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Seniors learn to loosen up through improv

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Ruth Schwartz, 65, introduces herself to the crowd. (Photo by Nicole Ireland/CNS)

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Helena Kolar, who will admit only to being old enough to get social security, offers up a song in the group's "Audition" sketch. (Photo by Nicole Ireland/CNS)

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Shatzi Weisberger, 77, drives a bus in a skit featuring an obnoxious cell phone user who infuriates her fellow passengers. (Photo by Nicole Ireland/CNS)

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David Ganz, 68, begins his "elderly pole dance" for the "Audition" sketch. (Photo by Nicole Ireland/CNS)

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The cast members finish off the show with a "People's Machine" made up of their random actions and sounds. (Photo by Nicole Ireland/CNS)

Ruth Schwartz is caught in a medical payment snafu that elderly patients know all too well.

The customer service rep at her insurance company denies ever receiving her medical claim, despite the fact that she sent it in two months ago. Even though Schwartz has a signature from someone at the company confirming receipt of the claim, the rep still argues with her, saying it could have been signed by anyone.

Just as the situation seems hopeless, in comes Schwartz’s doctor from stage right and tells her to forget the bill, her treatment is free--at which Schwartz, the insurance rep and the doctor all get a huge round of applause.

All three 60-something women are part of a seniors’ improv workshop developed by the New York All Stars Project, and they’re showing off their stuff to an almost-full house of friends and supporters at Manhattan’s Magnet Theater. The “insurance reimbursement” skit is just one of many ways the All Stars Project has adapted the art of improv to help seniors find humor in their daily lives and connect with others during a period of life that can too often be isolating.

“Believe me, it’s easier than bridge,” said Schwartz, 65, as she and her 12 castmates take questions from the audience after the show. “It makes you think, it keeps your mind going. And you know what? You get to play. I get to feel young again. It’s wonderful.”

As introductory improv workshops have become a popular recreational activity among non-actors in recent years, many older adults are joining in the fun. Robb Hutter, founder of the Philly Senior Stage in Philadelphia, thinks that involving seniors means overcoming the natural resistance to change that comes with aging. Older people “put up more guards and defenses,” he said. This kind of guardedness is actually “antithetical to what improv theater is, which is letting go, abandoning inhibitions.”

Hutter, whose 30 years of professional experience includes acting, directing and teaching, brings drama and theater workshops directly to retirement communities in the Philadelphia area. One of them is Shannondell at Valley Forge, where Elaine Blazier, 71, considers Hutter’s improv class a welcome treat in a busy schedule of retirement activities, including sewing for newborns and working at the library.

As a teacher, a mother and the wife of a minister, she had seemingly spent all her life being responsible. “I guess maybe I’ve been playing certain roles my whole life,” she said. “This is my chance to act out.”

Giving seniors the freedom to act out is what Suzi Lynch, 63, has been doing for the last three years in West Palm Beach, Fla. With more than 15 years of improv experience, Lynch puts her students at ease by reminding them they’ve actually been improvising their whole lives. “When you get up every morning, does someone hand you a script?” she asks them.

At the end of the day, the point is to have fun. There are many ways to make improv work for seniors. If some students are physically limited, for instance, they don’t have to do Kung Fu fighting on stage, said Lynch. She encourages those seniors to express themselves verbally rather than through movement--maybe by putting on an accent, or breaking into song. Her students, who range in age from mid 60s to late 80s, know that Lynch will never put them in harm’s way. They’ve learned “it’s OK to trust.”

One of her students, Vic Lefkof, a 63-year-old retired high school teacher, was self-conscious when he first started taking improv classes at an adult education program in Cincinnati. Now in Florida he enjoys it so much that he often makes up sketches and games for the rest of the group. In one of his setups, a die-hard baseball fan thinks he’s signing up for fantasy baseball camp, but actually dials a sex line by mistake. “It went over great,” he said.

In Toronto, the Bad Dog Theater, known for its high-octane professional improv shows, has an average of one or two older adults joining the 20s-40s crowd in each of its open amateur workshops. Ralph Macleod, Bad Dog’s workshop director, said that interested seniors sometimes hesitate to sign up because they think improv is only for hip 20-somethings. On the contrary, Macleod said, most seniors he’s taught bring an infectious energy to the group as they “discover being a kid again.”

One of Bad Dog’s regulars, 65-year-old Paul Berner, calls improv a “kindergarten for adults.” Although he’s the oldest in his group, age has never been a barrier to interacting with players who might be 40 years younger. “They don’t treat me like a silly old fogey,” he said. Although he may be more inclined to listen to Tony Bennett in his spare time, he had no trouble jumping into a rap in his last musical improv class.

And sometimes, generation gaps are just plain funny. “I am an elderly pole dancer,” David Ganz, 68, tells the audience back at the All Stars performance in New York. The crowd shrieks with laughter as Ganz rotates in exaggerated slow motion around his imaginary pole, in a shtick he came up with during one of the group’s improv workshops a month or so before.

“What can I say? There ain’t too much call for an elderly pole dancer,” the retired science editor said after the show. “The idea just came into my head.”

E-mail: nki2101@columbia.edu