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Make 'em laugh: at age 80-plus, these long term care comedians are still classics.

It has been said that laughter is the best medicine. A group of senior citizens at a Chicago-area long term care facility have been doing their part in keeping others healthy.

Calling themselves "The Classic Players," the group of age 80- and 90-something residents at Classic Residence by Hyatt at the Glen in Glenview, III., has learned the fine art of improvisational comedy--humor on the fly--and it's really cracking people up.

Anyone who's watched an episode of "Whose Line is it Anyway?" knows the improv drill: The audience shouts out a topic and the onstage comedians quickly develop an unscripted, humorous skit.

These Classic Players have no problem coming up with bits from suggestions such as going to a job interview, excuses for being late to a family dinner because of gambling or creating a story based on the title, "Tim and the Broken Cup."

CRHG Program Director Julie Stevens likes to encourage retired seniors to do something more than traditional leisure activities such as bingo. "I want people in retirement to do things they've never had the chance to do in their working lives," Stevens says. "I want them to try things they've never dreamed of."

Or in this case, dreamed of, but never actually set foot at doing. Classic Player Ginny Mock waited 84 years to perform on stage. "Ever since I've been a little child, I've loved theater and the idea of being up there," Mock says. "The closest I ever reached it was when I was in a singing group in high school."

Stevens says acting--especially improv--has been a longtime love of hers. The thought of getting some of CRHG's residents involved seemed like a perfect, unique experience for everyone. "To my knowledge, no one had ever tried something like this," she says. "I figured, 'Why not?'"

In February, Stevens contacted Rod Ben Zeev, a renowned improvisational acting instructor, to help teach the seniors how to develop the quick-witted timing needed to pull off improv performances. "Our initial session had 35 people show up, most of who were simply curious," Stevens says. "Eventually it whittled down to a core group of eight regulars. It's been very fun and exciting for everyone."

Ben Zeev said the session results were "astounding." Participating seniors soaked up acting techniques in weeks, quickly learning to create comedic spots on the fly.

Then it was show time. In May, four CRHG residents--Mock, Florence Cooney, Harriett Levine and Connie Sturgis--took the stage in the "Early Bird Special" at the Chicago Improv Festival, one of the nation's largest annual events dedicated strictly to the art of improvisation.

Mock, Levine and Sturgis are in their eighties, and Cooney is "90-something," according to Mock. But you'd never know based on their energy and comedic timing. Calling themselves "The Red Hot Mamas"--"because all the [CRHG] men left us," Mock says--the four hip-hop danced ther way onstage, in perfect beat to the pulsing early 90s music.

During the performance, an audience member shouted out that the four elderly ladies should perform a skit based on the word "coffin." As Stevens' jaw dropped at the incredibly inappropriate suggestion, Cooney merely began working off the word "coughing." The others followed along with out missing a beat.

"We had a great time together," Mock says. "The four of us really bonded. It was such a wonderful experience, something we can put in the [journals we're keeping] for our children and grandchildren."

Stevens says the audience of 75 or more children, grandchildren and other festival attendees loved the four "Mamas." "It's so funny and so much more interesting when you have an 80-year-old who has that much more life experience to draw from compared to the typical 20-year-olds who do improv," she says.

The actors' next stage--figuratively and literally--might not come until early next year. The Players have been invited back to perform at a festival in February.

Stevens says her next effort will be to combine The Classic Players with local high school students. "It could be very interesting making it tri-generational," she says. "Certain truths remain the same throughout life."
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Article Details
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Title Annotation:elderly women comedians; Special Seniors
Author:Naditz, Alan
Publication:Contemporary Long Term Care
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Aug 1, 2003
Words:681
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