Guest Post, Mimi Schwartz: Second Act

It’s never too late to be what you might have been – George Eliot

Mimi SchwartzWhen I was fifteen, I saw South Pacific and, imagining my name in lights, I signed up to audition for Play Pro, my high school drama club. But before my name was called, I chickened out, fleeing to the bathroom. My best friend, performing Juliet’s balcony speech, was just too good.

That was that, I thought—until a friend, fifty years later, asked me to join OnStage, a group of closet actors, all over 55, who met weekly with a director named Adam.[1] “We learn theater techniques and do documentary theater,” she said. Which meant gathering stories from the community about senior memories and experience and performing them at libraries, schools, senior centers, hospitals— “whoever wants us.”

I’d just retired from fulltime teaching and this sounded like fun, something different —with “scripts” more like stories you tell over lunch or hear on a bus. What do I have to lose? I thought. The pressure of youth was off.

Every Wednesday afternoon, at the Community Room, I do theater games like becoming a watermelon to my partner’s grapefruit, each of us conversing with our one word –“Watermelon!” “Grapefruit!” “Watermelon!” “Grapefruit!”—saying them loud and soft,  sexy and timid,  fierce and giggly. A whole range of emotions, just like that.

I like morphing into someone else, sometimes younger, sometimes older—all is possible.  I like moving my body on stage, feeling braver than I did at fifteen. And I like how audiences connect to our stories as if we were telling theirs.

Take the large, wild-haired grandmother at the Metuchen Library, who came to see “You Win Some, You Lose Some” –-about everything from losing your false teeth on the subway to dating after 60, to end-of-life decisions. Afterwards, in a lively post-show discussion, she told everyone: “The beach week story is just what happened!” She pointed to me (I had played the grandmother). “Like you, I didn’t want to go to beach week again. Like you, I told my daughter that the bed too uncomfortable. And then she, too, dialed my grandson.” I tried to explain it isn’t really my story, but she ignored me, “How can we say no, right?” She delighted in having her story validated, and I delighted in her delight.

A week later, on a roll, we enter an assisted living/nursing home, our first. Wheelchairs, maybe thirty of them, are lined up. Some residents are sleeping; most are just staring straight ahead. No one except the aides seems to interact with anyone else, and talk is about rearranging wheelchairs. Please God, don’t let me land here!  we whisper to each other as a squat, indifferent man hurries our group into a cluttered room beyond “the theater space,” really the cafeteria. A guy is mopping the floor, something easy to slip on if it doesn’t dry fast.

No post-show discussion, we decide quickly. These people don’t talk; they don’t smile. It is too risky. The floor hasn’t quite dried, but we start anyway–with the refrigerator buzzing and the loudspeaker interrupting every few minutes. Some people keep sleeping (Are they drugged?), but others smile and nod, especially about stories of love, marriage, and sex. Lines like “I learned that a second marriage can be better than the first” get a big whoop.

Forty minutes later we take our bows and head towards the glass front doors as if lingering is contagious. I edge past the wheelchairs waiting to roll back down the long corridor, and that’s when four people take my hand, grip it, saying thank you for coming.  Their silence was not a given, their isolation not inevitable. They want to be reached, need to be reached, and we…I…  fled too quickly—as I did when my grandmother was in a place like this.  I couldn’t conjure up her elegance and what her magic cookies tasted like—and that scared me. I was nineteen.

Suddenly I realize our mistake. We should come back here for a post-show something, despite the sleepers and the silence—for those who gripped my hand or might, you never know. Theater can do that, erase the self of now enough to become who we might be—or once were.

We’d have to ask our director Adam to help, by using his magic to unlock some of what he unlocked in us: that bit of risk that leads to a smile.

It’s worth a try. After all the boundaries between ‘them’ and ‘us’ are fading with each passing year.



[1] Adam Immerwahr’s is Associate Artistic Director at McCarter Theatre in Princeton, New Jersey and Resident Director at Passage Theatre in Trenton, New Jersey.

To see learn more about Onstage, go to www.onstageseniors.org

Mimi Schwartz

Mimi Schwartz has published five books, including Good Neighbors, Bad Times - Echoes of My Father’s German Village, Thoughts from a Queen-Sized Bed, and Writing True, the Art and Craft of Creative Nonfiction ( with Sondra Perl—now out in its second edition). Seven essays have been Notables in Best American Essays, and she is Professor Emerita of Richard Stockton College of New Jersey.

Latest posts by Mimi Schwartz (see all)

12 thoughts on “Guest Post, Mimi Schwartz: Second Act

  • February 25, 2014 at 6:02 pm
    Permalink

    Wow. This was a pleasure to read. The quote in the beginning really fit beautifully with what you posted. i’m so glad you had the courage to step into the spotlight and try acting. it’s always something I have been fascinated by just being able to switch and be someone else for at least a little while is so enticing.

    Reply
  • February 26, 2014 at 12:04 am
    Permalink

    I have to say that this post really moved me. I may be young, but every year of my adult life feels as if it is slipping away faster and faster. This heartwarming story makes me feel reassured that life over 50 isn’t just a dreaded approach towards retirement and death, and that old age can be a time of reflection and continued enrichment. I loved how you embraced the ways in which theater and story telling can enhance other’s lives. It is inspiring to see how acting and storytelling in this instance have brought light and empathy into the world. I hope you have the chance to go back to the nursing home!

    Reply
  • February 26, 2014 at 8:21 am
    Permalink

    Very good. I’ve heard your group and was impressed. Have you considered “improv” performance? It would be good for the group and would be good interaction with the audience.kp

    Reply
  • February 26, 2014 at 1:51 pm
    Permalink

    Wow what a lovely post. I enjoyed hearing that you had plucked up the courage to do something like this. I always felt rather timid acting in school performances and I still feel nervous every time I must do something like this in front of people, but perhaps I too shall come to a place where I might be able to give people something special. The description of the performance at the nursing home was heart wrenching. I hope your group manages to go back some time.

    Reply
  • February 26, 2014 at 9:10 pm
    Permalink

    A very nice Blog . .. and very impressed you are blogging too? Did you ever think you would be a blogger?

    Reply
  • March 2, 2014 at 3:02 pm
    Permalink

    I think it is never too late to go out and do what you wanna do. Whatever you set your mind to you can do. If you listen to society’s constructs then you will always feel late in the game. Society values youth I’ve noticed. There is a quote: “If there is something you want do it now, for life is time, and time is all there is.” Good luck with everything!

    Reply
  • March 24, 2014 at 12:19 pm
    Permalink

    I really enjoyed this article because 1) it reminds you that it is never too late to take chances on your passions, while also reminding you to take risks before you have to count on second chances. And, 2) because it reminds us not to let assumptions about people or about their reaction to our work keep us from really seeing or understanding the actual impact of our work. This was a really nice, moving post.

    Reply

Leave a Reply