Nestled away in the beating heart of Oak Cliff, Bishop Arts Theatre Center is building theater communities for groups of all ages, cultures and theatrical backgrounds — including a weekly workshop for the elderly called Silver Stories.
“Our Silver Stories Storytelling Circle was born out of a need to deepen our relationship with the seniors in our community, says BATC's executive artistic director and founder, Teresa Coleman Wash. "We’ve had a long history serving young people; it was past time that we broaden our reach and engage aging adults in a more meaningful way.”
Since the inception of Silver Stories, senior citizens have been piling into a bus every week like the school children they once were to pay Bishop Arts Theatre Center a visit. There, they come together and tell their stories — whether by dancing, singing, painting or just sitting around in a circle and baring their hearts the old-fashioned way. The community is about more than bringing a group of people together and giving them something to do: Silver Stories is enriching and improving the lives of seniors with its social and creative approach.
And the theater center just received a $10,000 grant from the National Endowment for the Arts to help the project continue to flourish. But what exactly does a flourishing storytelling circle for the elderly look like?
A prominent aspect of the group is its all-encompassing acceptance.
“We want to make sure that we’re inclusive and that we’re creating an environment for all seniors,” says BATC's director of education, Tiffany Jackson. But with an aging community, acceptance can’t be limited to sentiment. Welcoming people of different abilities requires additional efforts and resources. In the past, Silver Stories has been able to welcome seniors who only speak Spanish with the help of a translator; in the future, they’re hoping to have an American Sign Language interpreter as well, further broadening the pool of participants. Varying physical abilities have to be accommodated as well: Seniors arrive using wheelchairs and walkers, and a blind man recently participated in the program.
“At first he was thinking we wouldn’t be able to accommodate him, but when he started the program we saw him just blossom,” Jackson recalls of the blind senior participant. With the help of their new grant, BATC will be able to open its arms wider and help an even broader range of people blossom into an old age not of loneliness and boredom, but of creativity and companionship.
The creative aspect of Silver Stories is part of what makes it unique among organizations for seniors. The environment gives people avenues of self expression that have never been open to them before. Jackson quotes a testimonial from one participant: “This has been my dream since I was a little girl, to be able to get onstage, now I feel like I’m an actress.”
Not all participants are eager to be onstage — some are much more comfortable expressing their stories through visual arts. “It’s easier for them to put (their stories) down on paper or canvas than to always verbalize (them),” says Jackson.
Whatever form the creative outlet takes, the very opportunity to express their stories helps the seniors. The creative storytelling platform allows them “to share something that happened years ago that a lot of people didn’t know about,” says Jackson. Lifelong burdens can be lifted merely through sharing one’s story. BATC is also able to provide people with the further resources needed to deal with old traumas or new difficulties.
Silver Stories also wants to extend the community beyond generations. “We’re creating ongoing opportunities for them to connect in the arts,” says Jackson, and this includes participating in the productions at BATC and even merging with the children’s communities.
“We want them to have more of an inter-generational dialogue. We want to look at stories from a younger perspective and an older perspective.”
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Engaging with the middle-school programs allows the older generation to better understand what the modern world looks like, as well as impart some of their wisdom from days gone by. An inter-generational community is a two-way street, allowing each side of the community to learn something from the other.
These various facets of Silver Stories — creative storytelling, performing, engaging with each other and with other communities — come together to form an organization that does untold good for its members. The feelings of acceptance and community have physical benefits (some members are even able to reduce the medication they take after joining the program) as well as emotional.
Silver Stories shows us that even for people who’ve lived most of their lives without the opportunity to share with others or connect creatively, it’s still not too late to get started now. With the help of its new grant, Silver Stories will be able to continue spreading opportunities and welcoming people into its circle.