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  • By Lisa Jevens

Acting Your Age in Senior Theater

You don't have to be an A-lister like Helen Mirren or James Earl Jones to live your acting dreams on stage in your "third act" of life.

Bringing the art of radio storytelling to life is a great way for retired professional actors to stay involved during their so-called "retirement," says Penny Juhlin.

Juhlin, also known as Penny Lane, is a former Chicago radio personality, voiceover artist, and current spokeswoman for the SAG-AFTRA Senior Radio Players.

It's a group of Chicago members of the Screen Actors Guild-American Federation of Television and Radio Artists who have all had illustrious careers, Juhlin says. They put on five live shows per year at the Chicago Cultural Center, free to the public.

"Each one has a marvelous background," she says. "One of them was the voice of Mrs. Butterworth in radio and TV. Another one was the original director of 'Grease' at the Kingston Mines Theater, and one has his voice in practically every museum in Chicago explaining the exhibits."

The Players read from scripts on stage accompanied by a full sound effects crew. "It's exactly if you were sitting in a radio studio," Juhlin says. "It's so fun to see how they make the sounds of horses' hooves, the slamming of a car door. There might be singers, and live commercial breaks too."

The appeal is intergenerational. "My husband's grandkids went, and they thought it was cool," she says.

Hitting the heights

Today there are more than 700 senior theater companies in the United States, says Bonnie Vorenberg, president of the Senior Theatre Resource Center in Portland, Oregon. She has watched senior theater step into the spotlight over the past 20 years.

Senior theater groups are popular because most don't require prior experience, while building confidence and community. Actors often read from scripts on stage, so memorization is not always needed. There is usually no complex movement required. But being in a show gives members something money can't buy: laughter and fun.

"Unless you have been on a stage, you don't know. It's a real high," says Lois Palmer, 76. She is the director of the Sun City Players, at the sprawling 55+ community where she lives in Menifee, California.

"The people who are attracted in high school are the same types who are attracted as older people," Vorenberg says. "Even in a large retirement community, you will have a 'theater group.' That is what helps them bond and stay together. Every group I work with says the same thing: 'We are a family.'"

Vorenberg says theater groups are requesting new material from the Senior Theatre Resource Center as fast as playwrights can write it. The Center assesses scripts and maintains a catalog of plays and musicals appropriate for senior theater groups.

"The genre is narrow," she says. "It can't be too long or difficult, must have a lot of women roles, not be ageist, not contain too much sexuality and profanity, and it has to be fun and up-to-date," she says.

Theater is good for people because "it's a rich, composite art form encompassing literature, music, movement, dance, and story, " Vorenberg says, "so it affects every part of the body.

"You get the physical benefits of moving and being on stage, and mental sharpness. You have to respond to people and get your cues to come in on time. In our culture there are not a lot of chances to express your emotions. In theater you can do that."

Enter stage right

Sun City, a former Del Webb community where Palmer lives, has a hall with a stage and dressing room space. Palmer says joining the theater group helped her fit into the community when she moved there as a widow in 1997.

"I remember my first time ever on a stage," she says. "It was kind of scary. I think my voice was shaky, even though others said it wasn't."

Performing has made it easier to communicate with people, and the former "shy girl" even spoke at her high school reunion.

"When you are having fun and having a lot of laughs, it just makes you feel younger," she says. "We also have camaraderie in the group," which ranges in age from 50s to 90s.

Dick Best of Plymouth Place in La Grange Park helped revive its dormant theater group called The Plymouth Players. With a background producing radio and TV commercials, Best became the writer and director of short skits for the group.

In 2012 Plymouth Players partnered with the LaGrange Area Teen Theater Ensemble on an old-time radio-style production of "The War of the Worlds," performed live at Plymouth Place's modern on-site theater. Best played Orson Welles.

At 87, Best still describes himself as "a ham."

"I enjoy getting a reaction out of people. It keeps me alive, and I know the others enjoy performing a great deal," he says.

It's never too late

Even if you've never picked up a script, it's not too late to become a professional in your senior years. There are acting classes that cater specifically to seniors.

"Senior actors are in demand for everything from commercials to music videos," says Los Angeles acting teacher Adrienne Omansky. Out of 125 current students age 60-96, more than half have an agent.

Omansky has been training senior actors for 20 years in an award-winning Los Angeles Unified School District program.

Omansky grew up as a child actress, complete with a real-life stage mother, Celia Kushner, a native Chicagoan who was an aspiring actress at the time. Kushner appeared in countless commercials, the movie "I'll Be Home For Christmas," and the TV shows "ER" and "Night Stand." Though Omansky pursued dance and later teaching, she managed her mother's career until she died at 91.

"I became her stage mother," Omansky quips. That's what inspired her to give other seniors a chance to prepare for commercial work — and improve their lives — through acting.

Omansky also has her own theater troupe, Adrienne's Actors, which performs an award-winning senior fraud awareness program all over the Los Angeles area called "Stop Senior Scams."

Acting has helped some of Omansky's senior acting students earn additional income, overcome the loss of a loved one, or simply keep going.

"Theaters shouldn't just be for one age group. It should be different age groups working together for a common goal."

In 2013, Pathway reported a 33 percent decrease in 30-day hospital re-admissions and an 8 percent decrease in the number of hospitalizations.

Originally published in the Chicago Tribune and Los Angeles Times on September 12, 2014.

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