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Roots and Branches Theater: Aging Women (and Men) Refuse To Disappear

Roots and Branches Theater, creatively combining the talents of Manhattan’s elderly community with that of NYU undergraduates from Tisch School of the Arts, gives old people back their voices. Based since 1985 at the Jewish Association for Services for the Aged, the inter-generational theater has performed for thousands of senior citizens throughout New York. Every spring, the core ensemble of 11 elderly women and men (eight women; three men) and three to five interning students, produce original scripts which challenge age and gender stereotypes.

“Aging is a tremendously feminist issue that’s not paid enough attention to,” says director Arthur Strimling. At Roots and Branches, young and old create a discourse on stage, expressing all the emotions of aging: rage, desires, frustrations, and the continual battle against being rendered invisible. “I’m approaching the end of my life and I’ve never read a book about how it feels inside to grow old,” says Roots and Branches actress, Molly Self, 89.

Many of the lines are the actors’ (young and old) own words. At age 85, Self-played the role of Juliet in the theater’s production, written by the ensemble with Christian McEwen, of “Romeo and Juliet and Juliet and Romeo and Romeo and Juliet,” a play involving the relationships of three couples (one elderly, two inter-generational) who meet on a cruise ship (the SS Verona). During rehearsal, conflict arose as the ensemble worked on Juliet’s death scene. Should Juliet die or not? The ensemble split right down the middle: the elder members had enough of death in everyday life and wanted to change the plot; the younger members, however, disagreed, arguing that to have Juliet not die was a violation of Shakespeare’s artistic intentions. In the end, Juliet does die, but the cast members create a fight on stage about whether or not she should have lived. In the final scene Juliet pops back up to exclaim: “I’ve had to wait this long to play Juliet—this is my death scene and I’m going to have it!”

Old people, theater members remind the audience, are invisible on our streets: Magazines do not showcase elderly women on their covers; “old” means outdated; people do not like to be reminded of their mortality. The theater explores these issues, providing a painfully intimate look at the ways our society treats its elderly. “LOOKIN’ GOOD: A Follies,” R&B’s most recent production, features “The Incredible Disappearing Woman—Look, she ages and no one notices her anymore!” Explains Self, “You take it for granted that people ignore you because you’re old—you’re not an individual, you’re not sexual or complex You’re ‘that old lady’.”

“Each year Roots and Branches players become a new and unique inter-generational family,” says director Arthur Strimling. “They confront each other’s stereotypes and discuss their similarities despite age difference. The plays develop out of these specific and authentic interactions.” Etta Denben is one ensemble member who—at age 90—has discovered her theatrical voice. “In my old age,” Denben says, “I became an actiressa—that’s Jewish for actress.”