At 20, senior theater troupe shatters notions of old age

It's not easy to keep a nonprofit theater group going for 20 years. In Stuart Kandell's experience, ice cream helps, so does fried chicken and a regular infusion of wisdom from his actors — whose average age is around 65.

Kandell is the executive director of Stagebridge, the Oakland-based theater group for seniors that celebrates its 20th anniverrary this year.

With a haimish atmosphere in which parties figure prominently and plays are often followed by ice cream socials and chicken dinners, Stagebridge takes the "community" part of its "community theater" title seriously.

It's no accident, Kandell believes, that he and many of the company's staff and cast members are Jewish.

"There's definitely something in our culture that supports what Stagebridge does," he says. "We're encouraged to perform and be 'out there,' even as seniors. And Jewish culture does a good job of bringing young and old together."

Beginning Saturday, May 22, Stagebridge will perform "Women and Men," three one-act comedies about older people.

"We grow up without role models of what it can be like to grow old gracefully," says Kandell. "We've found that when seniors see their peers up on stage it's very powerful, and it's great when children can see people their grandparents' age up on stage, dancing and laughing."

Creating intergenerational dialogue is a large part of Stagebridge's mission. Most recently, the company performed "The Keeping Quilt and Other Grandparents Tales," the ninth in a series involving young actors as well as seniors. Its program "Storytellers in the Schools" takes older volunteers into classrooms, and other plays are designed to broaden youngsters' ideas of what their grandparents' generation can do.

Long before he started Stagebridge, Kandell, who studied acting in Chicago and England, had been interested in "using theater as a vehicle for social change." In 1978, while teaching an acting class at an Oakland senior center, he saw how he could do so.

"There were five shy women in their 70s in the class, but I could see that they really wanted to tell their stories, and be in the spotlight," he says. The class began to develop a play based on the seniors' life experiences and nine months later a fledgling company was born.

One of its early plays was "The Boarding House," about problems faced by older people when they can longer live independently.

"Over the years, we've tried to look at a lot of issues," said Linda Spector, Stagebridge's resident playwright since 1980. Spector, who is also Jewish, develops many plays through interviews and improvisations with the company's actors. "One thing I've learned is that a sense of humor carries one through," she says. She even once wrote "a little comedy about depression," which helped to throw light on a darker side of the aging process.

During her tenure at Stagebridge, Spector has also dealt with more intimate subject matter. 1997's "Love, Sex and Growing Old" was about loving at an older age. "We did that to quell the concern that there isn't any sex after you're 60," she said. "Obviously, that isn't true."

Other plays have been adapted from short stories by Oakland author Patricia Polacco. One of this year's main productions, "The Keeping Quilt," was based on Polacco's autobiographical tale about a quilt passed down through four generations by Russian Jewish immigrants.

"It asks the question, 'What do we cherish?'" said Kandell. "Over the years, the quilt is used as a tablecloth, a picnic blanket, as part of wedding celebrations and as a source of family stories."

For Audrey Goodfriend, who has been with the company for 18 years, Stagebridge evokes the Yiddish theater she watched in New York as a child. "It was a very live thing," she said.

Goodfriend, whose father was from Warsaw and whose mother was from a Polish shtetl, grew up in a Yiddish-speaking community in the Bronx. She recalls that one year, her school was preparing to perform a Purim play.

"I was thrown out of the cast for being too rambunctious," she said. "I never acted after that. I guess it left me with some lifelong frustration!"

In the past 18 years, Goodfriend has made up for lost time. In "The Keeping Quilt" she played a Russian Jewish mother, and she has also enjoyed playing an Italian witch and the early 20th-century nature writer Mary Austin.

Likewise, in his six years with the company, Jerry Fishman has played everything from "a nice Jewish man from Poland" to a Midwestern farmer and a priest. Fishman, who grew up in an Orthodox household in Minnesota, said he "was raised with the idea that you look for meaning in life, and try to give something back.

"Stagebridge has been a life-saver," he said, "because it's given me something productive and meaningful to do" in retirement.

"When we perform for children, you can see how fascinating it is for them," he added. "All they know is television and movies, then they see this alter kocker up there, old enough to be their grandfather, singing and dancing."

For Kandell, who celebrated his 50th birthday this year, Stagebridge's 20-year milestone shows the tenacity and energy of its members. "I see people's bodies, and my own, aging on the outside," he said. "But what's really encouraging to me is that the spirit seems to keep growing."

Earlier this year, Kandell celebrated his birthday at a party with Stagebridge members. "There were people of all ages enjoying themselves, and at 50 I was right in the middle," he said. "What Stagebridge has shown me is that the internal flame doesn't need to flicker."