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Carlean Fisher has been in love with the stage for as long as she can remember. As a young woman, pulling the curtains from backstage was enough to feel the rush, until years later when she got involved as a player with Edmonton’s Walterdale Theatre.

“It’s an important part of who I am, ever since I was very young, something that’s a deep need for me – that connection with other people,” said Fisher.

“If I’m able to be authentic onstage, it’s deeply satisfying.”

As a senior, Fisher brings that yearning for authenticity to the GeriActors, an Edmonton theatre company that produces plays based on true stories and issues of aging. While Fisher has some drama experience, many of the GeriActors have never been onstage.

For more than 20 years, the group, founded by University of Alberta drama professor emeritus David Barnet, has explored situations seniors grapple with every day – such as being forced to give up driving, experiencing senior abuse or coming out late in life.

Other sketches are “very, very funny,” said Barnet, such as one called Love Me Tinder about seniors dating online.

Since the beginning of the pandemic, however, the troupe has temporarily transformed into the AudioGeris, producing audio plays of their virtual performances over Zoom.

The GeriActors troupe was born in 2000 when the director of the Society for the Retired and Semi-Retired – which later became the Sage Seniors Association – approached Barnet while the two were watching their sons play soccer.

A group of seniors wanted to start a drama club, said the director, and would Barnet care to have a word with them?

“I went downtown to meet with them, and we had a good chat. I enjoyed them – we were all laughing and, at the end, I said, ‘Shall I come back next week?’”

Barnet had just finished his term as chair of the U of A’s Department of Drama and was looking for a new project. So he did return, week after week, year after year, to serve as artistic director.

“The thing I most appreciate is how gracious David can be with people,” said Fisher. “His comments and guidance are always positive, and he has a way of drawing what he feels can be drawn out of each person.”

One early sketch, based on a true story, features a woman who sets off alarms going through security at the Calgary airport. It turns out she has a cow embryo in a steel case, keeping it at the right temperature for transport to her farm.

“I thought, ‘This is magnificent,’” said Barnet. “Where else in the world are you doing a scene like this? So peculiar, so special and unique, and yet acted by people of the right age.”

Barnet soon invited U of A students, including BA and BEd majors from the drama department and graduate students from drama and human ecology, to work with the GeriActors. “It changed everything instantly,” he said.

“The moment the students walked through the doors of Sage, the older members perked up. The relationship between them has stayed dynamic ever since.”

Their latest project began when the GeriActors shared family photos on Zoom – especially those that brought to life “moments of joy and hardship that we’ve experienced in our lives, that took our breath away or stopped us in our tracks,” said associate director Becca Barrington.

Some of the photos inspired personal reflections on historical rites of passage such as the Second World War, the Apollo moon landing or the fall of the Berlin Wall – all assembled and shaped into a single piece called Way Back with the help of lead writer Meg Braem.

“One example was Carlean’s photograph from the ’60s of her husband lying on the floor, holding his kid up in the air, with another kid there and a radio and television. It was all about (the assassination of) JFK and the news from Dallas.

GeriActors theatre Carlean Fisher rehearsal U of A students

GeriActors member Carlean Fisher (centre) rehearses new plays with U of A student volunteers in 2017. (Photo: Jen Shaw)

“It was something we all in the audience connected with, and it was crystallized by this incredible photo.”

Way Back was performed online and from home for family and friends from as far away as Trinidad, the U.K. and Australia. With the help of a Canada Council grant and support from the EPCOR Heart + Soul Fund, it was then crafted into a radio play, complete with sound effects, ambient noise and music by producer Kim McCaw and audio technician Josh Gwozdz.

“It can be shown to so many more people who can enjoy the connection, understand and reflect on it,” said Barnet.

The AudioGeris are now accepting private bookings to hear Way Back, and have provided a sample on their website. They plan to adapt three more of their original stage plays to audio over the next year, which they will make available to rent on their website.

While the audio play has been enormously rewarding, allowing people across Canada and beyond to get a taste of the GeriActors’ remarkable creative energy, nothing compares to workshopping with the full group in person, said Fisher.

She’s already thinking about a new sketch to pitch to the group – an issue on everyone’s mind but on which seniors have a unique perspective.

“I’m starting to find that I’ve been denying how afraid I am,” she said. “Not of the pandemic so much as what’s happening to the environment. That heat dome last summer really scared me.

“I have to deal with that every day. I’ve got four great-grandchildren now. What are we passing on to them?”

| By Geoff McMaster

Submitted by the University of Alberta’s Folio online magazine. The University of Alberta is a Troy Media Editorial Content Provider Partner.

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