It’s a strange thing to be heading off to grad school at 61. Who does that?
Someone with a 93-year-old mother...
When a parent turns 90, in decent health, you begin to think there’s a fair chance you’ll live a while longer. And if so – how?
Retirement, in the familiar sense, is beginning to look like a bit of 20th-century nostalgia. We’re living longer now. But businesses are cutting back on – and sometimes simply welshing on – their pension plans. Led by Wisconsin, state governments are doing the same. And it’s no secret Federal programs such as Social Security and Medicare are operating on unsustainable math.
Even if you’re a prudent saver who has provided for your own retirement, your stocks and bonds are at the mercy of Wall Street whiz-kids, Greek politicians and the Germans’ ability to restrain their penchant for telling other Europeans what to do. (And good luck with that.)
It’s beginning to appear that a sensible Boomer had better plan on a productive Act IV before heading for the shuffleboard court.
For me, that certainly means writing, including this column.
And acting, when there’s a part for an old guy.
But my strongest suit has always been teaching. And directing, at its best, is a very subtle, very personal type of teaching.
Thus, my need for professional training. Mary Baldwin’s Shakespeare and Performance MFA should provide that. It looks to be a very good program, with a focus on the type of theatre I like best.
It’s also close to home, which is important. Aging mothers expect to be visited more than occasionally.
Besides finding a way to earn a living during my personal Act IV, several other factors influenced my decision to go back to school. A big factor was my involvement with the Shepherd’s Center of Chesterfield, as teacher of courses about Shakespeare’s plays.
To be sure, it took a while to get together with the Shepherd’s Center. For a year, I kept getting invitations to teach a course, but when I insisted on a Shakespeare course, it was “No Sale”. They kept telling me Shakespeare wouldn’t attract enough students.
Eventually, they let me try, and many courses later, it’s been a rather successful venture. Which is why I plan to teach one more Shakespeare course, starting June 27, before settling into my grad program.
Teaching Shakespeare to people my age, and older, has proved truly inspiring. Interacting with students, of any age, has long been one of my great joys. But interacting with older students, whose only motivation is the love of learning, is a special treat.
It has also given me hope and a clue about how to solve a very real problem.
For the past fifty or sixty years, American theatre has had a problem, as we say, “putting fannies in seats”. Until the age of television, theatre attracted a fairly large and diverse audience. But in recent decades, it has gotten a reputation as an elite activity, something for the rich, the intellectual, the precious and pretentious.
Not (as Seinfeld used to say) that there’s anything wrong with that, but an art form which doesn’t connect with ordinary people starts to lose its roots. The function of theatre, since ancient hunter-gatherers re-enacted their tribal myths around a roaring fire, has been to build solidarity.
And building that solidarity, not through propaganda, or sermonizing, or any other exercise in group-think, but by inviting us to share in the exploration of those primal experiences which are common to us all: laughter, passion, fear, grief, loss, death, and occasionally, what Aristotle called anagnorisis: the transforming power of self-recognition.
Because there’s nothing quite like seeing and hearing another human being going through one or more of those experiences right there, in the same room, only a few feet away.
At least, not when it’s done right. That is the true challenge of creating great theatre.
Which is why I’m off to Staunton.
And why, before I leave, I’ll be offering one more course for seniors who’ve disliked Shakespeare since high school, but who have the courage or curiosity to give him one more try.
In Shakespeare’s time, the Globe, and the other theatres south of the Thames, were packed with people from all backgrounds. The largest space was reserved for working people who paid a penny to stand through all five acts, in all sorts of weather.
And came back, again and again, for more.
At the Shepherd’s Center, I found a way to teach Shakespeare so that intelligent, but unpretentious, people would want to go to live performances. I found this rewarding, but also promising. I’d like to run a theatre company someday, and I think a good deal of its audience could be left with an understanding of his plays.