Theater students bridge generation gap with community performances

Nathalie Peck and her friends were skeptical.

She and her fellow students in Sari Ruskin’s Creative Dramatics for Children class were gearing up to perform a series of fairy tales and fables at Brandywine Senior Living in Princeton, New Jersey. They were accustomed to performing for elementary school children; how would fairy tales fly in front of an audience of senior citizens?

“We were saying, ‘Why are we doing children’s stories in an old-age home?’ ” says Peck, a student in the BA Theater program. We were doubting it, saying, ‘This doesn’t seem right.’ ”

Turns out, they had nothing to worry about.

“They loved the energy we brought,” Peck says of the performance, which took place at the senior residence on Tuesday, April 30, 2013. “You could see their faces light up. It went way better than expected,” with residents even getting into the act, hamming it up and participating in portions of the show.

Ruskin, a lecturer in the Mason Gross School Theater Department, has made community outreach an integral part of her mission as she has developed the Creative Dramatics for Children courses. For the last six years, her students have traveled around Central New Jersey, staging plays at area schools. Ruskin says she hopes to take the performances to a variety of group homes, as well.

“I’d like [my students] to think of what Rutgers can provide for their community,” Ruskin says. “…Our students are idealistic and want the chance to do something for someone else. These performances provide them with that opportunity. Artistically, they are learning a technique that they probably would not learn elsewhere. Story-theater keeps them free and creative. It really has them thinking ‘out of the box.’ ”

Stephanie Gaber, Brandywine’s activities director, says intergenerational programming is appealing because it provides residents with the opportunity to “think of their own past and grandchildren and keep in touch with their own inner youth. It’s awesome, especially when the audience is receptive. They so much look forward to it.”

Ruskin says she made sure the students mingled with residents before the Princeton performance, which included performances of Strega Nona, Too Much Noise, Little Red Riding Hood, and The Moth and the Star.

“We tend to discount or ignore the life experience of our ‘elders,’ ” she says. “I want my students to understand the gifts that continuity of generation brings. Young adults often have no communication with the elderly....

“I want us all to enjoy the wisdom of others,” Ruskin adds, “and to feel the ties that really do bind us across generations.”

If Peck’s reaction is any indication, Ruskin’s approach is working.

“It felt good to know we brought happiness to them,” Peck says. “I went in there bummed, but it was amazing. The smiles got bigger and bigger.”

Participating actors in Princeton were: Kunal Patel, Erik Stratton, Bryton McGrath, Jalyn Johnson, Nathalie Peck, Cypress Rhodes, Joseph Focaraccio, Melanie Waldman, Stephanie Taylor, Joseph De Ritis, and Sandra Bonsu.

Take a look at students from the BA Theater program interacting with Brandywine residents:

Posted May 2013