UNLV Terminates Senior Theatre Program

Senior thespians feel loss of theater program

Las Vegas Review-Journal
Jan. 20, 2012

Some seniors who love doing local theater are not happy. They feel there are limited roles available to them in the community, and perhaps some bias.

The University of Nevada, Las Vegas had, until recently, a program that attracted Las Vegans who used to be performers, or always wanted to be, or were simply looking for a social outlet. The cost of joining was considerably below regular tuition fees, and public productions — in addition to tours at hospitals and senior centers — were part of the deal.

I was frequently moved by these shows.

Associate coordinator, instructor and playwright Doug Hill had helped the thespians come up with an evening of oral history. I learned about the personal side of some historical events. And I was often reminded of the difficulty of compromising childhood dreams.

It was no surprise, though, to hear last week that the financially strapped UNLV has terminated the program. The 45-year-old Hill has been told it’s not likely he’ll be working in the theater department next year. He says he remains optimistic as he sends out resumes and offers what advice he can to those who feel the loss.

And 70-year-old Sandy Runkle is eager to share how much the loss has affected her.

“In 1995, my husband had died, my kids were all over the world, and I was devastated,” she says. “I read a little article in the paper about the senior program. I was curious, and I wound up never so happy in my life. Seniors need this. Too many old people watch TV alone, sleep and then die. They need to socially connect.”

Runkle is particularly proud of the troupe’s attendance for five seasons at a Southwest college fringe festival.

“It was good for the kids, and good for us,” she says. “We were different people in different stages of life, and I think it was a bright light for everyone.”

At the local Cleveland Clinic, the participants were each asked to come up with an eight-minute monologue about something they had experienced as a caregiver. Runkle said the program helped everyone realize that there were people who understood what they were going through.

The Long Beach, Calif., native is now trying to start up her own troupe.

“We’re doing it slowly,” she says. “There’s a lot of paperwork involved. But we just got our nonprofit status. We’re hoping to get a volunteer artistic adviser, a group of actors, organize some outreach programs, and do a production by October — and maybe some short plays in between.”

Curiously, the senior program has always had trouble attracting elderly men.

“The older ones, the ones my age, grew up with the idea that theater was not a manly thing,” she says. “But the younger people — those around 60 — don’t buy into that.”

Note to 70-year-old men: Most of our richest and famous actors are males. What’s to be ashamed?

Anthony Del Valle | THEATER CHAT

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