I rarely leave the theater at noon for lunch. Most times-when I’m not running around or traveling- I bring something and eat at my desk. But today I decided to have lunch at Sunlight, a neighborhood restaurant just a few steps away from Pregones. I was minding my own business when an elderly woman walked in. She glanced around and it seemed as if she was looking for a friendly face that would offer her a couple of dollars. People looked away.
She walked towards me. I tried to ignore her. But she stood there. As I looked for my wallet she whispered—in Spanish: “May I recite one of my poems?” That made me pause. “I have written many poems, and a play. May I recite one of my poems to you?” she asked. I said ‘sure’. And she began whispering a beautiful poem, almost to my ear. I invited her to sit. She did, and delivered another poem. We talked for a long time. I invited her to lunch. She declined. She wanted to share her poetry. I was trying to hold back my tears. For a moment I thought it was an illusion.
My brain raced to the early 1980’s, when Pregones was just starting out. As a touring troupe performing in non-conventional as well as established stages, we thrived in community environments, of which elders are a big part. Soon enough performing for elders transitioned into working with them through theater workshops in senior centers, churches and other community spaces.
Pregones had established roots in the South Bronx, where, according to Elders Share The Arts (ESTA), the nation’s first senior center had been founded. As our work grew, our work with seniors intensified. We were by no means the first or only ones and it was reassuring to know of several organized efforts serving the elders in the cultural arena. One such organization was ESTA, founded by Susan Perlstein on the same year as Pregones. By mid 1980’s we were active collaborators with ESTA, with Pregones’ Alvan Colón Lespier working at Casa Boricua, one of the centers in which Pregones and ESTA collaborated. Our primary contact there was the amazing Doris Colón. Today, she is the Chair of our Board of Directors. Who knew back then?!
A rich list of Pregones artists shaped our first phase of theater training for elders: Luis, Sandra, Alvan and Judith, among others. When current Associate Artistic Director Jorge B. Merced joined our troupe in 1987, we were poised to enter a new round of work with seniors. The 1990’s showed no signs of slowing down. We had a great team in place!
Seniors In Motion – 21st Century
From 2003-present our work with elders intensified, expanding our commitment in the lifelong learning arena. During this time our exchange with sister theater companies in other parts of the world revealed that we are not alone in our belief that elders deserve broad opportunities for creativity and self expression. Sering Theater (Belgium) and Divadlo z Pasáže (Slovak Republic), for example, inspired us with their intense creative work with elders. I was honored to perform with them in our Brides project, and some of our seniors in The Bronx collaborated long distance in the production of First Love, premiered in Belgium.
To our delight, Jorge B. Merced, has been leading the exciting work of Seniors In Motion at Pregones+PRTT. Ensemble members like Yaraní Del Valle and Omar Pérez are among the Teaching Artists who have contributed to the development of an environment in which elders thrive. Each year they work towards a performance to be shown to their peers, families and our audience. “In our workshops we play with time, we play with memories”, says Yaraní. And time involves past, present and future. Very exciting.
Today, Jorge serves on the Board of Directors of the National Center for Creative Aging/NCCA in Washington DC and is Co-Chair of the 2016 Creative Age Conference in Washington.
But Wait! There’s More!
For Seniors In Motion, Part 2 and 3, I have invited Jorge write about his work with the National Center for Creative Aging in more detail. He will also interview some of our Seniors In Motion Teaching Artists.
In the meantime I hope you enjoy Moving Through Love, a video created by elders from Bronx’s Erma Cava Senior Center, working Yarani Del Valle. It is an example of what can be accomplished when artists of all ages, commit to creativity and learning.
We are grateful to our senior center partners. This season alone we are working in 6 of them, all in The Bronx. They are a constant reminder of why, in 38 years, we have never stopped working with elders.
As for my new friend, The Poet, we walked out of the restaurant together. I showed her where my office is and offered to connect her with one of the centers associated with Pregones. She has the talent, and even a body of work. And I have the feeling she could use the company of her peers. The title of her play? At the Other Side Of Loneliness. She is a lifelong learner and teacher. I hope she comes back to visit.