Roots & Branches

CREATING INTERGENERATIONAL THEATER

By
Bonnie L. Vorenberg
Senior Theatre Expert

In Roots & Branches: Creating Intergenerational Theater Arthur Strimling proves that when young and old performers use personal stories as the basis for their plays, it makes powerful theatre. Written for both professionals and amateurs, Strimling’s  practical techniques and philosophy serve as a blueprint that will guide future work in this creative form of drama.

Roots&Branches will be useful to practitioners in theatre, education, therapy, social work and allied areas. The ideas apply in schools, community centers, churches or any setting where young and old gather. It’s a template that’s practical, and creative. The book also includes numerous Roots&Branches scenes and monologues, a complete list of their shows, and many endearing photos of the company in rehearsal and performance.

After graduating from Columbia University, Arthur Strimling worked under the direction of Joseph Chaikin for ten years. Chaikin created productions and workshops based on the actors’ lives and experiences using the ensemble theatre format, so Arthur learned at the feet of a master. Later, he perfected his craft with the Talking Band, an avant-garde group of the 1970’s, which toured internationally. Through his Off-Broadway work, Strimling met Barbara Myerhoff, author of the book, Number Our Days and co-director of the Academy Award-winning documentary by the same name. Thanks to her work with seniors, Myerhoff helped a generation of social workers, gerontologists and artists appreciate that “reminiscence is a major developmental task, essential in the process of aging well and dying well.” Myerhoff told Strimling, “You like stories, you should talk to old people. They have a lot of stories and no one is listening.”

Inspired, Strimling created an intergenerational storytelling project in New York with kids from poor neighborhoods and Jewish senior citizens. The seniors told their memoirs to the youngsters and before long, the relationships transformed. “They bonded in non-judgmental openness. It’s almost as if the link is in our DNA. Grandparent-grandchild; Sage and student; unconditional love.” Though successful, Strimling felt the life-story interviews were too limited and that the project would be stronger if he added theatre. Soon he began to adapt the stories for the stage. Then, people really listened.

In 1996, the Roots&Branches company was formed with a group of elder actors (the ‘roots’) and college-age actors from NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts (the ‘branches’). Over a dozen years they developed the creative process that the program continues to use. During a nine-month series of meetings, the company experiments with many storytelling, improvisation and discussion exercises based on the members’ lives. The tape-recorded sketches are transcribed and eventually shaped into plot lines and dialogue that are developed into a final script. The shows become fully mounted productions that tour primarily to New York locations. Their polished performances balance lighthearted explorations of humanity with serious issues ranging from death, aging, and loneliness to immigration, beauty, and fairy tales. The elders inspire the young with their courage and stamina as they pass on the mystery of the human spirit; the youth inspire the elders with their idealism, hope and their savvy, tough ways; both old and young inspire audiences with the magic they create.

Probably the company’s most notable work was Playing Lear in 2002. Here the company wove the actors’ personal narratives, life events, and opinions into scenes using Shakespeare’s play as a springboard for a new look on aging and values. For example, In King Lear, as Lear divides up his kingdom, he insists that he must keep an entourage of one hundred knights in order to retain his sense of identity. In Playing Lear, Roots&Branches performers ask, “What is your 100 knights? What is it that if you lost it, you would no longer recognize yourself; would no longer be yourself?” In the end of the play, both the characters and the generations come together, paralleling the transformation that happens in the Roots&Branches company.

Strimling wrote the book as a guide. But he urges directors to adapt his methods to their own needs, cast and audience. He suggests ways to locate interested agencies,  how to conduct the first meetings, techniques for workshops, steps to use in creating a script and a recommended process for rehearsals. Tips help readers avoid troublesome problems because, as Strimling acknowledges, intergenerational theatre is not easy. The director needs to accommodate actors with two very different energy levels, paces and speeds of memorization, often representing two different agencies. Even scheduling is difficult because seniors usually prefer to rehearse and perform during the day when young actors are in school or work. Strimling urges readers to leap over the barriers because the experience provides so many rewards for participants, audiences and communities.

Roots&Branches: Creating Intergenerational Theater  is a valuable resource that combines the love of storytelling with intergenerational insight to create dynamic works of art. It proves how, as Arthur Strimling says, “A good story changes people more than a good lesson.”

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