“If any of you drop dead before the next performance, I’ll kill you!”
Interview with Robb Hutter on Working With Seniors in Retirement Communities
Where do older adults fit into our world today? This question is currently one of great concern, politically, socially, and artistically. The growing field of Senior Theatre is one bold response. Through this week's series, we'll explore the many facets of this small but growing field. These stories highlight the sometimes-hidden power of the eldest members of our community, and share how much they have to offer to the world through their art. Robb Hutter, Philadelphia actor-director and founding director of Philly Senior Stage, who created fifteen different “theatres” in retirement communities in the Greater Philadelphia area, talks freely about the joys and difficulties of creating theatre for seniors.— Lynn Mullin.
Henrik Eger: You are an experienced actor and director. What was it in your background that made you think of seniors?
Robb Hutter: In 1984, I saw a dance production in DC of Liz Lerman’s Dancers of the Third Age, which featured an intergenerational cast. I was moved watching the elderly dancers glide across the stage with the younger ones. It was one of those seminal moments in life where one is touched deeply: I realized that creativity wasn’t an exclusive party for young artists like myself.
Two years later, I was part of a repertory theatre company in Minnesota where each of the actors had to fulfill the company’s mission by teaching acting and directing shows in a community setting. I selected a senior housing complex. However, the residents weren’t the slightest bit interested in creating theatre with me. But they did want me to know that they were outraged that their building didn’t have a nighttime supervisor in the event that a resident should need a staff member to handle a casualty. I took their angry words and, with a local songwriter, wrote a song depicting their plight. The guitarist and I returned to the “angry residents” a week later and while they ate in the lunchroom, we sang “Where To Now?”
With that, the theatre program was launched and a series of performances ensued where these residents took center stage in both the community and the media. A law firm took their case to court, sued the State of Minnesota for negligence, and a nighttime manager was engaged to support the residents. Now this was community theatre!
Henrik: In 1990, you became the Artistic Director of Temple University’s intergenerational theatre program.
Robb: In the ten years of my tenure there, I created educational theatre shows combining improvisation and sociodrama to invite audiences to explore a burgeoning new concept: Creative Aging!
Henrik: How did you approach program directors at senior residencies with your “creative aging” concept and what was their initial response?
Robb: While visiting Shannondell at Valley Forge, PA, a new retirement community with a 500-seat state of the art theatre, I checked in with the activities department and learned that while none of the residents performed on that stage, some had approached the facility staff expressing interest in a theatre program for residents. I created an eight-week course back then in 2007, and I’m still at Shannondell eight years later developing semi-annual shows where my 75-years-young “kids” strut their stuff.
Senior theatre artists like myself are no longer considered flakes. Not only do we increase the quality of seniors’ lives, we help them live longer!
Henrik: In studying the subject, what have you discovered?
Robb: Theatre for senior adults is a lifeline—spiritually, emotionally, and physically. According to Dr. Eugene Cohen who conducted the first longitudinal medical study investigating the relationship between aging and the arts with three senior arts groups over a three-year period, "Participating in the arts on a consistent basis lowers cholesterol, blood pressure, and depression.” Senior theatre artists like myself are no longer considered flakes. Not only do we increase the quality of seniors’ lives, we help them live longer!
Henrik: Deep down, what are some of the driving forces for seniors to practice and perform for their fellow residents through your program?
Robb: One word: camaraderie. After every performance, I ask them, “What aspect of developing the script, rehearsing, and performing the show do you most enjoy?” The answer, hands down, is the connection between the group members.
Henrik: Could you walk us through a first meeting with a new group of seniors?
Robb: My first encounter with seniors is a theatre “demonstration,” where I introduce the participants to a high-energy whirlwind tour of aspects of theatremaking: musical theatre, storytelling, pantomime, scene study, and improvisational games—but I don’t dare use the word “game” with senior adults. Since most of them usually don’t engage in interactive activities which encourage full self-expression, they have a ball acting, and the foundation for building an ongoing theatre troupe is established.
Henrik: You affectionately refer to your students as “geezers.” How do they respond to your humorous approach?
Robb: I have appropriated the word “geezer” for senior adults—including myself—in the same way that some in the LGBT community use the word “queer.” A term once derogatory becomes an emblem of pride.
In regards to my humorous approach, I give my charges the opportunity to laugh at themselves and certainly at me as well. They interact most of the day with professionals who treat them like “senior adults”—in a professional and respectful way. I’m an irreverent sort of guy, not disrespectful but edgy. They love that I don’t treat them with kid-gloves. I got chutzpah. I talk openly with them about sex, face lifts, and dying. I threaten them all the time: “If any of you drop dead before the next performance, I’ll kill you!”
Henrik: A number of theatres for seniors have presented erotic themes and found that audiences warmed to the issues quickly. What have been your experiences with seniors on the subject of sex and eroticism onstage?
Robb: I’ll tell you this. The peer pressure in a retirement community is stronger than in any teenage club or high school I’ve attended or worked in. My seniors won’t present any material with content if they fear it will offend their peers in the audience. And the sex has to be subtle, not graphic. Many retirement communities were established by religious groups and there is a certain reticence to “stand out” too much.
Henrik: Do you also teach improv comedy? How do seniors respond?
Robb: Most groups over 80 years of age do not take to improv comedy either as spectators or actors—they find it harder to access their own spontaneity and follow the speed, verbosity, and abstract nature of a comedy improv show. I believe that as we age, we become more visual than auditory. The very elderly need to see the physical movement of a show, more than to listen to the cleverness and dexterity of word games that comprise much of the improv canon.
Henrik: How long are the plays or performances your seniors present?
Robb: All of my shows in retirement communities last one hour. The format is usually snippets of longer shows, or revues, be it a series of selections from Broadway musicals, classic radio shows, Hollywood movies, etc. All our shows are staged readings.
Henrik: After you became successful, you branched out and hired actors and directors to expand the Philly Senior Stage groups at an increasing number of retirement homes. How did that work out?
Robb: I have an expansive, big picture type of personality. Maybe I grew the organization a little too fast, as I’m sharing my income with a whole slew of theatre artists. But I also feel like I’m endowing a new generation of theatre artists of all ages with a specific set of skills, serving the particular learning and performative needs of senior adults. I love it when I gather my staff together and they express how much they love this work—and play!
Henrik: What advice do you have for theatre artists in North America who would like to start a similar program in their communities?
Robb: The same advice I got eight years ago when I started Philly Senior Stage. I wanted to found the preeminent theatre and performing arts institute for training seniors—I still do! Seniors want to play. They want to have fun. This is a leisure activity for them. Most, if not all, are not aspiring to make this their career. If they don't like it, they won't continue to participate.
As a teacher of seniors, discard all the etiquette—not the skill set—you learned in acting school. Give them line readings. Demonstrate fearlessly how you want them to act. They'll provide the fear. And except for respecting their physical challenges, don't talk to them like they're old. Like us, they are kids on the inside. They, like us, want to be validated, loved, and actualized.
Henrik: How would you summarize your experience?
- Patience! Patience! And, did I say “Patience!?”
- Change your expectations.
- Awareness that in spite of their physical and cognitive limitations, these people want to be stretched artistically and to express themselves emotionally. I believe we all want to be fully self-expressed. Self-actualization sits at the top of Maslow’s pyramid depicting the hierarchy of human needs.
Henrik: Growing old is considered by many Americans as the most unglamorous of human conditions. How does theatre with senior citizens change that perception?
Robb: Growing old will always be unglamorous. As we love to say: "Embrace it! Celebrate it! Take the taboo of discussing death out of the closet.”
Henrik, if you die before writing this article, I'll kill you!