Outreach at Stagebridge

“Da, da, la, la, la…” Interrupting her story, my classmate—I’ll call her Rachel– swirls about the room playing a Hebrew melody on a harmonica. She tells us how she used to love to listen to her beloved father, who died of cancer when she was only 14 years’ old, play this very same instrument. She and her father never spoke about the fact that he was going to die. Now a mother, Rachel shares with us that she has spoken to her 12-year-old son about her own cancer, but she wonders whether, or when, to evoke the possibility of death. Later on, she suggests discussing “difficult stories” as a topic for future classes. Following her 10 minute performance, Kirk, our deep-voiced, African-American instructor, gives his feedback and then asks for ours. As usual, he is encouraging and constructive; our classroom is a “safe space” which he has created without being overly “p.c.” We are all affected by what we have seen and heard. Rachel is a youngish, talented woman who has been an active participant in our course. We had no idea she was ill. We learn later that Kirk himself is a widower with two young children who has lost his wife to cancer.

Despite their personal problems, Rachel and Kirk, as well as most of the other members of Stagebridge, the nationally-recognized, Oakland-based, non-profit, senior performing arts group, go out into the community—into hospitals, senior centers and schools– sharing their storytelling and performing skills. In existence since 1978, Stagebridge offers older adults an opportunity to learn, take risks and give back. In addition to providing reasonably-priced classes and workshops in acting, storytelling, comedy, improvisation, musical theater, singing, voice, mime, playback theater and playwriting, Stagebridge has developed outreach programs through which members can perform publicly and teach in community, health care and corporate agencies, as well as in libraries, clubs, and museums. Through its Storybridge Schools Programs, they can go into local elementary schools to tell stories and teach underprivileged kids how to interview their grandparents. Stagebridge is also the west coast representative of “Time Slips”, a creative storytelling method Stagebridge members can use to help people with dementia. And for the last five years, Stagebridge has offered a Performing Arts Camp in the summer for adults 50+.

A fellow performer recently wrote: “I found something at Stagebridge that not only fills my heart and soul but also challenges me.” Like her, my own experience at Stagebridge this past year has not only been rewarding and positive but also challenging. Being a right-side of the brain type of person, the classes I have taken and the performances that ensued have pushed me well beyond my “comfort zone.” I have worked as an oral historian and collected other people’s stories on tape, but I have never had to actually TELL stories myself before and in public, no less. Nor have I ever been uninhibited enough to do mime or to act on stage before. (I recently participated in a Stagebridge “showcase” performance where there were some 90+ people in the audience.). And even though I have written two non-fiction books, I’d never written a short play before.

These new experiences have been not only demanding on a personal level but also fun, and the camaraderie and constructive feedback exceptional. What particularly warmed my heart and soul, however, were the two opportunities I was given to give back to local communities in the San Francisco Bay Area. In November, my beginning acting class performed a series of radio plays at the San Francisco Lighthouse Center for the BlindThen a week ago, two classmates from my Stagebridge storytelling class and I performed for a group of disabled people at the Oakland Rehabilitation Center. (My story was based on a biography I’d read about millionaire Alma Spreckels, the founder of the California Legion of Honor.) In both instances, our performances were greatly appreciated by our audiences, and we have been invited back.

I’m leaving the Bay Area for a couple of months, but I hope that when I return here in the spring, in addition to taking other classes and workshops, I’ll have more opportunities to participate in Stagebridge’s outreach programs. Despite my stage fright, I have come to realize that I really quite enjoy performing, especially when I can bring a little bit of entertainment and lightness to people whose lives are a lot less fortunate than mine.

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Published in: on December 21, 2010 at 7:18 am  Comments (4)  
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Smiling in Berkeley, Paris and Shanghai

Phyllis Diller once said, « A smile is a curve that sets everything straight. » I think one of the reasons I feel so comfortable here in Berkeley is because people, particularly in my neighborhood, smile in the street. Whether they’re jogging, walking their dog on a leash or their baby in a stroller, or just going from one place to another, they invariably make eye contact with me, grin and say hello. And I do the same. What a difference a smile makes! There’s a human connection.  It’s good for my moral. It brightens my day.

Unfortunately, it isn’t the same when I walk down a street in my neighborhood in Paris. In France, smiling at strangers in the streets isn’t usually done, so most Parisians go around town with a neutral expression on their faces. They avoid your gaze and continue down the street without acknowledging you. Over the years, I, too, have acquired that neutral expression, that mask of non-recognition of the other when I’m living there. And it’s hard for me because I’m basically a friendly person with a broad, toothy smile that rarely leaves my face, even when I’m crying inside. But, as I tell American expatriates with whom I do cross-cultural training, you have to be careful in Paris. Parisians don’t smile at you because you’re a foreigner; they don’t smile at strangers; they don’t smile at each other.

It’s not only because Paris is a big metropolis and therefore, like New York or London, not so “friendly” as smaller places.  It’s also because not smiling is, in my opinion, part of French culture.  For many Americans, smiling is a polite gesture. Not so for the French. For many French people, smiling at a stranger in the street is a type of “come on” with sexual innuendos. Or it’s an invasion of privacy, since if you’re smiled at, you have to respond. Or it’s ‘hypocritical’: Why wear a smile when you don’t want to? they ask.

Of course, not all French people are non-smilers; some do smile, although usually not in the street. There are also regional differences. In the south of France, for example, people tend to be more “Mediterranean”, more outgoing and friendly, and they smile more. I’ve also noticed that French people who’ve traveled abroad often come back impressed by the smiling friendliness of other cultures; they may then attempt to smile more or at least to be less cynical about those who smile or about the meaning of a smile.

Personally speaking, I have often found that, in addition to establishing human contact, smiling is also a very efficient means of communication.  When you don’t speak the language, for example, as I didn’t in Shanghai when I was living and working there last year, smiling replaced words.  Chinese shopkeepers, cashiers, concierges, and I often smiled at each other, used gestures, and made ourselves understood. And I think the fact that we could share smiles helped me make ready friends with the little girls in the Chinese orphanage where I volunteered. Even with non-smiling Parisians, smiling to French policemen and bureaucrats has helped me obtain directions, information and help.

Smiling can assure,  inspire, embrace, open doors, resolve, and spread. Smiling is infectious.

Published in: on March 26, 2010 at 4:14 pm  Comments (2)  
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