A 63-year-old nursery school teacher who spent a year as a Ringling Bros. Circus showgirl and wanted to find her way back to the creative life. A highschooler interested in playwrighting who had never been to the theater. A former singer and nurse, living at a homeless shelter, in need of an uplifting experience. So begins the story of some past students of Mind the Gap, a free, 10-session writing workshop for senior citizens and teens at the edgy East Village Off-Broadway house, New York Theatre Workshop.
It might seem unusual for a theater that has launched artists now well-known to most theater-goers — Peter Sellars, Michael Greif, Claudia Shear, Tony Kushner, Anne Bogart and Jonathan Larson among them — to also serve amateurs. But Artistic Director Jim Nicola is not only interested in emerging artists, but in merging communities.
“Mind the Gap came out of Jim’s desire to have an intergenerational dialogue,” said the organization’s education director Bryn Thorsson. “Prior to it, our education was mostly teen-focused. We developed the workshop partly as a way to involve the senior population in our education activities.”
Involving elders — as the program refers to older workshop participants — is part of the zeitgeist. Aging New Yorkers are gaining more attention since the city began its Age-Friendly NYC initiative in 2007. The action recognized New York City’s one million residents over the age of 60, a number that is expected to grow by 50 percent in the next 20 years.
Now in its third year, Mind the Gap has seven students aged 60 and up, and seven aged 14-18. The workshop is led by playwright and New York Theatre Workshop Associate Artist Alex Lewin, a former journalist who taught college students while earning his MFA at U.C. San Diego. Joining him in sessions are guest playwrights, a roster that has included Emily Mann, Amy Herzog, Marsha Stephanie Blake and David Henry Hwang.
Lewin’s background as a journalist is important when it comes to the crux of the workshop: interviewing. Teens and elders are paired and interview each other to uncover source material for the plays they write and see performed by professional actors at the end of the workshop.
“The first time we did it, I found the more 101 Playwriting instruction I gave, the more it became about getting the play right and less about connecting with one another. Freeing students from ideas of what playwriting is allows for much more creativity,” said Lewin.
Thorsson added, “We now focus on the interview process and less on how you construct a two-person scene, a dramatic arch. We’ve moved away from that and surprisingly, the work that has come out has gotten better and better.”
Now in her second year of college, Allison Susser, who grew up around the corner from the theater, confessed that she was initially worried about what she was going to tell her partner.
“I thought my life was so boring, [but] what you think is boring someone else might think is amazing. It was great once you got into it,” she said.
Drawing inspiration from her interview partner, Susser wrote a play about a couple suffering from drug addiction. “It was about them struggling over what her life has become, about being in rehab, and their relationship and with her family members.”
Sean Carvajal, an intern at New York Theatre Workshop and a senior at Lower Manhattan Arts Academy, was partnered with elder Casandra Niambi Steele, who had heard about the workshop through her caseworker at the homeless shelter she lived in. Carvajal grew up in a Latin household in which elders were respected in the family hierarchy, so to ask probing questions of Steele felt like overstepping boundaries at first.
“Through Mind the Gap I was able to not see the elderly as elderly, but as a friend,” said Carvajal. “The older woman I was partnered with was a kindred and beautiful spirit. I still keep in touch with her.”
Ellen Zerkin, the 63-year old nursery school teacher and former showgirl, also admitted some trepidation about speaking frankly with a young woman who was about to leave for college.
“Talking about my circus story — not the performing parts, but living in the circus — that was a little uncomfortable because that was a time in my life when I was ‘a bad girl.’ What she ended up writing about me was so outrageous and not what anyone expected to come out of her and it was really exciting.”
Zerkin added, “I had no idea I didn’t interact with teens until I was interacting with them. I used the phrase ‘typical teenager,’ and was called out on it and it was interesting to see the discussion that ensued.”
To participate in the workshop, prospective students fill out an online application that is followed by an interview. “We select people who are open, curious. They come because they want to learn about someone else,” said Thorsson. The next application deadline is Oct. 3.
The program’s funder, New York Community Trust, is helping the theater expand the Mind the Gap program, which New York Theatre Workshop hopes will address other gaps in the future — in society and New York City. Already this fall, the first satellite Mind the Gap is taking place at Stanley. M. Isaacs Neighborhood Center on the Upper East Side, which has both teen and senior centers.
As to how teens and elders get along, playwright and teacher Lewin says that, “as New Yorkers, they tend to have similar senses of humor, and no one is affronted by interruption. That is not common in other parts of the country. It’s a bit of natural communication that all New Yorkers have with one another.”