The Manatee Players theater company has famously been the birthplace of many child actors through its summer drama camps and, of course, adults are constantly in the spotlight on its main stage.
But until four years ago, when Players’ Artistic Director Rick Kerby realized the deficiency, there wasn’t anything specific for seniors whose need to act might be the most critical of all age groups.
“Acting definitely can keep your brain sharp,” Kerby said last week when asked how theater may help seniors. “Especially when we do improvisation. Because it is unscripted, improv requires quick thinking, you have to be fast on your feet. Also, you are recalling life experiences, which requires tapping into memory.”
Since improvisational theater, known as improv, requires creating something in the moment, it is perfect as a brain exercise, Kerby added.
In 2012, Kerby invited interested people age 55 and older to meet for a workshop at the Players — in the now demolished Riverfront theater — and 30 or so showed up and sat in a circle on the stage.
Connie Tomala and Estelle Goldsby were both there that day.
“Rick had a box of props,” said Tomala who performed on Broadway in the 1950s at the old Schubert Theater as a dancer in “West Side Story.” “Without looking you had to pull out a prop and use it for another purpose than it was intended.”
“There were hairbrushes, glasses, a variety of things,” said Goldsby, who performed Shakespeare in high school and was in a touring theater troupe in Orlando. “Like you used a hairbrush for a phone.”
The group also read from a play and talked about themselves.
“We had a lot of laughs and that’s how everything started,” Goldsby added.
That initial workshop led to the creation of DraMature, the Manatee Players senior acting troupe for those age 55 and older, of which Tomala and Goldsby are star members.
On Wednesday the troupe, which now includes a core of about 20, performed a hilarious show filled with improv, songs, and sketches called “Holiday Follies” in the Bradenton Kiwanis Theater at the Manatee Performing Arts Center.
“Follies,” with its holiday theme, even had physical humor, with cast members darting across stage wearing amusing costumes for “Twelve Days of Christmas.”
“We got tremendous applause,” said new troupe member and first time performer Arnie Klein, who will be 82 in March. “We had 75 people clapping for us.”
Actually, Kerby, who leads the troupe, counted 35 heads in the house, but perhaps the sound of 35 clapping sounds like 75 when you are 82 and falling in love with applause for the first time.
“Even Rick (Kerby) was laughing,” Klein added.
When asked after the show, many of the 20 or so actors in the troupe said that being in the troupe and doing improv, moving around the stage, picking up props, going out to lunch with fellow troupers and hearing that applause, has kept their brains sharp perhaps like nothing else they can do.
“The agility of the brain is stimulated by learning the scripts,” said Christine Elan, a dancer and actress who has performed at a high level for many decades. “Even though we are a reader’s theater, we do try to familiarize ourselves with the work. We are also asked to do some of our own writing, which is a challenge. We also have tremendous camaraderie.”
“The fact is that those in my age bracket who opt to stay home and do nothing I feel, in my layman’s opinion, go stagnant,” Klein said. “My wife, Betty, and I are both in DraMature. Making people laugh makes us feel good. When I know people are laughing with me I enjoy it. That’s what keeps us going and keeps our minds involved and healthy.”
Some in the community are holding back from joining because they fear doing improv, Kerby said.
In a book he wrote called “Theatre Games and Improvisation for Older Actors,” Kerby explains that fear of doing improv is normal.
“The biggest fear most actors have when starting an unscripted improv is, ‘I’m afraid I won’t know what to say,’ Kerby said. But Kerby teaches, “If you close your eyes and try to think of nothing you can’t do it. Let this become an asset. Your brain wants to be on. There are no wrong lines when the lines are created fresh in the moment.”
During rehearsal for Wednesday’s “Follies” troupe members were getting a cardio workout during “Twelve Days of Christmas.”
“I had 11 trips across the stage and Connie had 10,” Goldsby said laughing.
The public can catch DraMature at the Manatee County Fair on Jan. 18.
Those who want to try DraMature for themselves are urged to simply attend the troupe’s weekly workshops, which are 11 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. every Wednesday at the Manatee Performing Arts Center in downtown Bradenton.
If you go
What: DraMature, The Manatee Players senior acting troupe for those age 55 and older.
When: 11 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. Wednesdays
Where: Manatee Performing Arts Center, 502 Third Ave. W., Bradenton
Information: Rick Kerby at 941-748-0111