In 1790, when actor-manager Lewis Hallam, Jr. turned 50, half of the nation's population was under 16 years old. By 1990, when August Wilson won the Pulitzer Prize for drama with "The Piano Lesson," the average American was 33. Demographers figure that in another 50 years, the median age of the U.S.'s approximately 350 million people will range between 40 and 50.
What will be the popular theatre then? Dr. Ann McDonough of the Department of Theatre Arts at the University of Nevada Las Vegas (UNLV), believes it could be a genre which she sees as today's fastest-rowing trend: senior adult theatre.
"I received my PhD in theatre in 1981 from the University of Minnesota; and when I was searching for a topic for my doctoral thesis, my adviser suggested I write on an aspect of senior theatre," McDonough recalls. "I had been working with children's theatre, but my adviser said that senior theatre was a special subset which will be the next children's theatre."
Today, she considers that pretty good advice. After receiving her PhD, she moved out of academia for 10 years, working in television. But in 1989, she linked up with UNLV, and again began discussing senior theatre, this time with the theatre department's chairman, Dr. Jeff Kope.
"He suggested we start a senior adult program," McDonough says; and in August 1990, they did. The university currently offers three credit courses, and has developed a curriculum through which older students can become theatre majors in both undergraduate and graduate schools.
UNLV wasn't alone. Other colleges began adding a "gray cast" to their theatre programs.
These seeds of a senior theatre movement led to two national happenings. One is the formation of Senior Theatre in Renaissance (STIR), with about 25 members consisting of senior theatre advocates from around the country. It is a focus group of the Association for Theatre in Higher Education, and McDonough is one of its active members.
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The second result is the National Senior Adult Theatre Festival held at UNLV. The first successful festival, held in 1993, led to a second in '95. A third is scheduled for this coming Jan. 5-9. Each festival has drawn close to 1,000 attendees, and McDonough predicts the latest will pull in at least that many.
Sketchy but Growing Numbers
No in-depth research has been conducted yet on the growth of senior theatre, so McDonough can only provide a "guesstimate" based on what she sees at the festivals. The '97 gathering will bring in 30 senior adult theatre groups affiliated with colleges. And roughly 45 more active senior companies, including some associated with community theatres or senior centers, will be represented.
The festival will feature workshops on topics ranging from master acting classes, directing, and stage combat to how to start a senior adult theatre, gerontology (the study of aging) and senior theatre, musical theatre performance, and even developing the oral history revue.
Performances will abound, with both studio and evening productions.
Also, a winner will be named for the National Senior Adult theatre Playwriting Contest, sponsored by Dramatic Publishing of Woodstock, Ill., with a $1,000 prize. The first contest offered by the festival, it has drawn 168 entries.
Theatre for All Ages
McDonough stresses that senior adult theatre may primarily involve actors, directors, playwrights, etc. who are 55 or older; but the genre is also intergenerational. "The plays must have meaning for an older population, but people doing the productions are of all ages," she says. "The playwrights are generally not over the age of 40, but they write about what it means to be a senior adult today."
McDonough sees the senior theatre movement "gaining momentum, snowballing so fast." Since UNLV is a kind of flagship for the movement, McDonough hears from other colleges who want to visit the campus and look at the program. She also receives three or four calls a week from around the nation, with people interested in starting their own senior theatres.
"It's going to expand with the population, and we're the fastest-growing age group of people living to be over 100," McDonough notes. "One would think the drive would be primarily in Florida or Arizona [with large retired senior populations]; but it's actually coast to coast, from big cities to little communities. We've heard from Lawrence, Kan., Fresno, Calif., and the 'Geritol Frolics' in Brainerd, Minn."
McDonough had just returned from auditions for some senior theatre plays. She deals often with older actors, and is ecstatic about their participation.
"There's a lot of exhilaration in these older people who always wanted to act but never had the time, because they were earning a living and raising a family," McDonough observes. "They now have a chance to fulfill a dream; it's exciting for them, and for us.
"The other refrain I hear is people who are happy to take a risk," McDonough adds. "They were always afraid of getting on stage, and finally faced up and did it. I also hear from the children of people in our program, who say they're so proud of their parents: They've gone back to school; they're in a play; they're dynamic, and not packed in a chair in front of a TV."
For anyone interested in becoming involved in senior adult theatre, including playwrights seeking information about the festival contest, McDonough will welcome calls to her university number: (702) 895-4248.
"Forming or joining a senior adult theatre company is not as mysterious or difficult as it may appear," she concludes. "There are simple ways to get going. The growth opportunities are high. I'll be happy to give tips on how to ge