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Cautionary Tales: Educating by Taking to the Stage

Short skits warn about senior abuse and fraud

Collapsing on the sofa after a long day, Fred Johnson eagerly switched on the television. It was minutes before the big game, and the beer he’d just poured tasted especially good. Then the doorbell rang. Outside stood a smiling young insurance salesman, the son of his friend Dick from the Rotary Club. The insurance man claimed to be responding to a written invitation to discuss new investment opportunities. Johnson denied sending it, but the salesman quickly pulled out a card that, sure enough, bore Fred’s signature. “If you could just give me a few minutes of your time,” the salesman said as he led the confused older man toward his living room, “I can explain what we at Ponzi Life can do for you.”

Fortunately, that’s not an actual story. It’s a scene from one of the many mini-plays staged by a group of actors in Montpelier, Vt., who call themselves Savvy Seniors. The actors, in their 50s and 60s, put on statewide performances that address issues relevant to the elderly, including fraud, scam protection and drug misuse. As one component of a larger nonprofit advocacy group, Community of Vermont Elders, or COVE, Savvy Seniors is a creative program that helps to fulfill the organization’s mission of working “diligently for the dignity, security and well-being of all Vermont’s senior citizens.” On a strictly volunteer basis, the group travels around the state to various senior centers, libraries, town halls, churches, Rotary Clubs and community centers to perform message-driven skits. A typical 45-minute performance includes seven, five-minute skits, among them Internet Follies, which addresses online scams; Free Motorized Wheelchair, about fraudulent telemarketers; and Perc Perfidy, which looks at drug diversion (plundering prescriptions for illicit use or distribution).

Savvy Seniors was conceived by COVE’s SMP director, Anita Hoy, and her friend Syndi Zook, the director of Lyric Theater, one of New England’s largest community companies, as a way to enliven and make accessible information that can be hard to understand yet is essential for self-protection. (Plus, it’s a great way to give meaningful work to older actors.) “I wanted to develop a program that folks would want to see and be involved with,” Hoy says. “The fun nature of the program affords much camaraderie for the volunteers.” For Zook, her own theater background (repertory performances of Guys and Dolls, La Cage aux Folles) plus a 20-year tenure as director of the Champlain Senior Center taught her the value of showing examples instead of lecturing.

For scripts, they tapped a local director and playwright, Ken Wolvington, and recruited a troupe of six actors through the Retired Senior Volunteer Program, the nation’s largest volunteer network for people age 55 and over. After six months of writing and rehearsing, the group hit the road in 2007 and never looked back. The actors average one performance a week at different locations, although the frequency decreases in the winter when transportation becomes more difficult.

Wolvington, who also performs onstage, loves how the skits bring issues to life. “Putting on a show like that is a completely different kind of effort than just counseling, he says. A speech may give them the same information, but it’s nowhere near as effective as a drama with live actors. And we know we’re getting through to them, because they laugh at the right places and they nod their heads throughout the show.”

Because Savvy Seniors indirectly receives government money (it’s a little complicated: the group falls under the aegis of the Senior Medicare Patrol, which is subsidized by the Administration on Aging), all scripts are vetted by the Vermont SMP and such partners as the State Health Insurance Assistance Program. This ensures that all the information conveyed is in line with national and state guidelines. Despite the plays’ farcical take on issues (served up with plenty of corn and ham), no one really thinks these are laughing matters. Older Americans are defrauded at twice the rate of the general population, according to the senior advocacy group National Association of Triads. MetLife estimates the losses at approximately $29 billion annually.

At present, Savvy Seniors is the only such project in the SMP to use theater this way, and based on audience responses, the program is a success. Aside from the spate of thank yous and invitations to return, the group sees what happens in the lively Q & A sessions that follow each performance, where audience members often stand up and reveal fraudulent “attacks” on them, family members and friends. Sadly, many of the stories don’t have happy endings. Perhaps the greatest sign of success, Hoy says, is that some people have valued the performances so much that they felt compelled to join, either onstage during the show or afterward, by joining one of the two other regional groups that have been created in Bennington and Burlington to cover more territory and reach more people.

Hoy and Zook are preparing “tool kits” in English and Hindi (with French and Spanish ones in the works) containing prop lists, skit material, introductions and summaries and basic SMP information — everything a group would need to get started. They’d love to see their program go national, through other local and statewide senior groups. “This is a fabulous training model,” Hoy says, “because the performances provide ‘permission’ for folks to have made a mistake and to talk about it without embarrassment or shame.”

Even if they never snag a single off-off-off-Broadway award, the Savvy Seniors know their value. In the play about the sleazy slick life insurance salesman, Fred Johnson sets a proud example by not failing for his scam and kicking him out the door. For a generation written off as weak, vulnerable or struggling with ebbing confidence, such scenes provide powerful motivation. A picture may speak a thousand words, but demonstrating positive behavior motivates people to take necessary actions.

After teaching English in Europe and Turkey for 10 years, Mike Dunphy earned a master’s degree in writing at Emerson College and writes about a variety of subjects from his new home base in Brooklyn N.Y.

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