“The Importance of Being Wilde”: Experiencing the play (and benefits) of the arts in later life

Pamela Brett-MacLean, PhD
Krista Charbonneau, MA

“When I did a public reading many years ago of ‘A Child’s Christmas in Wales’ by Dylan Thomas, I felt a thrill, a quickening, a fluttering in my heart that was really quite magnificent. It took my breath away.”
These are among the first words that Julian shared with us, during our initial meeting with a group of residents living in a retirement home in Vancouver. Julian had a remarkable sideways lean to his gait, which only added to his theatrical presence, inspired – I imagined – by a lifelong love of theatre and performance. Seven core members made up the theatre group, aged from 75 to over 90 years of age. All were committed to enjoying the pleasures of reading plays. We were working on graduate degrees (interdisciplinary studies – PBM, and theatre studies – KC) and shared an interest in the positive contributions of the arts engagement in later life. Responding to the participants’ stated preference for engaging with theatre, we developed a structured, historical approach to learning about and reading comedies which we called “Laughing Across the Ages.” 

We began with a reading of Lysistrata by Aristophanes (circa 411 BC), followed by Tartuffe, and As You Like It. We reflected on different historical and structural aspects of the various plays. There was a sense of participating in a stream of tradition which located the actors/readers as witnesses and carriers of aesthetic, cultural and historical memory. Our discussions focused on how the text came alive, how the structure, rhythm, and cadence of the text, read aloud with others, carried its own meaning. We explored the use of gesture to convey dramatic aspects of the performative text. We enjoyed these sessions, and around Christmas time we proposed the idea of taking things to the next level – of actually undertaking a theatrical production.
We encouraged the participants to prepare and rehearse a performance we came to call “The Importance of Being Wilde” which included a collage of excerpts from Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest as well as selections from the letters, prose, and poetry that Wilde wrote over the course of his lifetime. A sustained six-week period of rehearsals was characterized by hard work, excitement and worry, joys and challenges. Some of the early comments that our group members/ actors shared included: “I don’t think I am up to doing it;” “We are too old to be actors, we’re probably not what you are used to,” and later, more positive optimistic statements: “I think it’s going to be good;” “It’s going to be quite an event … we are so lucky.” Some of our reflections during the rehearsal phase included: “There is a need to trust the process, to know that there are going to be good days and bad;” “There is anticipation, and also a deepening commitment. The actors are willing and strong;” “They have taken off with it!! – surprising and wonderful improvisations in costuming and use of props!;” “We need to cover off every detail but the process is important, too;” “We need to be flexible in relation to what is emerging, and sensitive to the health issues each actor faces.” During the week of the dress rehearsal, we wrote: “So much has changed – we are now engaging the texts of Oscar Wilde in a deeper way, … and we know more about ourselves, and each other. We have deepened our relationships with one another;” “This is going to be bigger than we know.” In anticipation of the performance, we created publicity posters and posted these in public spaces in the residence a week ahead of the performance.

In the end, our efforts culminated in a wonderfully successful performance that enlivened the entire retirement community. We prepared a large room in the retirement residence (typically used for watching television) as a theatre. Chairs were arranged in rows, with space provided for those in wheelchairs. There was a line-up to enter the theatre space. An usher greeted the incoming audience and distributed programmes. We had a packed house! (This compared to the half dozen audience members we attracted when we screened the 1952 film version of The Importance of Being Earnest, directed by Anthony Asquith a few weeks earlier). At the last moment we made use of a room adjacent to the theatre to accommodate the many walkers we had forgotten to take into account.

As a group, the actors moved to the stage. Their chairs were arranged in a semi-circle on a slightly elevated stage. Minimal, yet effective, use was made of costumes and props. The actors read from scripts photocopied with large-sized font, and embodied the script through subtle intonation, voice projection and gesture. The performance was warmly appreciated with laughter and applause. The afternoon ended with a reading from De Profundis in which Wilde described the personal and spiritual growth he experienced during his imprisonment in Reading Gaol (a period during which he suffered hardship and injuries which ultimately contributed to his early, untimely death). In the excerpt read by one of the actors, Wilde movingly describes the value of accepting all of life’s experience – both the “sun-lit side of the garden” and also the “shadow and its gloom” – to embrace all of life, and through this, come to more completely or fully know oneself and the world. A sense of both celebration and gravitas imbued the room, and seemingly overflowed throughout the residence. As the directors we took note of a creative energy, and enlivened conversations fuelled by new insights and perspectives following the performance, as the actors and other members of the community enjoyed coffee and cookies. There was also excited early discussion as well as planning for ongoing creative undertakings.

