Bridging the Age and Distance Gap with New Virtual Programming, Stagebridge Keeps Hope Alive
Wednesday, October 14, 2020
Posted by: Rotimi Agabiaka
by Nicole Gluckstern
When we think of theatre education, a default framing is frequently that of youth theatre, followed by professional training for working actors and artisans. But in a category they’ve developed for over forty years, Oakland’s Stagebridge has offered theatre classes for adults 50 years and older. Founded by Dr. Stuart Kandell in 1978, Stagebridge began as a one-off drama class with just five students. Over the years, the organization has won awards and accolades from arts funders and from the field of Gerontology. By recognizing the unique contributions and lifelong learning potential of elder communities, Stagebridge has provided a fertile creative environment for enthusiastic amateurs and aging professionals alike.
Indeed, the company’s list of past plays performed, instructors involved, and institutional partnerships reads like a who’s-who of Bay Area performance legends—including former San Francisco Mime Trouper Joan Holden, former Cockette and Thrillpeddler, Scrumbly Koldewyn, and Margo Hall, a founding member of Campo Santo and the new artistic director of the Lorraine Hansberry Theatre. Stagebridge maintains its vibrant role in the community through performance opportunities like the Marsh Theater’s “Tell it On Tuesday” storytelling series; shows staged at venues such as Aurora Theatre and the Flight Deck; and custom-crafted outreach in retirement communities, libraries, schools, churches, and co-working spaces.
Like other performing arts organizations, Stagebridge has had to reimagine instructional strategies in the midst of public health guidelines that limit in-person group contact. But rather than cut its offerings, Stagebridge is continuing its tradition of activating patrons through a robust semester of classes and workshops. For elders who may have already been wrestling with issues of isolation and disconnection pre-pandemic, being able to creatively engage, even in a virtual group setting, feels imperative—and Stagebridge is mobilizing to fulfill that need given that there could be many more months of social distancing ahead.
The company has crafted a detailed Zoom “how-to” tutorial, which is posted on its website, offers one-on-one guidance by appointment, and has even set up a “digital customer service line” for mid-class trouble-shooting. Would-be participants in its virtual offerings are also able to sit in on the first week of classes in order to observe and acclimate to learning in a digital space. And the company is planning a two-day intensive, running October 19-20, with Margo Hall, who will take participants through the basics of auditioning and performing on camera—a necessary skill now that live performance has mostly shifted to digital for the foreseeable future.
Stagebridge is also stepping up its efforts to create with and employ more BIPOC artists, and reach more elder communities of color with their programming. In a solidarity statement released before this year’s summer sessions, the company detailed concrete action steps it is taking to achieve these goals, “committing to advancing the economic stability, political voice, and personal safety of Black and Brown people in addition to all bodies suppressed, victimized or murdered by any extension of white supremacy.” Many of these steps are embodied by the diversified class schedule, and a dynamic pool of BIPOC instructors.
These include classes that focus on mindfulness and ecstatic response, such as MK Chavez’ workshop on “Transmutation: The Art of Ekphrastic Writing,” in which participants will be led through a process of generative writing, tying together the visual and the language arts. Radhika Rao’s “Zoom Games Unscripted” class will mingle spontaneity, levity, and improv skills. And Kim Euell’s Monday morning seminar, “Black Narratives on Stage and Screen,” will give participants the opportunity to experience and discuss plays and movies written from and about the Black experience, including works by August Wilson, Amiri Baraka, and Ntozake Shange.
Part of Stagebridge’s core curriculum—honoring elder experience through the art of storytelling—is also getting an infusion of inspired leadership. Storytellers of all levels of experience will find artistic growth in children’s book author and storyteller Donna Washington’s 12-week “Crafting Stories for Life” course, Masankho Banda’s “The Basics and Dynamics of Effective Storytelling,” and former Storybridge director Kirk Waller’s innovative approach: “3-D Storytelling.”
A silver lining of the shift to digital programming is the increased possibility of distance learning and instruction. So, for example, Washington will be able to teach from her North Carolina home base, and Banda all the way from Malawi. Further embracing the possibilities of virtual gathering space, Stagebridge is encouraging current and past students to get the word out beyond the physical confines of the geographic Bay Area with their refer-a-friend program (refer two folks and get one class free).
As we continue to navigate a world where in-person social contact must remain limited, building viable virtual communities will be an important life skill for all ages. By providing space for elders to gather, connect, and learn, Stagebridge has served as a model of senior arts instruction for over four decades. It’s not only reassuring to see them moving forward with a thoughtfully curated selection of courses and performance possibilities, it feels quite crucial that they do so. By bridging both the age gap and the technology gap, Stagebridge is providing an indispensable service for an equally indispensable population.
Get details about classes and signups here: www.stagebridge.org
Nicole Gluckstern is an arts journalist and theatre-maker in San Francisco. You can read her most current work in KQED Arts, or stalk her on twitter at @enkohl