It’s Monday afternoon in a very clean, carpeted room in the basement of St. Peter’s Church. From the speakers, Joe, a man with a warm voice and a distinct New York accent tells the story of the time he almost bowled a 300. In front of me, a group of men and women over the age of 70 move through a sequence of gestures so vibrant that they seem to shed years off of their bodies. The more they move in synchrony, the more their distinct personalities come into focus. This is SPARC (Seniors Partnering with Artists Citywide), a community arts engagement program that places artists in residence at senior centers across the five boroughs of New York City. This particular residency is the creation of documentary producer and oral historian Liza Zapol and actor/director/producer Julie Kline in collaboration with the St. Peter’s Church Senior Center.
SPARC is a partnership between the Department of Cultural Affairs, the Department for the Aging, and the city’s five local arts councils. The program provides artists with a stipend, a materials budget, free workspace at senior centers, and access to materials for the arts, in exchange for arts programming for seniors. This year, SPARC has funded 50 artists in residence citywide.
For Julie and Liza, this project is not a means to attain support for other artistic pursuits, but rather their artistic focus in itself. The project provides a meeting ground for Liza’s nonfiction performance background, physical theater training, and oral history expertise, and Julie’s extensive new play development experience and previous work with intergenerational theater. “Being in plays has been so important to me. I know that it can be life-affirming, and I want to give that to others,” Julie expresses.
After the success of last year’s piece, Seniors and the City: Stories of Our New York, Liza explains, the two “wanted to choose a topic that might encourage them to dig a little deeper, and would prove relevant to the whole senior center.” They chose health. They have been asking questions like, “What’s the story of your body through your lifetime?” and “What does it feel like to be in your body?” The sequence I witnessed sprang from the prompt, “When have you felt the most healthy?” In order to “wake up” an audience who might otherwise dismiss the topic, they’ve turned to a theatrical language that combines the extreme and the expressionistic with the deeply personal and comedic.
While the approach and even the experience of creating theater is new to most of the participants, they embrace Julie and Liza’s professionalism and are invested seriously in both the process and the work they are creating. “This is my first experience with this group, and I’m really happy to be with it,” Bob tells me, “because I really find it very interesting—how we construct a play like this, it’s very exciting.” When asked why he returned after participating last year, Joe says, “I enjoyed the other production very much. It was—from nothing, Julie and Liza made something. We had vignettes about the automat and Charles (another participant) revealed his high school days getting admitted to Cooper Union. It was fascinating to see what was behind the people.”
The way that the process of creating this piece of theater connects the participants to each other and to themselves is evident after just moments in the room with them. Joan, a natural comedian with a sharp wit and a sense of adventure about her explains what really drew her into SPARC: “I remember vividly the first go around—everybody said something about their life to introduce themselves and everybody reminded me of something I had forgotten, because daily life is how to get from here to there without losing anything on the way—you know, old age is a challenge. Julie and Liza could not have known at the very beginning how it was going to come out, because we were all strangers. And how it came together into a full piece—48 minutes—it really was swell. And we got to like each other, so I really enjoyed it.”
Tricia Spoto, Licensed Master Social Worker and the Director of the Senior Center at St. Peter’s, selected this residency two years in a row. “This project specifically is really intriguing and wonderful, because it gives our seniors an opportunity to actually tell their stories,” she says. “It’s not about the artists so much, it’s about the person and their story and how they navigate the world through this art form, and I think that’s really beautiful. It’s a celebration of our people who we see every day—but we never get to see this side of them, so that’s what I really love about it.”
In watching the seniors rehearse, it’s clear to me that it is all of what Ms. Spoto describes, but it is also about the artists—in the best of ways. It is about Julie and Liza’s creativity and tangible interest in the seniors, their lives, who they are and what they bring into the piece, and in turn the seniors’s committed engagement with one another, with Liza and Julie, and with creating an effective piece of theater.
“Our movements are limited at our age, but we’re still doing it,” Beverly laughs as she tells me. I can’t help but think that it really depends how you define “limited.” What I’ve just watched: Beverly swaying with one hand on her belly (a gesture triggered by the memory of the night she fell in love); Joe kneeling down, first tense as his body makes the transition down from standing, then softening as he moves his hand through the air (petting the cat in the morning); Michael, the self-defined “ingénue of the group,” reaching out across an imaginary table (the first time he touched his loved one); Bob kissing an imaginary baseball plate; and Joan creating a subtle wave with her arm as she remembers a moment of watching ripples in the water. It’s anything but limited. It is an expressive, specific, and revealing piece of theater.
The St. Peter’s Church Seniors will perform Seniors and the City: Bodies of Knowledge Friday, Friday, June 14, 7pm at St. Peter's Church Senior Center, and Sunday, June 23, 2pm at the Lenox Hill Neighborhood House, 331 East 70th Street. For more information about the performance, email [email protected]ill.org.
LARISSA LURY is a director, sometime actor, acrobat, and teaching artist, living in Brooklyn. She recently directed Something Fine by Eric Dufault, which is running as a part of Ensemble Studio Theatre’s Marathon of One-Act plays.