Some of the comments the group members/ actors shared followed a debriefing meeting we held the following week included: “It was great fun! … everyone enjoyed it. We haven’t done anything like this before here. We left them wanting more!;” “It was a good choice of play. It was within the range of the actors, and comedy is good for this audience;” “You forget about your health problems for a while … there is something else to focus on;” “This work stimulates the imaginations. This is not beyond seniors – we need something for the mind;” “There isn’t any guidance for growing older. Creative experiences can help people through the transition of later life. It’s good for us;” “It brought us together as a community.”

Coming to experience the play within the play evolved through the process of making, doing, and performing. We summarized our own experience of collaborating with the “Arbutus Manor Players with respect to the following: Performance is an invitation (beginning to take chances, commitment to the group and experience); Performance is a way of knowing (opening to the unknown, dancing with uncertainty; working our way through); Performance is an act of becoming (developing a sense of momentum, crescent of energy); Performance is a gift (a deepening sense of community and possibility).

Too often the importance of the arts, play as a form of human development, and the creative possibilities of our communities are ignored or undervalued. A landmark, multisite study on creativity and aging completed by Dr. Gene Cohen and his colleagues in 2006 identified significant benefits of being involved in the arts for older persons, age 65 and older, that included a wide range of health and well-being indicators. There are many benefits that the actors, and we believe many of the residents of the retirement community, experienced as a result of the performance – it mattered that we rehearsed, staged and performed this play. In addition to health and well-being benefits, we came to know the recursive power of an audience engaged by the action on stage for making the play come fully alive. There are many theatre spaces in retirement residences that are not being used for theatre. Consider the transformative power of theatre should these spaces not simply be used for watching large screen televisions.

We can all be infused by the energy that comes with interacting with others as we continue to learn and grow through the arts. If we consider aesthetic experience as integral to our ongoing human development (Dissanayake, 2010), then we need to seriously consider how we may continue to live life through the arts and aesthetic experience across the years, which can lead us to new possibilities, individually and also collectively. For seniors, their engagement in theatre and the arts provides an ongoing connection to cultural experience, and can deepen and inspire new social connections and conversations. Their engagement can promote their own willingness to explore new experiences, and will always be personally meaningful. Importantly, engagement in theatre can extend across many genres, and can contribute to the possibilities that may be experienced by others.
“Some performances live with us like old friends, inscribing their images and spirits on our psyche.” Pellas (1999)

Cohen, G.D., Perlstein, S., Chapline, J., Kelly, J., Firth, K.M., & Simmens, S. (2006). The impact of professionally conducted cultural programs on the physical health, mental health, and social functioning of older adults. The Gerontologist, 46, 726-734.
Dissanayake, E. (2000). Art and Intimacy: How the arts began. Seattle, WA: University of Washington Press.
Pellas, R.J. (1999). Writing Performance: Poeticizing the researcher’s body. Carbondale IL: Southern Illinois University Press.

Other References of Interest
Basting, A.D. (1998). The Stages of Age: Performing age in contemporary American society. Michigan: University of Michigan Press,
Boyer, J.M. (2007). Creativity Matters: The arts and aging toolkit. New York: National Centre for Creative Aging.
Ball, D. (Ed.), Backwards and Forwards: A technical manual for reading plays. Carbondale, IL: Southern Illinois University Press.
Kole, J.E. (2009). Theatre and Aging: Directors’ practices with aging performers in senior theatre settings. (Doctoral dissertation; Union Institute and University). Nachmanovitch, S. (1990). Free Play: Improvisation in life and art. New York: PenguinPutnam.
Taylor, P. (2003). Applied Theatre: Creating transformative encounters in the community.Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.


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