Shakespeare's comedy, A Midsummer Night's Dream, may be about the vagaries of love, but it's also about the difference between appearance and reality, and the fragility of identity -- themes that are relatable for all ages, but perhaps most poignantly so for seniors.
Award-winning documentary filmmakers Hank Rogerson and Jilann Spitzmiller had already demonstrated their affinity for Shakespeare's plays when they made their powerful film, Shakespeare Behind Bars, in which an acting troupe made up of prisoners tackled The Tempest as a path to self-discovery and redemption. What might happen, they wondered, if a troupe of seniors took on acting in a Shakespearian play?
Set at the Lillian Booth Actors Home in Englewood, New Jersey, their latest documentary, Still Dreaming, follows a group of elders during six weeks of rehearsal as they prepare to mount a reading of A Midsummer Night's Dream. The Home already had an established acting group devoted to Shakespeare and the members explained that this particular play was selected by them because it's an ensemble piece, allowing everyone to work together.
And what a fascinating bunch of actors they proved to be. Some had extensive professional performing experience on Broadway, a few had no acting experience at all. Some had physical limitations, while others struggled with dementia and Alzheimer's.
In an interview Hank Rogerson did with me for the Experience Talks radio show, I asked him what attracted him to Shakespeare.
"He brings stuff up, even if you just sit and read it in your own living room," he said. "He understood the human condition and what it was to be human in all stages of life. He has a remarkable ability to connect through time. His plays have relevance today in very significant ways."
Rogerson said that this project was a follow up in some ways to Shakespeare Behind Bars because it was performing Shakespeare in a unique place. But what did it mean to have the Bard performed by seniors?
Rogerson explained, "What would it be like as an 80 year old to rework your craft? What are the possibilities to be creative as an 80 year old? There are a lot of difficulties there and a lot of challenges, but ultimately it's rewarding because the creativity and the process really wakes people up, sometimes in an uncomfortable way, but ultimately it wakes them up in a way that makes them come out of themselves and connect with others, and that's always a positive thing -- community, connection, and creativity."
The actors worked under the direction of two young, up-and-coming Shakespeare directors from NYC's Fiasco Theatre, Ben Steinfeld and Noah Brody, who experienced their own challenges and frustrations during the project. Not only were they shepherding a group of actors with widely different levels of talent, they were also dealing with what they referred to as the many different "levels of reality" that the seniors lived in every day.
Still Dreaming deals with feelings of triumph and moments of greatness, but also with feelings of loss and sadness, and does it in an honest, sweet, touching way.
Hank explains, "The film doesn't gloss over what it's like to be old and what it's like to be in a nursing home. The film kind of prepares us for it. But the Lillian Booth Actors Home is a beautiful facility, and it also honors who these people are -- they still have something beautiful and amazing to give to themselves and to each other and this is a community here in which we all live together, we don't isolate, we come together and create, which is inspirational. It supports us in facing our fears about aging and helping those around us who are growing old.
"The film is incredibly hopeful because I see that it's always wonderful to engage in what you've done, in your passions, in creativity, no matter what your age."
You can watch the new trailer for the film and learn more about Still Dreaming by visiting Hank and Jilann's IndieGoGo campaign.
You can also listen to Hank Rogerson's October 5, 2013, interview on our Experience Talks website.
And don't forget to spread the word through social media to help share this thoughtful, amazing viewpoint about seniors and creativity -- one our society needs to hear.