Earlier this summer, the eight Talented Wartburg Puppeteers, a group of sixty-to-eighty-year-old registrants at the Adult Day Care Center at Wartburg, a senior services provider based in Westchester, NY, put on the performance of their lives.
The seniors regaled their fellow day care registrants, assisted living residents, staff, and family members, with a lively 15-minute, multi-media puppet performance piece called “We Are Family.” During the show, the puppeteers performed with physical gestures, dialogue, and songs using rod puppets they designed and built themselves, interacting with a changing backdrop of animated scenes shown on a large projection screen, such as fish in a stream or the sun coming up.
“There was such pride of accomplishment and such acclaim from their peers. It was incredibly uplifting for them and for me,” said professional theatre artist and puppeteer, Josh Rice, a recent MFA graduate from Sarah Lawrence College, and the creative spark behind the program.
Mr. Rice met weekly with the eight registrants over seven months, helping them to craft their own self-designed, self-built puppets and to name them (Silvermist, Lily, and Albert, for example). During the weekly sessions, the elderly puppeteers honed their improvisational skills to always be “in the moment” and practiced the art of puppetry with its rhythmic swoops, nods and bobs.
The puppet class is part of a nationally recognized program at Wartburg called Creative Aging, which 500 seniors participate in at the assisted living, memory care, nursing homes and adult day care programs where they express themselves through art, song, theater, poetry and oral histories.
“The goal of Creative Aging is to promote greater emotional health, social engagement and lifelong learning for older adults, and the new puppet program exemplifies this goal,” said David Gentner, president and CEO of Wartburg.
Josh Rice had been a professional puppeteer, playwright, director, designer and choreographer based in New York City before he went back to graduate school in 2012. “I’ve always been passionate about puppetry, but realized one day that ‘art for art’s sake’ was not enough. I became interested in theater for social change at Sarah Lawrence College.” When he learned about the Creative Aging program at Wartburg, it was a perfect fit for his new artistic direction and he offered to form the puppeteering class.
Janet Petro, a 73-year-old Wartburg puppeteer, created her fairy puppet, Silvermist, with wings. She is “crazy about the puppet,” who has a high-pitched voice and is a “free spirit who will do anything for a laugh.” Mary Jackson, another elderly puppeteer, named her chalk-white faced, black eye browed, puppet with an unruly shock of white hair, Albert. “He’s not the most attractive, but every once in a while he combs his hair,” she said.
The puppeteers use these ever-evolving puppet personalities to act out improvised scenes in their weekly classes and hone them for performance for an audience of their peers. Before they started the program in November 2013, none of the Talented Wartburg Puppeteers had used puppets or performed before.
The program has been such a success that next year the number of Talented Wartburg Puppeteers will expand, with programs held in Wartburg’s Memory Care Unit and Nursing Home.
“At first I wasn’t sure how the registrants would react to working with puppets, but after I saw that there was such joy in the class and laughter that after each session the classes grew each week,” said Ann Frey, director of volunteers at Wartburg.
The capstone of this year’s accomplishments for the puppeteers may be their appearance on a segment on PBS’ Visionaries, a documentary program hosted by Sam Waterston.
Wartburg is an award-winning provider of comprehensive senior services, including independent living, assisted living, Alzheimer’s/dementia care, skilled nursing, rehabilitation and hospice care. Its 34-acre campus in Mount Vernon serves seniors and their families in southern Westchester and the northern Bronx. Wartburg’s nursing home has been recognized by “U. S. News & World Report” as among the best nursing homes in New York State. Over the past few years, Wartburg has launched an ambitious building expansion program, including the Friedrichs Residence, with 61 independent living apartments, and a rehabilitation and adult day services center, both opened in 2013.