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When George Moffat was 70, his mother lay on her deathbed. Figuring she had nothing to lose, she decided to reveal all her last secrets. Somewhat wistfully (and perhaps mischievously), the woman leaned over to her grandchild (Moffat's daughter) and proclaimed, "Boy, could I tell some stories." One of those stories would change Moffat's life.
Sixteen years later, on June 19, Moffat and a group of his peers from Aldersgate Retirement Community had a chance to tell their own stories at the McGlohon Theater at Spirit Square. In Acting Our Age: A Century of America in Seven Voices, the elders spoke in overlapping anecdotes (including the one in which Moffat's dying mother revealed to him that he was actually adopted). The production, a mix between live theatre and documentary film projected on a screen and created in collaboration with The Playworks Group LLC, was entertaining, joyous, touching, and really funny.
Moffat, 86, was one of seven speakers who ranged in age from 73 to 95. The program moved more or less chronologically, beginning with the early 1920s. June Connerton, 95, was just a child then, but she clearly remembers growing up during the Great Depression. "Some people talk about how they may have been poor, but they didn't really know it back then," Connerton said. "Well, I knew I was poor." Connerton talked about having to walk around in too-small shoes and raggedy clothes and how her family would move wherever her father could get a job — the unemployment rate then was 25%.
Dot Horne and Betty Cowan, both the same age as Connerton, remembered the Depression, too, as well as the transition into World War II. Soon after the United States entered the war, Horne got a job at Morris Field military repair base to aid in the war effort; Horne helped repair Army Air Corps planes. "I was one of those 'Rosie the Riveters,'" Horne said. "I was just spittin' rivets."
The stories brought history alive for the audience, and it allowed for the storytellers to be heard. This show demonstrated that one of the simplest ways for people to appreciate dignity and humanity in one another is through speaking to each other and sharing experiences. Some of the most poignant and relatable parts of this production weren't even the history that we Americans all recognize but rather the more personal and intimate memories shared, which evoked familiarity and empathy between the audience and the speakers.
Connerton, the grandchild of struggling Armenian refugees, described one specific night she remembered as a child lying asleep; suddenly, she felt something being pulled over her. Her grandfather was placing a blanket on her so that she wouldn't be cold. As he smoothed the blanket, he said in Armenian something to the effect of, "Isn't she beautiful?" Little memories like this were not only significant to Connerton for her love for her grandfather but significant and moving for the audience as well, evoking memories of their own grandfathers.
Several of the other speakers talked about love and, specifically, how they met their partners. Cowan was away from home, renting a room in a house for a week, when she met her husband, Pete. Cowan was staying in the owner's son's room while he was away; during her stay, the son happened to come home. "Someone's in my bed," he ran and told his mom. By the end of the week, the boy Pete and Cowan had become friends, and not much later, they decided to get married. Cowan said that Pete always joked about how they first met, saying, "I first found her in my bed, and she's been there ever since."
Andie and Bob Payet, both 73, also talked about how they first met, including some of the obstacles they had to overcome in getting married. Not only was Bob from a "Yankee" family (as Andie said), but he was also from a Catholic family. Andie talked about how her family disapproved of Bob and how usually she followed her family's advice, but in this case, she just had to go against their will. Andie and Bob have now been married about 50 years.
All seven speakers addressed similar bigotries that they encountered — and even expressed — throughout their lives. Norman Pollock, 86, was from a Northern Irish Protestant family. Pollock remembered his father as being extremely prejudiced against practically any group that wasn't his own. He reflected on growing up with some of these prejudices himself and then learning how false these ideas were. Pollock ended up being an active member of the Civil Rights and Anti-War Movements, even attending the March on Washington in 1963.
Moffat grew up similarly in a Scottish family who mistrusted ethnic and religious groups that were different. Moffat learned fairly early in life that these prejudices were wrong, but he had a special awakening when his adopted mother revealed to him that he wasn't Scottish at all: in fact, he is an Arab, from Syria.
Each of the speakers reflected on the discriminations they may have participated in and the privileges with which they may have grown up. To round out that topic, the production could have benefitted by including perspective from an African American or other person of color who could have spoken about the racial discrimination the speakers addressed. While there was nothing said that seemed oblivious or offensive, it would have enriched the conversation from these seven actors further to hear from the perspective of someone who would have been treated very differently during those times.
Despite this one imperfection, Acting Our Age was an excellent idea and was certainly well put together (development and direction by Steve Umberger and Lyndall Hare). Each of the speakers addressed the happiness and sorrows of their past with honesty and grace, without resentment or anger. They were able to befriend their former selves while also addressing the mistakes they had made, a reflection of the past that became a gift to the present. This was a demonstration of how to grow in peace and compassion, with an incentive to continue growing. As Horne said in the opening video projected on a big screen, "You don't have to stop living just because you get old."