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Mass. seniors take acting lessons in Newburyport

February 17, 2013

NEWBURYPORT, Mass. (AP) — Each Tuesday morning, a group of acting students assembles at the Firehouse Center for the Arts for a lesson.

They spend the 90-minute class at the Newburyport theater practicing their roles and preparing for their upcoming performance. They take cues and get reminders from their director-instructor, Charles Van Eman, as he helps them become more comfortable in their parts and gives advice on voice projection and enunciation.

In the end, however, the mission of the workshop is simply to have a good time. That’s one of the main reasons why, a few months ago, the Firehouse staff began their new Senior Readers Theater workshop, an arts education program for seniors age 55 and older.

“This isn’t about doing a professional show,” said Van Eman, a veteran actor of more than 30 years. “This is an opportunity to have fun.”

This is the second session of the Senior Readers. For a fee, seniors from throughout the area learn the basics of acting during the workshop and, at the end, they give a free performance before an audience.

The performance is a staged reading, a format in which actors remain seated and read from a script. The design is particularly helpful to senior actors, as they don’t have to worry about memorizing lines or fear falling due to mobility constraints, Van Eman said. They rely on facial expressions to help convey the plot line and the audience has an experience similar to reading a book, he added, as they get engrossed in the storytelling and fill in the props and scenery in their minds.

The program has been well-received by the senior community, Firehouse artistic director Kimm Wilkinson said. While the staff has long considered holding a workshop series for seniors, it wasn’t until recently that the theater was able to receive some funding from the Massachusetts Cultural Council to help defray the costs.

“They really love it,” Wilkinson said. Already, several participants have enrolled in the third workshop series set to begin in February.

While several of the students have some background in theater, others may have merely dabbled in the medium at some point, or perhaps have no acting experience at all, but have always had a desire to try it, Wilkinson added.

By the end of the program, Van Eman says he sees a change in his pupils. They become more comfortable with their acting skills and are often eager to take the stage again. Several of the students in his first session returned for the second workshop.

“They really lit up,” he said. “They had so much fun.”

On Friday, the 13 actresses in the current workshop were scheduled to perform for the public at the Firehouse. The casts was set to perform two one-act plays, “The Revenge of the Red Feather Ladies” and “The Red Feather Ladies Get Their Man,” both of which were written by Maxine Holmgren. On Tuesday, they will take the show on the road and present the one-act plays at the Amesbury Senior Center at 9:30 a.m.

The two plays center on a group of women called “The Red Feathers Ladies’ Investment Group” as they gather for their monthly meeting at a local tearoom. While the ladies expect to share some exciting news, the quickly realize their joy is only temporary.

The Senior Readers include: Muriel Angelil, Susan Grilk, Cara Smoley of Amesbury; Arlene Barnard of Georgetown; Rebecca Jones of Merrimac; Joyce Cejka, Bette Lischke, Arlene McCormack, Kathleen Moore and Ann Marie Salmon of Newburyport; Gretchen Stone and Barbara Stygles of Salisbury, and Janet Gillman of Seabrook.

For Barnard, an active participant in local theater, the Senior Readers program was too appealing to resist.

“It’s just a wonderful opportunity,” she said.

The readers theater format is “non-threatening,” she said, as the cast always remains on stage as a group and never by oneself.

“I think that makes it kind of nice,” she said.

Barnard said she is pleased that the actors will perform for the Amesbury Senior Center, as well as at the Firehouse. “The opportunity to be able to go a venue where people may not necessarily be able to venture out and see live theater, I think is fabulous,” she said.

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