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AMERICAN THEATRE | How Kentucky Seniors Found ‘Neverland’

Bob Martin at Tick Tock in performance of “Wendy’s Neverland” at Lee County Care and Rehab Middle in Beattyville, Ky. (Photograph by Randy Daniels for Signature Healthcare)

Kentucky director/performer Bob Martin, sporting an almost four-foot brown crocodile masks that almost covers his head, nodded to dancers encircling him within the Lee County Care and Rehabilitation Middle eating room. The tables and chairs had been cleared to make a stage to be a part of Neverland.

This was Beattyville, Ky., however it was also a part of an imagined frontier, a site-specific theatre work adapted from the world of Peter Pan and performed in Might. The primary character, Wendy, had been recast as a resident of this Appalachian facility, fearful that no one around her believed her tales about pirates, fairies, misplaced boys, and a crocodile named Tick Tock . And she or he longed for individuals to consider her stories and who she was—then and now. At occasions throughout the play, the end result of a challenge almost two years within the making, she stated simply, “I am Wendy.”

However the individuals gathered around Martin weren’t youngsters. They have been elders in wheelchairs who, like Wendy, also proclaimed their very own names in a chorus, then executed an enormous manufacturing number—what forged and crew referred to as “the wheelchair ballet”—to a recording of Frank Sinatra’s “Fly Me to the Moon.” These mature but novice actors in wheelchairs took to this nursing house stage just a month before Broadway gave a Tony Award to Ali Stroker for greatest featured actress in a musical for Ado Annie in Oklahoma!, making her the primary Tony winner to use a wheelchair.

A lot as Broadway entered a brand new frontier when it awarded Stroker, so did this tiny town of Beattyville when it mounted Wendy’s Neverland, as did Kentucky nursing houses in rural Morgantown and Hodgenville this spring. All three productions used the identical script, with slight modifications to enrich the settings and characters of each nursing house and their surrounding communities.

“Who would have thought that at 80 to 100 years old, they get to be in a play?” mused Nicole Gordon, a restorative nurse supervisor at Sunrise Manor Nursing Residence in Hodgenville. Her shoppers “got to decorate, they got to make their own costumes, and they’ve been a part of it from learning lyrics to songs to actually the final presentation.”

It all started with a partnership between 2016 MacArthur Fellow and College of Wisconsin-Milwaukee theatre professor Anne Basting, who runs an elder-theatre organization referred to as TimeSlips, and Angie McAllister, Signature Healthcare’s quality-of-life director. In 2017, McAllister teamed up with Basting and the duo obtained a $700,000 grant from the Kentucky Cabinet for Well being and Family Providers, collected from penalties levied on nursing houses and comparable amenities for compliance violations. This enabled them to place collectively a workforce of Kentucky-based and national artists to launch this venture the subsequent January.

Many years in the past, Basting began working with elders with memory points and Alzheimer’s and dementia utilizing improvisational theatre methods. Quite than emphasize constructing stories with reminiscence, she accentuated using creativeness and instinct. And McAllister, who had been concerned in theatre in high school in Columbia, Ky., had heard Basting converse at conferences concerning the Penelope Challenge, a theatre initiative Basting had spearheaded in Wisconsin with Sojourn Theatre, which was the idea of a documentary. McAllister was intrigued.

“I thought, what is this idea of immersive theatre, and what does that look like in a nursing home?” McAllister stated.

Sonya Turner, left, with a resident at Sunrise Manor in a efficiency of “Wendy’s Neverland.” (Photograph by Randy Daniels for Signature Healthcare)

After McAllister and Basting secured the grant, dozens of representatives from Signature Healthcare attended a workshop in early 2018. The grant additionally enabled Basting and McAllister to assemble a workforce of artists for the challenge, who helped facilitate the workshop. They included Martin, who produces theatre all through Kentucky and the area; Kevin Iega Jeff, a Juilliard graduate and Chicago-based choreographer who has a dance company there and has performed on Broadway (Comin’ Uptown with Gregory Hines and the unique production of The Wiz); and New Orleans-based set designer and visible artist Jeff Becker. Chicago native Nicole Garneau worked as stage manager and performer.

Additionally main periods have been Kentucky singer-songwriter and music therapist Cheyenne Mize, who’s the resident artist at Hodgenville’s Sunrise Manor, and visible artist Andee Rudloff of Bowling Inexperienced, the resident artist at Morgantown Care and Rehabilitation Middle. Director Martin, who served as resident artist at the Lee County middle, directed all three productions.

