Playwright Arthur Keyser started a senior theater group to keep older residents active physically and mentally.
Arthur Keyser credits theater with keeping him alive for the past nine decades.
“I want people to get the same joy I do at the theater,” says the playwright.
There are 800-some senior theater groups around the U.S., Keyser says, but all Sarasota has is a group of seniors at The Players Centre for Performing Arts who typically put on one show a year. He saw a void in the local cultural offerings for senior citizens, and he felt a passionate urge to fill it.
That’s how his new senior theater group, the Friendship Center Theatre Troupe, was born.
Keyser’s vision was a relatively active group of retirees who could perform in a casual setting at little to no cost a few times throughout season, offering people the chance to enjoy community theater that’s accessible and relatable to older residents.
He just needed a venue, and it didn’t take long to find one when he looked to the place he was already meeting with fellow like-minded residents to talk politics — a discussion group called What’s Happening — every week. Friendship Centers has somewhere between 1,000 and 2,000 members, he discovered through his research, and the more he learned, the more he realized it could be the ideal location.
Keyser met with Friendship Center Board of Governors member Mike Karp in fall 2018 to pitch the idea. He loved it, and a partnership was born.
The theater troupe is making its debut March 19-21 by performing three roughly 15-minute plays written by Keyser: “Starting Over,” “Mother’s Day” and “Tech Support.” The plays are professionally published and require royalties to be performed, however, so this caused an issue for the nonprofit venue.
But because he has no interest in making money off the venture, Keyser decided he would pay all the fees so the center could host the program for free.
“I want this to be a win-win situation for everyone,” he says.
All members of the group, which currently has 11 performers and three stage managers, are people who are members of or at least occasional participants in programs offered by the center. A few have theater experience — actor Nancy Hanks has performed with Venice Theatre and Assistant Director Jenny Aldrich has performed at The Players Centre for Performing Arts — but most don’t have much experience beyond a couple high school shows.
None of that matters to Keyser. He just wants all the participants to have as much fun as he does.
“This is a present to me,” Keyser says of the program. “I’m celebrating my 90th birthday by creating a senior theater.”
That gift hasn’t come without some challenges, however. He says one of the first mistakes he made was assuming everyone who first showed interest, whether that be as an actor or behind-the-scenes helper, would stick around. Thankfully, he double casted each of the three short plays, which has resulted in one dedicated cast for each after several people have dropped out.
Another challenge was logistics, because the play needs to be performed on the first level of the Friendship Center to be accessible and have enough space, but that still doesn’t allow for much of a performance area. There won’t be a stage or a true backstage, but the ever-innovative Keyser is using three 4-by-7-foot panels from one of the center’s recent art shows as backdrops that will provide a small barrier between the floor and “the wings.”
Keyser has been rehearsing with his casts for two-and-a-half hours every Wednesday in a space the center aptly named the Mirror Room, and there’s also a stage manager who is in charge of helping the actors memorize lines — an act he’s read can be a particularly helpful mental exercise for seniors.
Keyser hopes to have more shows in November, and he’s aiming to attract local artists to take his spot in the director’s chair.
“We don’t stop playing because we get old, we get old because we stop playing,” Keyser quotes from George Bernard Shaw. This is the mantra his troupe will abide by.