Nancy Weingartner sees plays like many people go to the movies. Her lifelong fascination with the dramatic arts started with high school acting competitions. She studied Shakespeare as an English major and worked a stint as a newspaper theater critic.
“Live theater always feels like a special occasion,” said Weingartner, a Minneapolis North Loop resident and magazine publisher. “Theater has always been my chance to be in someone else’s skin. I don’t just watch it, I feel it. I have a good imagination so I kind of become those characters. It’s magical.”
But at 67, Weingartner hungers to see more characters who are her contemporaries. She has often looked in vain for productions with leads who are older than the traditional ingenues and youthful leading men.
“We hear it said that audiences need to see someone who looks like them onstage. That’s also true for older people,” she said. “We still fall in love, we still experience life.”
In the Twin Cities, there are theater companies dedicated to staging works that have cultural resonance for people of color and for American Indian, Jewish and Asian American performers and audiences. A handful of companies mount productions targeting children and families.
And now, the desire of older audiences for relatable productions is syncing up with the Twin Cities’ deep pool of aging talent. Two new companies have been formed to produce shows for maturing audiences and provide work for veteran performers.
Aging of ‘Aquarius’
“I looked at the landscape and what I saw missing was a culturally specific theater dedicated to people 55 and over,” said Twin Cities theater mainstay Richard Hitchler.
So Hitchler founded Theatre 55 with a mission to “enrich the creative lives of elders as artists, audiences and lifelong learners.”
He produced and directed “Hair,” the company’s inaugural production, earlier this winter.
The energetic rock musical featured a cast of 27 singing classic songs like “Aquarius,” “Easy to Be Hard” and the title song. Two cast members were within spitting distance of 50; the rest of the singers, dancers and actors ranged in age from 53 to 78.
“This show won the Tony on Broadway 50 years ago. It was written about the themes of resistance, fighting for basic human rights, standing up for what you believe, so it’s come full-circle,” said Hitchler, 53.
“We said our production featured the people who lived the story,” he added. “The message of ‘Hair’ resonates; the more things change the more they stay the same, and these performers put that spin on it. The show tells that story in such an entertaining way and the music is just great.”
About half the performers in “Hair” were local theater professionals or performers with deep experience in community productions. The other half were newbies to the stage.
“We had people who showed up and said, ‘I always wanted to try that and now I have time to give it a whirl.’ And others who told me, ‘I used to do that but I dropped out because there weren’t parts for me,’ ” said Hitchler. “A fun thing I learned is that this group is as playful as kids; they see how playing keeps them vibrant.”
Today’s older Americans place a high premium on lifelong learning and covet new experiences, according to Rebecca Kolls. A senior consumer strategist for the Gartner advisory firm, Kolls reviews reams of research on baby boomers. Kolls notes that the boomer cohort has the disposable income to afford live theater.
“Boomers grew up with abundance. Now they have free time and they don’t want to be bored,” she said. “A lot of them take care of aging parents or help with grandchildren but they value what they call their ‘me time’ in the whirlwind, to find balance and peace of mind. The arts are a way for them to achieve that.”
Kolls stresses that baby boomers have always had what she terms a “youthful mind-set,” which continues today despite their chronological age.
“Boomers have always been marketed to, through our every life stage. We expect it and we like it,” she said. “We want to see ourselves on center stage.”
Prime roles for women
Two years ago, theater vets Alison Edwards, Elena Giannetti and Shelli Place were enrolled in a master acting class offered by the Guthrie Theater when a number of professional theater companies in town announced the plays planned for their upcoming seasons.
“I looked at the list and saw there were maybe a total of five roles, not even good roles, for ‘women of a certain age.’ We were bemoaning how there wasn’t much for this large pool of talented actresses in town to go after,” said Place. “It was discouraging.”
When Giannetti suggested, half in jest, that it was time to start her own theater company, a light bulb clicked on over the friends’ heads. They took their conversation to Maxwell’s pub, and, over martinis and a cocktail napkin, schemed and sketched out the idea that has become Prime Productions.
The professional company will stage its third play, “Marjorie Prime,” this spring at Park Square Theatre in St. Paul; the titular lead character, played by Candace Barrett Birk, is an octogenarian.
“Our mission is to produce plays that have at least two substantial roles for women over 50, not the walk-on maid or grandma. More to the point, we want the story focused on the woman as protagonist, where she is the senator and not the senator’s wife,” explained Giannetti. “We know that in the Twin Cities, women over 55 are the ticket buyers and yet they don’t see themselves in multilayered roles.”
At 48, Giannetti is the youngest partner and the only one who was willing to share her age. Both Place and Edwards fear that revealing their digits would limit their professional options. (“Those are unlisted numbers,” quipped Edwards.)
Prime Productions plays feature younger performers and male actors, but they are cast in supporting roles.
“There’s a lot more material for men as they get older. Roles for women traditionally start diminishing in the mid-30s, and then it becomes an uphill battle. Female characters become diminished, marginalized, invisible or made the butt of a joke,” Giannetti said.
“It’s not that roles don’t exist — as a maturing actress I played Martha in ‘Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?’ and Eleanor of Aquitaine in “The Lion in Winter” — but you can’t make a career out of those parts,” added Edwards. “I was the only woman my age in those casts and that’s a lonely existence. We hope to foster more female camaraderie among actresses.”
More than a number
Established theater venues have supported the newcomers. “Hair” was staged at Mixed Blood Theater and the first three shows by Prime Productions have been produced in partnership with Mixed Blood, the Guthrie and Park Square.
And both of the newly launched companies have ambitious plans to expand their outreach beyond the stage. Theatre 55 will start classes this summer in basic acting, improv and dance.
“I’ve seen research that shows only 15 percent of Minnesotans over 65 participate in the arts as art-makers,” said Theatre 55’s Hitchler. “I think that sounds awfully small. I know there are a lot more people who would be interested.”
Between their shows, Prime Productions plans Monday night play readings, providing work for actors and free seats for patrons. A company goal is to commission work by female playwrights to expand the canon with new narratives.
Beyond providing work for actresses and putting relatable characters onstage, the founders of Prime Productions want to put the very process of aging in the spotlight.
“We want to filter down to younger people in our audience that age is more than a number,” said Place. “We want characters in our plays to expand the ideas about how rich and positive life can be as people get older. You just embrace life more.”
Nancy Weingartner bought tickets to Prime Productions’ first two plays and is looking forward to being in the audience when “Marjorie Prime” debuts in April.
“I think they’re on to something. They’re appealing to an audience that doesn’t want to be pigeonholed. We want to be visible in our second act,” she said, then chuckled. “And even our third.”
Kevyn Burger, of Minneapolis, is a freelance writer.