Theatre Converse’s recent devised theatre production, Growing Old, might be considered a mashup of oral history, dramatic improv, and reality tv, all about issues facing senior women.
“I had to cast people who had good interpersonal skills because, in addition to being great actors, they had to be able to interview well and listen,” says Dr. Chandra Owenby Hopkins, Associate Professor of Theatre. Hopkins served not only as the show’s director, but also as its conceptualizer and initial community networker.
Three years ago, Hopkins debuted Converse’s first such project, Home, focusing on shelter and relationships. For Growing Old, students fanned out across Spartanburg for two months, listening to seniors in at least eight community organizations, from the Shepherd’s Center to Archibald Rutledge Apartments senior housing.
In these “service rehearsals,” as the eight cast members and two-stage managers called them, students also delivered food via Mobile Meals and served at the Spartan-burg Soup Kitchen; dined with residents at the Summit Hills retirement community; and worked on a Habitat for Humanity home, among other stops.
See the common thread? Hopkins focused the production on food insecurity in the American South and the social isolation of elderly community members and earned a $13,000 AARP grant to support it.
Even better, the award stipulated that 85 percent of the money would pay student stipends, with each earning more than $1,100.
“So that’s awesome,” Hopkins says. “They got paid. They had to go through this rigorous process to apply and audition, and they’re doing many, many hours of contact work, and this allowed them to get out in the community and work, so, yeah, it was cool.”
It was cool for Janis Dengler, too, who was one of the countless senior citizens included in this project. “I think Chandra is one extremely creative person, and I think she brings that creativity and energy to her classes,” says Dengler, who is a Converse Professor Emerita of Dance and a beloved legend among alumnae.
The students then took that energy to area seniors.
“When the students interviewed me, I told them I could sit here all day and tell you stories, but I think you need to come to aerobics class,” says Dengler, who taught at Converse for 41 years, “and, by darn, they did; a few of them came to class. I tried to emphasize to them that as you get older, one of the most important things is to keep moving. I don’t care what you’re doing; keep moving.”
The effort kept moving, through four performances at Hazel B. Abbot Theatre in February.
“It was huge,” Hopkins says. “It was beautiful and really hard work; a well-worth-it work of labor. I think maybe I underestimated the hours involved. At the core, it was pretty amazing and powerful to see these students grow together, to see them embrace a positive attitude and reach beyond themselves.”
Cast member Anastacia Hutchinson ’19 echoes those sentiments. She recalls a favorite moment with an Archibald resident who dictated a sweet potato pie recipe—food, of course, being a leading ingredient in what evolved into an actual script.
“We were in this battle of smiling and pointing at each other with the fondness of two best friends who know exactly what the other is talking about. In that moment, we both saw memories of our grandmothers standing on tippy-toes, kneading dough for fresh bread or stirring the okra soup in a large stockpot.”
Those memories will never grow old, especially since many of the interviewed seniors came to watch the performance.
“It’s always fun to do big-name shows like Chicago and Rent and all those, but they don’t really honor the human experience as much as this can, and one of my favorite parts about Growing Old was watching the faces of the women when we told their stories, and they were telling us how proud of us they were. And we said, ‘No, we have to thank you.’”
Likewise, Dengler praises the troupe’s outreach. “I think Converse needs more of that,” she says, and referring to President Krista Newkirk, adds, “They have done a good job with that in the last two years with the new president.”
While Dengler calls the experience a “good light to throw on Converse,” Hutchinson adds, “If Converse continues to do something like this, we would be able to make a name for ourselves in honoring our community that has done so much for us in the past.”
Originally published in The Converse Magazine.