Instead of attending their usual acting class with Assistant Professor Abigail Killeen last week, Bowdoin theater students visited Thornton Hall Assisted Living in Brunswick to conduct theater exercises with its elderly residents.
To facilitate the event, Killeen invited New York theater artist Anthony Bannister to the college. Among his many theatrical projects, Bannister has founded a program called SGB Generation Bridge.
This program, named after Bannister’s mother who had “great spirit and theatricality,” he said, brings teens and seniors together through theater. Over six weeks, the two generations get to know one another, build trust and then create a show performed for friends and family.
Bannister said he was inspired to start the SGB program because of a friendship he once watched develop between a senior citizen and a teen. The senior shared music from his youth with the teen, while the teen introduced the senior to some of today’s songs. Bannister saw that these two generations have a lot to teach one another, and he knew theater would be a way to bridge that gap.
Killeen pursued the collaboration between her students and local senior citizens because she said she believes one of the “biggest problems…observed in Maine is loneliness,” and that she was “looking for a way to reach out and engage with the elderly in the Brunswick community.”
Bannister’s work also complements Killeen’s class curriculum, as her students learn that acting is about expressing truths about themselves and humanity, not just “making things up,” she said.
Bridging the Gap
When they first arrived at Thornton, the students sat among the residents in a circle of chairs and struck up conversations.
One group of students was in charge of conducting physical warm-ups (head, neck and ankle rolls) and introductions, during which each participant revealed a personal “fun fact.”
These facts ranged from goofy, like how Evan Horwitz ’15 can balance nine spoons on his face, to impressive, as resident Barbara said she had earned a Master’s degree from Harvard University without going to undergraduate college first, to witty, when Reet, a resident, quipped, “Everything I do is fun!”
After introductions, Sarah Chalfie ’14 and Tristan McCormick ’13 taught the group how to throw an imaginary ball using eye contact as a means of learning to trust one other. This exercise was preparation for the next exercise, where even more trust was needed.
In student-resident pairs, one participant with closed eyes was led vocally and physically by a partner around the center of the circle, in which there were upturned chairs forming “obstacles.” In one pairing, a resident in a wheelchair led the temporarily blind Killeen around the obstacles by directing Killeen where to push his chair.
Wils Dawson ’13 then instructed everyone to break into small groups and engage in free discussion. After a few minutes, Phui Yi Kong ’15 collected topics from these discussions, such as “not talking about sports” and the election.
The final group used these collected topics to inspire improvised scenes between two actors. A resident and a student would enter the center of the circle, the group would give the pair a topic and a relationship, and the actors would then perform a brief conversation as their designated characters on the topic.
Residents such as Alice nailed clever one-liners that sent the audience into fits of laughter, while other students developed caricature-like personas for their scenes, such as a boy afraid of flying.
After the improv scenes, everyone had the opportunity to share something they gained from the experience. Some, like resident Frank, were pleased with the change of pace: “Very novel! It’s a nice idea — have everybody participate.” Anna Morton ’15 liked “meeting new people who aren’t my age.”
Lydia Singerman ’13 said she “had so much fun laughing.” Another resident agreed: “I haven’t laughed so much in a long time and I hope you come back.”
Quincy Koster ’15 said it was “so much fun to see different perspectives,” and resident Barbara said, “This has been an exciting experience for me. You all have been just great. And we learn from you.”
Reet told the group, “It’s so important for the different generations to know each other. And we find we’re quite flexible when we have the opportunity.”
In closing, the entire group read Bob Dylan’s lyrics from his song, “Forever Young.”
Of the program, recreational therapist Sally Fitch said, “It’s been a win-win. [Our residents] still have that young soul — age is just a thing.”
Story and photos by Margot Howard ’13