Florida Studio Theatre breaks down stereotypes in their new documentary play assembled from nearly 100 senior Sarasotans: 'Old Enough to Know Better.”
Jason Cannon was sitting in his office this spring trying not to be intimidated. Sitting across from him was a monstrous pile of paper, documents and notes. Cannon and his team of interviewers and researchers had spent nearly the past two years going out into Sarasota and meeting with members of the city’s sizable senior citizen population. After nearly 100 interviews and close to 300 hours of interview material, Cannon and his team now had to dive into the stack and harvest common themes and spectacular stories.
Cannon, however, wasn’t assembling an anthropological study. He wasn’t even working for the Census Bureau or a health care firm looking for polling data. Cannon was looking for a great work of theater.
When Cannon, an associate artist and resident playwright and actor at Florida Studio Theatre was hired in 2013, he learned his first project would be producing “Old Enough to Know Better.” Accrued from those days of interviews, Cannon and his team at FST have created a documentary form of theater that uses direct quotes from their pool of interview subjects and have crafted a show that addresses the equal highs and lows of aging. Running until Aug. 16, the show is an examination of what it’s like to grow old but not necessarily grow up in Sarasota.
“Our interview subjects ranged in ages from 55 to 101 years old,” says Cannon, who also directed the show. “These are real people telling us about their lives. Once they open up, they’ll tell you anything. This show is uplifting. It’s sexy. It’s raunchy. And it’s funny.”
The seed of the idea for this show started 12 years ago says Cannon when FST’s Artistic Director and CEO Richard Hopkins wanted to do show that was squarely about the theater’s regular audience. Once Cannon came on board, he got to work emailing the theater’s subscribers as well as collaborating with the Gulf Coast Community Foundation and the Community Foundation of Sarasota County to find their first interview subjects. The initial interviewees, in turn, suggested more people for FST to interview.
What Cannon and a dozen or so assistants found was a diverse set of interests, passions and anxieties in regards to growing old. Divided into eight chapters, Cannon found central talking points that came up again and again in the project’s research phase. Topics such as the process of aging, numerical labels, losing the ability to drive, having children grow into adults, making and losing friends and spouses, dying, the march of time and a final chapter on advice for younger generations comprises the show.
“There was a very steep learning curve for our team,” says Cannon, who conducted roughly 40% of the interviews. “Being a performer you constantly put yourself out there, but to be an interviewer means you listen. Being an interviewer means listening so closely that you follow the trail and help the person speaking find the best and juiciest bits. We also had to be careful to not lead the discussion, not assume we knew anything.”
Cannon, 39, was the oldest member of his team of FST apprentices and staff who interviewed the subjects. Cannon says that many of the older participants in the survey were taken aback that they were being interviewed by people in their 20s and 30s.
“They didn’t think we’d get it,” says Cannon. “To my mind that’s the point, tell us. We truly want to know.”
Cannon and his team met people where they felt most comfortable. There was a woman who offered to teach her interviewer how to bake bread. One couple, a 93-year-old wife and 100-year-old husband, met Cannon at a coffee shop. The husband drove them there and, according to Cannon, they acted like teenagers out on a date. They candidly discussed their active sex life.
“I was like, ‘Hallelujah that’s good to hear,’” says Cannon. “As a single guy, that gives me a lot of hope.”
On the flip side of that aging coin, Cannon says he and his team encountered less joyous stories. There was woman who had been separated from her husband for years and just finally served her ex-husband divorce papers on the day of her interview. There was a wife who had to place her husband’s hand, stricken by advanced Lou Gehrig’s disease, into Cannon’s hand for a introductory shake. “His eyes were so intense since he couldn’t move,” says Cannon. “Every ounce of his personality and humanity were in his eyes.”
Inside the FST’s Bowne’s Lab Theatre, eight actors are running through the opening of “Old Enough to Know Better” before a preview performance the day before opening night July 30. Ranging in ages from college-aged to retirement, the cast are armed with black binders containing the words and lives of the interview subjects. Every actor has handwritten notes filling the margins. Everyone plays numerous elderly characters. There are no costumes or elderly makeup for the young cast members. The choice is deliberate, to deliver each subject’s story as honestly as possible.
“A man I interviewed said, ‘If you use my words in the play, cast me as someone in their 20s because that’s how old I feel,’” Cannon said.
Allison Campbell, 23, is an acting apprentice at FST and rockets between nearly 15 different characters ranging from small children, to hospice workers and elderly interview subjects during the course of the show (while one person on stage is speaking, other actors pantomime the story). Playing real people, some who have been in the audience during preview performances, allows Campbell to deliver her main objective as an actor: the truth.
"I've done a lot of different kinds of theater, but my favorite thing onstage is telling the truth to the best of my ability," says Campbell. "Work like this with people's real stories and lives has a great impact on an audience and actually helps people. It's the kind of theater I want to keep doing."
Lonnetta M. Gaines, 68 (68.5 in May, if you ask her), has been a part of the show since 2013 when Cannon approached her while she was volunteering at the North Sarasota Library. Not only has Gaines been an integral member of the reading company, some of her are featured in the show. An educator with a Ph. D. from the Bank Street College of Education in New York City, Gaines has been a dancer throughout her life.
"Katelyn McKelley (an actress in the show) has my favorite line that I said. She says, 'My passion? It's dance. But at my age I call it ‘movement.'"
For Cannon and his acting company, the overall goal of the show is to truthfully present each individual’s experience with growing old. And, most importantly, to dispel ageist myths and crippling label of numbers.
“Old is a moving target,” says Cannon. “If younger people come to the show they’re going to learn so much and they’re going to be given hope to what it means to age. It’s not scary. You can embrace turning 30, 40 and 50. It’s not a death sentence. We heard so many people say, ‘I still don’t know what I want to do when I grow up.’ Fancy hearing that from a 70-year-old.”