The show must go on!
That’s the driving force behind Seniors in Play, a free virtual theater program for older adults, founded in 2017 by award-winning actor Tony Plana (at left.) In 2020, it teamed with Senior Planet to create an online community that allows participants to step onto the digital stage and express themselves in new ways.
Today San Antonio…tomorrow the World
“We were about to launch in-person classes in six different senior centers in San Antonio,” recalls Plana.
“All those centers were immediately shut down because of the pandemic. Seniors insisted that we find a way to maintain the classes online. We found Senior Planet and they were able to facilitate very high-level technical support in this new medium.
“This shifted our thinking about the ways in which we were able to act together, and to create an equal playing field for all seniors to be able to participate, no matter if they were confined at home or unable to make the trip physically because of a disability,” says Plana.
Using performing arts as a mode for internal exploration and storytelling, three participants emerged from their experiences with the program to reach new heights.
Catherine Lee (right, in mid-performance) had been involved in senior acting for many years before taking classes with Bill Gundry and Tony Plana of Seniors in Play. “They both encouraged us to bring original work to the group, which I am eager to do. I have honed my performance skills for reading poetry with jazz musicians,” Lee says.
Outside of Seniors in Play, Lee received funding from the City of San Antonio Department of Arts & Culture in 2022 to write a play called Mentor Wonders and produce a video and script. Lee invited her program-mates to perform in it. “A final video is anticipated for November 2022 (or no later than March 2023).”
Hope Garza (stage name “Mo”) always had a desire to act and stumbled upon a space to flourish.
“I first learned about Seniors in Play when I happened to go by the Alicia Treviño Wellmed Senior Center in San Antonio. I just happened to go by there for some reason. I saw a lady with paper in her hand and she seemed to be reading. I asked her what she was doing and she told me that she was rehearsing to read the script to try out for a theater group. I decided to stay and do a reading,” reveals Garza.
“Programs like Seniors in Play are terrific for seniors because it provides an avenue for those of us who have always had a desire to act. As a retired teacher, I honed my acting skills in the classroom to a degree. I love becoming someone I am not. I love the make-believe and building the character. It also keeps my mind active and alert and brings out my creativity. The opportunity to get out and meet and work with new and other people is important. I believe in aging gracefully, and being able to put myself “out there” is a challenge and an awesome feeling,” shares Garza.
“Seniors in Play breathes new life into people”
Seniors in Play opens doors
Another participant, Patrick Whitty, began a journey with Seniors in Play as a technical advisor, mainly managing the tech platform Zoom for the group. “I was called in to read for someone who was absent that day and got hooked. The next thing I knew I was asked to do a role in a short play.”
It’s the breakthroughs and watching people realize they’ve done something they didn’t think they could do, that brings Whitty the most joy.
“Seniors in Play breathes new life into people. As we age, it’s easy to withdraw from the world and other people. Some people do it voluntarily. Others have it imposed on them. Seniors in Play brings people together to have fun and discover their creativity. It also has psychological benefits. I see people overcoming their fear by stepping out of their comfort zone and taking on a new challenge. Seniors in Play makes this easy because nobody fails. The director knows that we’re not professionals, so they are very gentle and always point out strengths. People can grow quickly in that kind of environment. At the age of 80, I’m beginning to discover who I am by pretending to be someone else. Isn’t that interesting.”
What’s Next for Seniors in Play?
Tony Plana intends to expand Seniors in Play beyond its online format. This includes offering beginner classes to Senior Planet and AARP members all over the country, ramping up in-person classes at senior centers throughout San Antonio (and southern Texas), expanding accessibility virtually, and offering bilingual classes.
“As seniors, we need to be focusing on things that bring us joy, but also things that keep us functioning at a high-level….acting…is such a joyful activity..”
“I’ve been loving what I do for 40 years,’ says Plana. “As seniors, we need to be focusing on things that bring us joy, but also things that keep us functioning at a high-level. Acting, doing theater, is such a joyful activity that it can address different challenges that older adults face including, loneliness, depression, etc. Seniors in Play cultivates skills for examining one’s personal story and sharing it with others in a meaningful way. Seniors emerge from this program with more confidence in their abilities to concentrate, to socialize, a greater sense of personal accomplishment, and connection to their community,” states Plana.
Keep up with Seniors in Play by joining Senior Planet from AARP, and attendees from across the United States, for a virtual fireside chat with Tony Plana, founder of Seniors in Play, on June 2, 2022 at 3:00 p.m. ET | 2:00 p.m. CT | 1:00 p.m. MT | 12:00 p.m. PT. AARP membership is not required.
Photo (top left) Tony Plana, courtesy Tonyplana.com
Photo (middle right): Catherine Lee on Zoom (from Seniors In Play rehearsals) screen captures from video
NaBeela Washington, an emerging Black writer, holds a Master’s in Creative Writing and English from Southern New Hampshire University and Bachelor’s in Visual Advertising from The University of Alabama at Birmingham. She has been published in Eater, The Cincinnati Review, and others. Learn more at nabeelawashington.com.