Age of Discovery
Director Arthur Strimling talks about giving older actors a chance to shine in the new play Every Day a Visitor.
Set in a Jewish old age home in the Bronx, the play hopes to avoid such stereotypes. For one thing, it utilizes an older generation of actors. "Working with the issue of age is really interesting with them, because they're playing people who are 10, 15, maybe even 20 years older than they are," says Strimling. "We've had a very delicate and interesting process finding what it is that adds 10 years to your life, which at this age makes a lot of difference."
During one of the rehearsals for the show, Strimling had the actors play out all their stereotypes about old age. "It was really funny and kind of scary," he says. "I was a bit surprised by how scary it turned out to be."
The director estimates that the average age of his cast members is somewhere in the mid-60s. "But I don't ask [their ages] for very real reasons," he stresses. "Actors at that age have to be very nervous, because people won't cast them. There were actors who came in to audition--not ones who are in the cast--who made loud noises to the casting people: 'Now, don't start seeing me as only this.' They were scared to audition for the show because it would maybe typecast them as only available to play aged people."
Every Day a Visitor is produced by Woodie King Jr.'s New Federal Theatre, currently celebrating its 30th anniversary. Strimling was approached to direct the show due to his years of experience working with older actors. "I'm sort of becoming the directorial maven of the elderly," he jokes.
As artistic director of the Roots & Branches Intergenerational Theatre, Strimling regularly works with performers aged 18-28 and 65-94 to create and perform original plays that challenge stereotypes about age and aging. The younger members of the troupe are often NYU theater students, while the older generation is comprised mostly of amateurs with little or no previous theatrical experience. "I have them play very close to themselves," says Strimling. "If you theatricalize and concentrate on that, it communicates a great deal. They can do that convincingly and movingly, and their amateur-ness becomes a strength in a way."
In contrast, the actors in Visitor are seasoned professionals. "Some of them have been in the business longer than I've been alive," says Strimling. "They played on Broadway and in movies. They really know what they're doing."
Another difference between the two groups is that the Visitor actors are working with someone else's script, rather than playing themselves. In fact, the play has them portraying a range of historical characters such as proto-feminist Bella Abzug, former New York City mayor Fiorello LaGuardia, and oil tycoon John D. Rockefeller.
The play is based on Abrons' award-winning short story of the same title, and has the residents in the home transform their lives by adopting famous identities. "They transform their world through the power of their imaginations," says Strimling. "By the end of the play, they have integrated the transformations into who they are. It's nothing more than that--nothing has changed, and everything is different."