The acting bug can bite at any age—just ask the residents of Penn South, a naturally occurring retirement community (NORC) located in Manhattan’s Chelsea neighborhood. Seniors from that co-op staged Fiddler on the Roof SR., a pilot program featuring an adaptation of the popular Broadway musical intended for an older cast. Performances took place November 21-24 at NYU's Black Box Theatre.
Fiddler on the Roof SR. is a pilot program collaboration between Penn South Program for Seniors (PSPS); NYU Steinhardt’s Drama Therapy program; JASA, one of New York’s largest non-profits serving local older adults; and the theatrical licensing company Music Theatre International (MTI), which is developing the Broadway Senior program.
Students from Drama Therapy worked with members of PSPS, which addresses the social needs of the co-op’s older members who have “aged in place.” Every student partnered with one senior actor to help them get into character, rehearse scenes and songs, and exchange reflections on the meaning of the play in their lives.
“Theatre-making with older adults can offer an opportunity to learn new skills and express one’s creativity. It can decrease loneliness, increase one’s sense of achievement, purpose, and happiness, enhance intergenerational relationships, and challenge ageist stereotypes—plus it’s fun,” said Nisha Sajnani, director for this production and of the Drama Therapy program and Theatre and Health Lab at NYU.
Aging can be particularly isolating, and the opportunity to take part in amateur theater has offered residents a supportive social setting. Participants gather weekly to rehearse their choreography, music, blocking, and more. “For me, it’s the people,” said Hilda Aronson, who plays the role of Yente in the production. The 87-year-old was particularly struck by Steinhardt’s students. “I think they are the future and salvation because they took their artistic gift and they’re using it to serve,” she said. “They’re all so magnificent and so talented.”
The re-conception of Fiddler comes as part of MTI’s Broadway Senior, a new pilot program of popular Broadway musicals specifically adapted for senior citizens. Freddie Gershon, the co-chairman and former CEO of MTI, pursued the idea after seeing the success of Broadway Junior, the collection of 30- and 60-minute shows for younger performers he created over 20 years ago and which has been credited with bolstering educational theatre.
“We live in a healthcare-obsessed society, which is heavily focused on trying to make people live even longer, but I look around and ask, Why should that precious additional time on earth be devalued with boredom or loneliness?" states Gershon. "Why can’t older people discover new adventures in their lives? And why can’t they make new social connections? That’s why I decided to create pilot programs featuring musicals just for senior citizens. Broadway Senior is designed to enhance the quality of life at any age!”
This opportunity for Penn South residents was convened by JASA, which has provided a holistic set of programs spanning social services, health-related activities, and artistic engagement to the NORC for over a decade.
“Engaging with the arts—and engaging with others in our communities—can bring vitality and joy to daily life," said Kathryn Haslanger, CEO of JASA. “We are thrilled to partner with the faculty and staff of the NYU Steinhardt School, MTI, and Penn South Social Services, Inc. to bring this opportunity to the talented and vibrant older residents of Penn South.”