Troupes help seniors, disabled find their place on stage

Elizabeth Davies

Since retiring as a Methodist minister, Robert H. King has been a pimp, a judge and, well, God himself.

“It’s been wild,” the 78-year-old said. “It’s been freeing.”

And it’s all happened thanks to AgeQuake Theatre, a local acting troupe created specifically for senior citizens. It was the brainpower of 68-year-old Joan E. Kole, a lifelong actress who found there were fewer and fewer roles available for her as she aged.

And because Kole knows that good theater isn’t necessarily about Macbeth or Hamlet — it’s about touching an audience, jogging good memories or telling stories that are good for the soul — she’s been able to draw out the inner actor from everyone from a retired psychologist to a former banker.

With advanced degrees in theater, including a doctoral dissertation in theater and aging, Kole now is spending her retirement years as the director of two local troupes that sport a special brand of actor. The ARC Shining Stars features about 10 developmentally disabled actors, and AgeQuake Theatre boasts a range of performers older than 55.

“Life performance is very powerful,” said Kole, 68. “With both of these special populations, we don’t frequently see them getting involved. We don’t really know how to relate to these populations. My goal was to say, ‘Here we are. This is what we can do, and we’re just like you.’”

Kole’s work is gaining attention, both locally through AgeQuake’s regional performances, and nationally with a recent exhibition by the Shining Stars for a group of some 70 acting professors in Colorado.

“College and university professors don’t often get to work with this population, so we were able to show that it’s really very easy,” Kole said.

The Shining Stars troupe began about 18 months ago as a way to help those with developmental disabilities better relate with those around them. The group has given its actors more self-confidence to deal with everyday life, while helping audiences appreciate people with disabilities, said The ARC executive director Jacki Neil Boss.

The program has been a benefit to ARC clients “in so many ways we never expected,” she said. “We thought originally it would help with self-esteem and communication, but it has far exceeded our expectations. It’s increased their ability to communicate verbally, which is often one of the stumbling blocks that people with severe developmental disabilities have. They’ve learned to slow down and project their speech.”

As for the AgeQuake troupe, one of about 700 of its kind throughout the country, actors say it offers them the chance to explore their artistic sides — in some cases, for the very first time.

“It gives me a reason to get out of bed. I’m not just staring at the TV,” said Jane Baxter, a 61-year-old from Rockton. “I was a very quiet person. Now my daughter says she hardly recognizes me.”

AgeQuake, which also includes an eight-person ensemble troupe called the AgeQuake Leading Ladies, performs on request — primarily for college acting classes or other senior groups in the area. Most of the scripts are written by AgeQuake members, based on their histories and memories.

“One of the things we try and do is let the audience know, ‘Here are experiences you have had. You can talk about them, and you can remember them. And you can do this,’ ” Kole said.

Mary Snow, a 62-year-old from Rockford, once worked as a professional photographer.

Today, she is a Leading Lady and helps write AgeQuake scripts. She and others will start with a topic list, then begin writing based on their memories.

“You just pull from your past,” Snow said. “For someone, it may be very sad, and for someone else, it’s very funny. We just don’t all have the same experiences.”

And Snow is hopeful the actors of AgeQuake are setting a new standard for retirement, one that creates a life of interest, friendships and learning. As baby boomers prepare to retire, she hopes they’re taking note.

“We’re showing how to go into retirement,” she said. “You’ve gotta do this. You’re not dead.”

Elizabeth Davies can be reached at

Find out more

For more information about AgeQuake Theatre or to get involved or book a performance, call Joan E. Kole at (815) 398-8090 or e-mail