To Tread, or Totter, across the Boards

No age barrier can hold back playmakers. The Unexpected Company of Laramie, Wyoming, is one of 2000 senior community theater companies having a ball nationwide.

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There isn’t much live theatre in most small communities. Sometimes there’s a dinner theatre on the edge of town, supported on the backs of young actors willing to wait tables before the curtain drops and then clear up afterwards. In some towns, experimental, non-profit theatre groups pop up to foster the creativity of youth who might otherwise find self-expression in less socially desirable ways. Sometimes religious groups form theatre companies to stage plays recognizing a spiritually significant person or event. But mostly, live theatre passes people in small towns by, leaving them to their movie houses or occasional trips to larger cities to see touring productions of “Cats.”

So I was intrigued by a theatre company formed a few years ago in my town of Laramie, Wyoming. First: a backdrop. Although Laramie is small, I’d wager we have more cultural events and opportunities per capita than do communities ten times our size. We’re a college town – 28,000 residents, many of whom either attend, teach at or, staff the 10,000-student University of Wyoming. The university folks regularly perform plays, concerts and dance programs, or bring in top drawer performers, which attracts town and gown alike. Despite the availability of the lively arts in Laramie — or possibly because of it — community theatre here has been staged in fits and starts, often in the form of kitschy westerns that service the summer tourist trade.

Back in 2005, I saw an advertisement in our local paper, the Laramie Daily Boomerang, announcing the formation of The Unexpected Company and its Time and Time Again Players. They were holding auditions for their first production, “Hot Flashes.” I was in my mid-forties, younger than the suggested minimum age of 50. But I was also frustrated. I’d been a theatre major in college long ago and found myself without an outlet for singing, dancing, acting, and staying up half the night at technical rehearsals. As a middle-aged community member, I certainly wasn’t going to wander in to a college theatre audition and get cast as the crone granny. Alas, as a teenage Judy Garland once pouted in song, I’m just an awful in between. For me, theatre would have to wait.

Over the next few years I saw and heard more about the Unexpected Company, now one of more than 2,000 senior community companies around the country. Laramie’s Unexpected Company founding member Germaine St. John told me that “the energy exuded by the organizers was contagious. Their diverse backgrounds afforded a plethora of talent and experience in many forms of theatre, including performing, directing, producing, costuming, stage production, and publicity.” Indeed. Wyoming’s first senior theatre troupe, they staged and sold out productions each year. The productions were fundraisers, in most cases for the Ivinson Mansion museum and its converted carriage house, a community gathering spot called the Alice Hardie Stevens Center.

Since that first year they’ve staged professional scripts from ArtAge, an organization based in Portland, Oregon, that offers scripts written for senior players. They’ve also created original productions. For example, in 2007 they presented “Fables, Foibles, and Follies of Laramie City,” written and directed by company members Susan McGraw and Mary Jean Honeycutt. In 2008 they staged “Grecian Formula,” a musical comedy written by company member Carole Homer. It treats the music and storyline from “Grease” as though it were 50 years later, at the reunion of Danny, Sandy and the gang from Rydell High School.

Marc Homer
At the Rydell high School 50th Reunion, players from Unexpected Comapny’s production of Grecian Formula: (seated, l-r) Valorie Smith, Sue McLean, Susan Shumway, (standing,l-r) Janie Van Oss, Anne Allen, Germaine St. John

These productions have all been well supported by the Laramie community, St. John says, but keeping the enthusiasm for any non-profit labor of love going year after year can prove a challenge. Recently, UW’s first eminent artist in residence Bill Bowers performed his one-man play, “It Goes Without Saying” on the campus stage. Afterwards I asked him how a town of Laramie’s size could create a climate where live theatre could thrive. “Go out and support it,” was his suggestion.

A few weeks later I took his advice when I saw another audition notice in the Boomerang. I told myself I’d attend the audition to cover it as a reporter and to write a column about senior theatre for Daily Yonder. Besides, I’ve still got five months of my forties to cling to – I could only be an observer.

The day of the audition, Laramie had its first significant snowfall since before Christmas. There must have been a foot of snow on the ground – not exactly ideal weather for any volunteer actor, senior or not, to make an audition. Maybe that’s why only about 15 men had braved the weather and a handful of women.

I sat in the back and watched the proceedings. The company’s script committee had chosen four one-act play scripts from ArtAge. Company past-president Dave Van Oss described each one for the would-be actors as plays about “senior relationships.”

“Gin and Tonic,” by John Clifford, is about a case of mistaken dating service identity and calls for one man and one woman. “Coconut Crème Pie,” also by Clifford, calls for one actor of each sex; it is about what happens when a pie delivery man goes to the wrong address. “The Gold Standard,” by John Freek, involves the exchanges of two men over a checkers game.

Then there was “At Halftime” by Art Shulman. It is about a senior women’s basketball team being chewed out at halftime by their coach who is unhappy about the team’s performance against a squad of habit-wearing nuns. One man. Five women. I looked around the room. More women were needed to read the parts. I raised my hand to volunteer.

“I can’t be in a play – I’m only 49,” I stammered to the group. Then addressing director Susan McGraw, I said, “But I can read a part if it would help you cast.”

Up on the little stage I went. I read the part of Anne, the senior basketball player who liked to party — who has a hard time caring about the coach’s half-time tongue lashing. I know this woman, I thought. I could play this part. Since I’m only 5’4”, I hoped Anne was the point guard.

I remembered what Germaine St. John had written to me. “The group is seeking to empower and enrich the lives of Laramie’s mature adults with theatre and music that entertains, bridges generation gaps, educates, celebrates the aging process, and provides opportunities while dispelling stereotypical conceptions of the golden years.”

I can’t say I’m in a hurry to rush along my golden years. All I know is that I’m sitting at home today, in case the phone rings and someone tells me I’ve landed that part. I can dream, can’t I?

 

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