On the Town
For 100 NYC seniors, last spring's visits to Broadway, co-sponsored by TDF, were their first such outings in decades.
Many of us take the pleasures of theatregoing for granted—indeed, we might even find ourselves occasionally griping about the experience of seeing a subpar show or having to wait in the line for the bathroom. But most of us are able-bodied, have easy access to transportation and don't get by on a fixed income. And we may have forgotten just how special an experience theatregoing can be and how much cultural and social value it adds to our lives.
That unique magic was brought home beautifully last spring when Theatre Development Fund joined with the NYC Department for the Aging to sponsor two Broadway outings for around 100 senior members of the UJC Adult Luncheon Club on Manhattan's Lower East Side.
"It was a real night on the town," says Betsy Jacobson, director of the UJC Adult Luncheon Club. "They got dressed up and had dinner and a show. It was a fun night."
Actually, there were two of these fun nights: 49 seniors attended a performance of Sunday in the Park With George in May, and 50 attended A Catered Affair in June. They enjoyed both shows immensely, though Jacobson notes that Catered Affair—a musical adaptation of Paddy Chayefksy's 1956 drama about a working-class family in the Bronx—resonated especially strongly with Luncheon Club members.
"A lot of our members lived on tenements on the Lower East Side, and they used to shout out the windows to each other," Jacobson says, citing Catered Affair's iconic image of housewives leaning out windows to comment on the action like a Greek chorus. The story of the hardscrabble family's struggles to pay for a daughter's wedding also hit close to home: "They related to the show, and really related to the characters. Some of them were in tears."
The experience of viewing Sunday in the Park With George, Stephen Sondheim's musical about the aloof pointillist painter Georges Seurat, was more of an "artsy" evening, Jacobson recounts. "As one of my seniors put it, 'Culture comes to the Lunch Club.' " Helping seniors appreciate the show's many levels was a pre-show talk by TDF teaching artist Stephen DiMenna, who explained how Sondheim's music and lyrics mirrored Seurat's painting style.
Apart from supplying DiMenna and chartering buses for the evenings, TDF's contribution was to carefully select shows that would appeal to the seniors. On that score, Jacobson says her residents are still raving. But even apart from the quality of the shows themselves, the value of these outings was incalculable.
"When they were younger, they had the opportunity to go to the theatre more often, but now our seniors rarely or never go to the theatre," Jacobson says. "There's the cost factor; our members are all on fixed incomes, and ticket prices are steep. And transportation—it's difficult to get to midtown from our area."
Part of the barrier is psychological, and there's often strength in numbers.
"As they get older, they're afraid to go by themselves," Jacobson notes. "Even though they're mentally fit and aware, and relatively physically fit, they're still insecure. Most of them are ambulatory; some have walkers. But there's some fear of falling. One woman told me she hadn't gone to the theatre in 30 years. Just getting out of the house...I don't know if most of us can understand. To them, it was something amazing."
Jacobson and the UJC Adult Luncheon Club hope it's not too long before they get the chance for another such outing.
"We'd love to do it again," Jacobson says. "But I don't know if the city council is going to have any funding for cultural programs. The city has cut back on our funding."
In these tough economic times, the escape of the theatre may be more vital than ever. Here's hoping that TDF and the NYC Department for the Aging find ways to partner again to give seniors another night to remember.