater, particularly with my involvement casting ‘ReEntry,’ which was created by K.J. Sanchez and Emily Ackerman, and about Marines re-entering civilian life after returning to the United States from Afghanistan,” Green says. “I really got to learn about devising theater in a new community when I spent time in Oregon and worked with Michael Rohd and the Sojourn Theatre (in 2009).”
At Sojourn, Green was the community liaison for “On the Table,” a performance directed by Rohd, and based on rural/urban relations in Oregon.
Returning to the east coast and settling in Philadelphia, Green got involved in BuildaBridge International, working with refugee populations (especially from Iraq and Burma), teaching weekly dance and visual art workshops.
“I was working with people who were processing events from their lives that were troubling and traumatic, but through art, were being able to process and rewrite those experiences,” she says. “My personality and interests blended together with this process, but I said to myself, ‘You need more formal tools to support the mental health aspect of this work.’ That’s when I decided to pursue the master of social work degree at Temple University,” Green says.
Green recently oversaw audience engagement strategies for “A Fierce Kind of Love,” a project of Temple University’s Institute for Disabilities. The project featured oral histories from the disability community, as well as an original play and photography project telling the untold stories of Pennsylvania’s Intellectual Disability Rights Movement.
Other experiences followed, including producing the 2011 and 2012 “First Person Arts Festivals” and StorySlams in museums, community centers, theaters, and bars across Philadelphia
Green came to McCarter in 2015 as a community engagement consultant when she assisted in the casting and development of “A Christmas Carol.”
Although auditions for OnStage Seniors’ 2018 season have already come and gone, the public can get involved by coming to a performance or booking one of the ensemble’s shows.
Performances can be adapted to a variety of venues, from community rooms to classrooms to full stages, and can range from 10-minute vignettes to a 45-minute full-length performance.
“Sometimes a venue where we’ve performed will ask us to come back and run a story circle,” Green says, adding that OnStage has sparked many, many story circles, generating a copious amount of material.
Although the stories collected in the circles don’t always end up in the performances, Green notes that they are all appreciated, and they are all heard.
This in itself is a special form of healing, since deep, active listening seems to have vanished from our culture, especially in the era of Twitter and the sound byte.
If older people feel particularly forgotten and unheard, OnStage Seniors considers it part of its mission to share stories that might not be heard otherwise.
“We like to say, ‘one voice leads another to speak,’” Green says.
Aha Moments, OnStage Seniors, Passage Theater, 205 East Front Street, Trenton. Sunday, December 3, 3 p.m. $10. 609-392-0766 or www.passagetheatre.org.
For further information, or to book OnStage Seniors, go to www.onstageseniors.org.