In that first 2018 gathering in a cramped conference room in downtown Louisville, individuals—many who’d by no means been a part of a theatre, music, or art workshop—let go of their inhibitions and assumptions, and set about, as Basting put it, “getting to know who you are, making yourself vulnerable, and collaborating with other people to try to make something using whatever mechanisms—sound, movement, visual art, words, poetry, story, whatever it is—and engaging a community. I think people felt that.”

Jeff started by taking them on an imaginary flying lesson, first requesting that they shut their eyes and picture their journeys before asking them to bodily stretch their limbs and bodies as if in flight. Becker provided them with easy art materials—paper, tape, markers—to assemble areas in the conference room and simply past within the foyer of the Brown Theater building, a property of the Kentucky Middle for the Arts, to think about methods to reconstruct area. Mize had everybody create totally different sounds at various tempos and intensities as a gaggle and see and describe the power.

Before sending individuals on their means, session leaders encouraged them to consider easy methods to discover partners locally—i.e., different artists and people who might partake in activities that may assist build a narrative, set, props, and other theatrical trimmings related to Peter Pan. The present nonetheless didn’t have a script, or perhaps a identify.

From that winter till early this yr, the group of artists and educated nursing residence employees working on quality-of-life matters coordinated workshops in music, poetry, and artwork that helped brainstorm concepts for the play. Mize stated she stored word of songs that would constantly resurface of their gatherings. There was “Where We’ll Never Grow Old” once they talked about Neverland, and “This Little Light of Mine,” once they talked of childhood. Additionally they spoke of separations and demise, and the track “I’ll Fly Away” came up. All three went into the Wendy’s Neverland so everybody might sing them.

Mize also conjured some unique songs for the piece. “Cheyenne could just put their thoughts into a song right there,” marveled Donovan Dame, the administrator at Sunrise Manor. “That spoke volumes to me.”

Nursing residence employees reached out into the group for props items, just like the a whole lot of canning lids used to make Tick Tock’s scales in a single scene. And employees in all three locales helped the resident artists monitor down actors, musicians, and artists to pitch in. This type of group engagement was a part of Basting’s design. Her objective for these productions was to use all the humanities to middle nursing houses as group hubs, involving families, ongoing volunteer organizations, surrounding faculties, and different establishments. The thought: to take these locations out of isolation and make them into cultural centers. “This isn’t about pity,” Basting stated. “It’s about jointly exploring an artistic endeavor.”

Behind the scenes, Basting’s TimeSlips distributed videos to the artists and collaborating nursing house employees about the best way to run the workshops to greatest nurture the artistic process that might assist form the play. In one video, Jeff provides an indication for low-mobility viewers in methods to dance to “Fly Me to the Moon,” his arms and legs seemingly defying gravity while he sits in a chair. It’s troublesome to resist joining him, together with his eyes transfixed on the digital camera and his infectious smile.

Anne Basting and Bob Martin applying make-up earlier than a performance of “Wendy’s Neverland” at Sunrise Manor. (Photograph by Elizabeth Kramer)

While Basting’s Milwaukee-based TimeSlips has its headquarters in an city surroundings, she was drawn to work with McAllister and Signature Healthcare in Kentucky precisely because it permits TimeSlips to work in a rural setting. “Aging to me is a rural issue,” she stated. “This drives the power and the meaning of the project.”

Basting hits on a statistical reality, as demographic analysis exhibits that not only is America is getting older, the country’s rural inhabitants is getting even older, with a median age of seven further years over urban dwellers, in accordance the Brookings Institution’s numbers based mostly on U.S. Census knowledge.

Martin, the director, who was a past board chair of Alternate ROOTS, is a Kentucky native who’s worked with the group theatre collection and art challenge Larger Floor out of Harlan County and with other communities on theatre tasks to help them inform their stories. Theatre in Kentucky, he stated, has historically performed a task in sharing with the world the tales of the Bluegrass State. He factors to the decades-long summer time manufacturing of The Legend of Daniel Boone at a Central Kentucky state park, and The Stephen Foster Story, a musical concerning the lifetime of the songwriter, one other summer time perennial since 1958.

While the tradition of outside theatre in public parks is on the wane, he sees individuals from totally different generations with a want to attach. This undertaking with TimeSlips, he pointed out, builds on the work of Robert Gard, who based the now-defunct Wisconsin Concept Theatre and nurtured Grassroots Theater, which frequently highlighted historical past and legends. He also sees the TimeSlips methodology as a means to use theatre and artwork to help give totally different segments of local communities a voice and to raised community communities. “People maybe don’t see off the bat how their work is allied with the work of a theatre artist to be in service to the community,” Martin stated, however productions like Wendy’s Neverland can make it concrete.

