This story was originally published on seniorplanet.org in 2014. Mind the Gap is currently accepting applications for summer workshops. Scroll to the end for details.
“I know how important it is for me to just be with people. But sitting around playing Mahjong isn’t my style. I need to find creative ways to be active and involved.”—Lenore Schmidt
Even in the age of connectedness, it’s rare that seniors and adolescents get a chance to engage with one another in meaningful ways. The staff at New York Theatre Workshop—an award-winning Off Broadway theater in NYC’s East Village—wanted to find a way to spark those important conversations. So in 2009, the NYTW education department launched Mind the Gap, a free, 10-session intergenerational workshop in which seven sets of teen-elder pairs interview each other and then pen plays inspired by their workshop partners’ lives.
“We were interested in doing something that would serve the seniors in our audience,” explains Bryn Thorsson, NYTW’s director of education. “We had a youth education program and a lot of members over age 60. We wanted to facilitate a dialog across that generation gap.”
Mind the Gap takes place twice a year at NYTW—the birthplace of Jonathan Larson’s “RENT” and Tony Kushner’s “Homebody/Kabul” among other groundbreaking projects. Playwriting and theater experience aren’t required; instead, NYTW looks for enthusiasm and commitment as well as diversity. Participants come from a variety of cultural and economic backgrounds. Despite significant differences, many forge close bonds both cross-generationally and with their peers.
Lenore Schmidt, an 83-year-old former fashion industry worker from Manhattan, and Johanna Torres, an 18-year-old high-school student from Queens, were partnered in summer 2013 and remain friendly (the pair is pictured above).
“She just came over for dinner the other night,” Schmidt says. “She calls me ‘Granny Lenore.’ Our worlds are so different, and yet I just identified with her. She told me this story about how she wanted so badly to be in the school choir. She wasn’t initially selected, but eventually wound up singing in it. I was very touched by that. I called the play I wrote about her ‘The Star-Spangled Banner.’ I love how she put herself in a position to fulfill her dreams.”
Torres wanted to become involved in the arts and had signed up for every theater email list she could find, including NYTW’s. “Lenore and I clicked very quickly,” she says. “We both love theater and come from immigrant families. I was able to open up to her and I came to trust her a lot. Our chemistry was just so right.”
Telling Each Others’ Stories
Torres decided to dramatize the tale of Schmidt’s relationship with her late husband. “I married later in life at 45,” Schmidt says. “Unfortunately, he passed in 2003. Since then I know how important it is for me to just be with people. But sitting around playing Mahjong isn’t my style. I need to find creative ways to be active and involved. That’s why Mind the Gap blew my mind.”
While a handful of other organizations bring different generations together through the arts—among them, Elders Share the Arts and Roots & Branches—Mind the Gap’s unique structure stresses empathy, since participants must write from another person’s perspective. Facilitated by a professional playwright, the workshop concludes with invite-only dramatized readings of the plays featuring working actors.
“Learning about different generations is a way for us to remember our history as a culture and see how it can inform our future,” Thorsson says. “It’s important for teens to encounter an adult who isn’t a parent or a teacher so they feel heard. Meanwhile, elders feel like they’re mentoring even though we treat everyone in the room as peers. Both groups have a lot to offer each other.”
New York Theatre Workshop is currently accepting applicants for its summer 2017 Mind the Gap program, which takes place Mondays & Wednesdays July 10–August 9, 4–6pm. Elders ages 60 and up, and teens ages 14 to 18 are eligible, and the deadline to apply is Friday, May 19. Applicants fill out a short online form and then come in for an interview. Find out more or submit your form online here. Questions? Call the NYTW education department at 212-780-9037.