by Talya Kingston, WAM Associate Artistic Director & Teaching Artist
Over three weeks in July, ten women aged between 65 and 85 who comprised the new WAM Theatre Elder Ensemble came together with the nine-strong WAM Teen Ensemble (aged between 13 and 18 years) to devise an original performance based on the theme of dreams. The brave ensemble members come from all over Berkshire County with a wide variety of artistic talents from poetry writing to tap dancing to playing the bagpipes!
From the initial introductions it was clear that both groups had a lot to learn from the other. WAM Theatre’s policy includes introducing ourselves both by our names and by our pronouns (he/him, she/her, they/them) so that others don’t unintentionally mis-gender us. This practice was initiated a couple of years ago by our Teen Ensemble and ensures that all our participants feel fully seen, heard and valued. While some of the members of the elder ensemble were already practiced in using non-traditional gender pronouns, others were resistant and we all talked openly about the struggle of changing how we speak and use grammar. Over the course of more conversations and distributed news articles, it became a practice, (with one elder even trying out a gender-neutral pronoun on themselves.)
We thought about ageist attitudes we might have brought into the rehearsal space, confronting them directly with a creative exercise. During the second day of rehearsal, when we asked the Elder Ensemble for stereotypes of teenagers, ideas came in thick and fast: “self-conscious” “Phone obsessed”. Teaching Artist Amy Brentano wrote all the suggestions in thick black ink on a large sheet of paper that hung on the wall. “giggly” “sex obsessed” “secretive”
Through the glass partition doors in the adjoining studio the teenagers were doing the same exercise and Teaching Artist Sara Katzoff was writing their stereotypes of seniors: “smells like church basements”, “Walks slowly”, “Falls a lot”, “bad toe-nails”, “always has hard candy”.
Each group physicalized the stereotypes they came up with for the other group and created a short performance piece. These short performances resulted in laughter of recognition, as well as some profound observations, such as the fact that while the elders had impressions of the teens both from observing them and from their own memories of being at that age, the teens impressions of the elders were all external.
The teens complained to the elders about how adults often don’t take them seriously, in a conversation that ended up as a scene in FRACTURED DREAMS:
You aren’t old enough to understand real-world issues!
You’re too young to do anything about it!
You enjoy seeing us take action, but our age impacts how much of a voice we have.
Members of the Elder Ensemble were quick to point out that the teen’s parents are the elder’s children, and that they also sometimes felt patronized and limited by this in-between generation (a generation represented in the rehearsal room only by the Teaching Artists!)
The most magical moments of intergenerational ensemble work came not out of conversation and words, but out of movement and sustained eye contact. One ensemble building activity that we kept coming back to involved the entire ensemble sitting in a circle. We took turns to silently come into the middle of the circle and make eye contact with each of our colleagues in turn. These moments, taking time to really see each other, were so powerful that some were moved to tears. When asked what she’ll most remember about the experience of being in the WAM Ensemble this summer, one elder artist said: “I will remember the experience of looking deeply into the eyes of a 13 year old.”
The theme of dreams/dreaming is multi-layered, and after exploring recurring dreams that we’d had while asleep, and sharing aspirational dreams and some of the barriers to our achieving them, we arrived at the idea of the American Dream. This was something that the elders instinctively understood more quickly than the teens. A couple of the elders were quick to let the teens know that it’s their turn to dream and fight. But the idea of dreaming within a bleak political climate felt fraught. In a creative writing prompt that came out of this lunch, one teen described the American Dream as “a myth hung over our heads by the generations who came before us..” and stated that “there is no American Dream that fits all of us.”
We wrestled with this problem as we tried to find a way to end our performance. One moment of hope came in another processing circle when an elder comforted the teens saying: “You are not alone. We are still here.” and gave several examples of senior activists working on innovative environmental projects and social justice work. This statement of shared focus became our impetus for the ending of the play and the call to the audience to wake up and join us in our dreams for the future.
During the last day of rehearsal, the intergenerational ensemble came together and ritually ripped up the large pieces of paper listing the stereotypes that they had come in with. It was clear that in order to fully trust each other on stage and perform as an intergenerational ensemble everyone had to feel seen as individuals. As one ensemble member said: “great things happen when barriers are broken and stereotypes overcome” and another reflected that “when we work together in a positive, supportive atmosphere, we exceed our expectations”
During the third week of the residency, the WAM Theatre Ensemble toured FRACTURED DREAMS to four different performance venues throughout the Berkshires: The Foundry in West Stockbridge, The Stationery Factory in Dalton, Dewey Memorial Hall in Sheffield and The Mount (Edith Wharton’s House) in Lenox. FRACTURED DREAMS played to sold out houses, and we concluded each performance with a talk-back where we explained our process of creation and opened up the conversation of intergenerational dreams to include our audiences. In total over 400 audience members saw the production.
WAM Theatre would like to thank all our 2019 corporate sponsors and especially the Feigenbaum Foundation and the Berkshire Taconic Community Foundation for their support of the intergenerational ensemble.