Jeff, who lives in Chicago and has labored on different tasks in Kentucky, feels that theatre has a promising position to play right here. “At its basic roots,” he stated, “theatre was transformational when it started in America, because it was accessible in communities.”

None of the elders concerned within the present have been required to memorize strains, though many knew and sang the phrases to the songs. In every manufacturing, successive scenes traversed via each nursing residence along routes animated by employees and Becker’s designs for example a journey. In Beattyville, that journey even took viewers on a stroll parallel to the Kentucky River’s north fork, where the manufacturing crew had constructed a pirate ship.

Rehearsals often began 10 days before the 2 days of previews began, after which 4-day run. With every, some residents have been asking if they might take part, proper up till almost opening day. At rehearsals, those that weren’t collaborating came to observe.

The primary forged included a handful of musicians and actors from excessive faculties. Different more seasoned musicians got here from surrounding communities. They and the actors shaped a core staff of artists Basting assembled to spherical out the forged. At every website, one elder was forged within the position of Wendy, however her strains have been pre-recorded utilizing the voice of one other individual, notably in an extended, touching scene through which she says goodbye to Tick Tock, the crocodile. (Becker constructed an creative costume with a wheelchair at its core to create the physique of Tick Tock.)

This loving moment between Wendy and Tick Tock—whom many worry, but not her—is the guts of the play, stated Basting, and was the primary scene she wrote. Indignant that folks don’t consider her tales, Tick Tock threatens to make them consider her.

“They remember the fullness of her life and experiences,” Basting stated. “He’s protective of her. And it’s very tender and sweet between the two of them. So that was actually a really joy to write—when I could stop crying.”

From there, Wendy coaxed viewers to the scene of the wheelchair ballet as musicians and singers launched into “This Little Light of Mine.” The entire spectacle turned something like a jazz funeral march in New Orleans.

Despite all the commotion, amenities truly reported a reduction in falls throughout those durations of rehearsals and productions.

“I saw a transformation for our residents,” stated Gordon, the nurse. “I saw emotions that actually had never been expressed by our residents. I’ve seen tears. I’ve seen residents get out of bed who don’t ever get out of bed but maybe once a week, and every day they’re participating, they’re coming down and looking forward to it. They’re asking to get out of bed. It’s amazing.”

Gordon initially thought the venture seemed like a waste of cash, and she or he wasn’t the one skeptic. But Dame, Sunrise Manor’s administrator, described the whole venture as “impressive.” Dame stated he regrets never having been to any theatre production outdoors a handful of highschool productions of family and friends he need to help. “It would be cool to see more theatres around here and in the larger cities,” he stated. “I have more respect for theatre than I ever did.”

Others have been making comparable pledges. Some in the comparatively remote city of Beattyville have been even vowing to make the 90-minute drive to Prestonsburg or Lexington to see stay theatre. Those in Hodgenville talked of seeing productions on the nearby Hardin County Playhouse, or making the under-an-hour trek to one of the many theatres in Louisville.

Indeed those who worked on the Neverland challenge have started to think about how they could get elder patients to see more theatre in close by communities, even take part in productions outdoors their amenities. Turner of Sunrise Manor was speaking to individuals with the Hardin County Playhouse, and hoped to open up conversations with the native highschool about opportunities for a couple of residents who may perform there when scripts referred to as for elders.

Meanwhile, Signature Healthcare and TimeSlips are beginning to make a deeper examination of the info to research the challenge’s medical influence. “We are really excited to dig into the next phase and see how the numbers changed,” stated Dr. Arif Nazir, Signature’s chief medical officer and a TimeSlips board member. He stated they might evaluate not simply falls but in addition use of medications, cognition scores, practical capacity scores, melancholy metrics, affected person weight, and meals consumption. In addition they’ll take a look at the impression on employees engagement and employees turnover.

For her part, Basting hopes that anyone who’s been involved in the program to understand that the artistic process could be a supply of energy at any stage of their life.

“Wherever people are they can have that feeling,” she stated. “They should have access to meaningful culture shaping their world and expressing who they are. You never should have to stop that—even if you have memory loss or any physical disability. It is what is going to bring you out of social isolation and into connection with your community.”

Elizabeth Kramer is an arts journalist in Louisville, Kentucky.