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Bringing Life Experience to an Online Stage

In her work with older adults, teaching artist Bergen Baker shines a spotlight on acting and performance

By Julie Pfitzinger

During the pandemic, there has been much conversation around how our daily lives – work, activities, and entertainment – have "pivoted" online. But teaching artist Bergen Baker prefers a different word.

Black and White photo of Theater teacher wearing costume. Drama, theater, Next Avenue
Teaching artist Bergen Baker   |  Credit: Bergen Baker

"Virtual programming has evolved; it has opened up new opportunities for an entire population of people craving artistic connections, in a way that is much more accessible," she says.

Baker, who lives in Minneapolis, is a featured performer with local companies such as Minnesota Opera and the Minnesota Orchestra, as well as many operatic and symphonic companies across the country. In addition to performing on the operatic and concert stage, Baker is a highly sought-after teaching artist, offering residencies, workshops and master classes to students and communities nationwide.

In fact, Baker has produced a theatrical arts course for Next Avenue [see below], so we recently talked with her about how older adults can bring their rich life experience to the study of drama and theater in the classes she teaches, what it's been like to move "the stage" online and how she has tapped into her own creative spirit during the past several months.

Next Avenue: When you work with older adult students, do you find that they are individuals who were involved in drama or performance when they were younger or people who've always wanted to explore this kind of creative endeavor but never have?

"I have such reverence for what older students bring in terms of life experience."

Bergen Baker: In my experience, it's really been a mixed bag. I've had students who studied drama or musical theater in college, but then went on to a different career and want to come back to it. Other people have never tried performing before. I think it's so inspiring to have all perspectives at the table.

It's such a wonderful stage in life to start building a new skill, while at the same time, it's really special to return to something you've loved and build those skills all over again.

I have such reverence for what older students bring in terms of life experience. I teach adolescents as well, and fundamentally, the skills I'm teaching them are the same acting and performing skills I teach older students. But for those who are older, they know what it's like to fall in love or to lose a spouse or another loved one. They have experienced unadulterated joy. They appreciate humor.

What I'm helping them to do is create a space where they feel invited to connect their performance to their life experiences.

If older students are considering taking a drama or acting class, what are the traits or skills they should bring to the class? And what should they hope to gain from the experience?

An open mind and an open heart are the only prerequisites! And [when the course is finished] I hope that they gain new skills, including an understanding of basic theatrical and vocal technique. But above all, I hope they will be able to make a deep, personal connection to the arts and see that theater, drama and music belong to everyone.


"What I'm helping them to do is create a space where they feel invited to connect their performance to their life experiences."

What has it been like for you to transition to teaching virtually over the course of the past year? And have there been benefits to online classes that you didn't expect?

Online classes have really afforded accessibility to those who didn't have it before – caregivers who couldn't leave their homes, people with social anxiety issues or people who might face transportation problems.

Moving to an online platform, for courses like the ones I teach, isn't about trying to fit a square peg into a round hole. The skill-building tools were specifically developed and conceptualized for virtual learning. It's so accessible, and so beneficial for those who take these kinds of classes.

What music have you been listening to, or what creative activities have you been pursuing, during the past year?

When the pandemic hit, I had just started a nine-week run of a show that was shut down on March 13. I've been performing professionally for fifteen years, so I'm still in the first half of my career. It's hard to see your industry evaporate overnight.

Even though I am a classically trained artist, I didn't listen to classical music for the first few months [of the pandemic]. It was painful for me. Instead, I turned to [the late singer] Nina Simone. I think I had her on repeat for about eight weeks. She's someone I listen to when I need solace and perspective. Her songs helped me re-center things.

I'd go out to my garage, listen to Nina and paint pictures. I guess I was putting my creative brain to use in different ways. And I cooked – I love Ina Garten and I made my way through a couple of her cookbooks!

Editor's Note: As part of a new Next Avenue series of Arts Learning Courses, Bergen Baker will be teaching "Bringing Drama to Life," a six-week course, with one hour-long session per week, beginning on May 17. Participants will build dramatic skills through acting techniques, exercises, ice breakers and theater games and musical techniques.

Each session will center around the reading of a scene; the week before each session, the students will receive a synopsis and their parts will be assigned. Then the following week, students will perform the reading with their peers in a supportive, fun and energizing environment. The course will offer a mix of scenes from celebrated plays and spoken scenes from operas or musicals that they will recognize. [And there's no singing involved!]

Headshot of a woman with curly hair.
Julie Pfitzinger is the managing editor for Next Avenue and senior editor for lifestyle coverage. Her journalism career has included feature writing for the Star-Tribune, as well as several local parenting and lifestyle publications, all in the Twin Cities area. Julie also served as managing editor for nine local community lifestyle magazines. She joined Next Avenue in October 2017. Reach her by email at [email protected]. Read More
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