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Acting Their Age

by Virginia Mullery

“Grandma Dracula,” aka Jane Baxter, is considered “cool” by her grandkids, who loved watching her perform the role of the caped count on stage. AgeQuake Theatres’ Leading Ladies Ensemble

Equally cool to audiences is Lois Lenz, who reads a poem about doing cartwheels as a child, wonders whether she still can and decides instead to skip around the stage with a whirligig—the next best thing when you are 87.

Baxter and Lenz are two of the six women who perform regularly with AgeQuake Theatres, the brainchild of Joan Kole. After a lifetime of work in the theater from acting to directing to teaching, from community to summer stock, Kole has embarked on a whole new phase with enthusiasm. Seventy years old herself, she has founded and serves as artistic director for AgeQuake Theatres, for actors 55 and over.

While visiting Portland, OR, in 2003, Kole, who has a master’s degree in rhetoric and public address with a minor in theater from the University of Nebraska, saw a notice for a theater performance by seniors. It piqued her interest and soon after she launched her dream and began studies for a doctorate, specializing in theater for older actors. “I am fascinated by the concept of performance,” she said, “and because there are not many roles for older actors that treat them with respect, we have created our own theater and programs.”

Although she admits she may be accused of heresy, she uses the play Arsenic and Old Lace to illustrate her point. “That does not give a good picture of elderly women,” she said. “It is not funny to have them going around poisoning people.”

She and her husband, Carl, have lived in Rockford since 1991 where she has been active in Acting their age community theater. As part of her doctoral studies at Union Institute and University in Cincinnati, Kole began an internship at Wesley Willows, a senior living facility in Rockford. As a result, she founded AgeQuake Theatres in 2005. It consists of the Leading Ladies Ensemble, six women who write and perform their own skits, based on their memories and experiences; and AgeQuake Theatre Co., which performs from scripts by other writers. The name, she said, cropped up in some reading she was doing and seemed perfect because it “makes a statement that older people can do more than sit in a corner and watch TV. ”

Baxter, 63, who lives alone in a historic house in Rockton, said she had ceased to be a part of anything following the death of her husband. “I was even having my groceries delivered,” she said. Then, she saw Kole’s initial ad for actors for her new theater and gathered up her courage and called. “Her (Kole’s) enthusiasm drew me in,” she said. “AgeQuake connected me back to life.”

Actors in Kole’s troupes range from 62 to 87. “Older people are as afraid of performing in front of people as fifth graders,” Kole said, “and that See MULLERY on page 14 especially applies to men who were raised in the “don’t wear your heart on your sleeve generation.”

Joan Kole Kole recruits new members each year with ads in the Rockford Register Star for a season that runs from September through May. The Leading Ladies do approximately two shows a month. Most are performed at Wesley Willows, which gives them rehearsal space, but they have also played in churches, senior apartment buildings and a golf club house.

The company does from one to four plays a season. One of their recent productions was an original comedy “Mother Earth,” which had St. Peter and Mother Earth conversing about the state of the environment.

Members of the cast meet to read, discuss and vote on the material they will perform. “When we perform, we are making a statement that older people are as capable as performing as anyone,” Kole said, “and we do not want material that doesn’t portray them in a flattering light.”

Baxter, whose father, brother and husband were writers and newspapermen, worked for Conde Nast Publications in Chicago at one time. She said, “I love the fact that we do our own writing. We are all different and we bring our own stories to the stage.” She, for example, read her husband’s love letters in one poignant skit. Another portrayed the actor’s reaction to her brother’s teenage quest to be a taxidermist. And yet another talked about the vacation that wasn’t. After one show, titled “Make Your Ride a Helluva Good One,” a man in the audience was heard to say, “By golly, I think I’ll go out and do something risky,”

Other members of the Leading Ladies Ensemble are P.J. Adelman, who ran a woman’s clothing store; Roseann Baker, a former nurse; Jan Fox and Lois Lenz, both former teachers; and Mary Snow, who majored in speech and drama at Western Illinois University but worked for 16 years for the State of Illinois as a nuclear safety information specialist. She said, “I joined the Leading Ladies to have fun and get back to something I love: public performance.”

Baxter said, “These women have become my best friends. I now live life to the fullest.” She admitted also that she “loves the applause. Happiness comes from within and it pleases me to know other people (audiences) are pleased.”

Baxter’s daughter, Stacia Bartlett, told Kole, “You have changed my mother’s life.”

Kole, who earned her Ph.D. in 2009, said, “I am inspired by these women and I continue learning. I am taking classes in directing and the cast is inspired by my new ideas.”

Baxter said, “Not only does Joan direct performances, but she shares so much about theater. She makes you want to do your best.”

Although AgeQuake asks only donations for regular performances, they have recently added a new gig to their performance schedule. The Leading Ladies will tailor a script to a particular occasion such as a bridal shower, 50th birthday party or wedding anniversary. There is a charge for those performances.

Recently, Kole received a grant from the Rockford Area Arts Council to work with patients at AstaCare, a rehab and residential facility. She takes the Leading Ladies with her and together they encourage residents to tell their stories and share their memories. Then, the actresses act out the story. For example, Baxter said, one resident recounted how his daddy used to roast a goat on a spit for Thanksgiving. Baxter laid on the floor and pretended to be the goat, which drew laughs all around. The program is called Traditions and, Kole said, they will repeat it on request at other facilities.

In 2009, AgeQuake was recognized by the American Association of Community Theaters when it won second place in the Illinois state festival, an event held every two years preceding a national festival.

Kole, who also directs the ARC Shining Stars, an acting troupe for developmentally disabled persons, has been recognized by the Rockford Area Arts Council as an advocate of the arts. For more information on AgeQuake, call 815- 398-8090.

Virginia Mullery is a freelance writer living in North Chicago, IL.

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