Seniors shine in Rose Center drama club

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Members say they are in it for the laughs.

By Hillary Jackson – 

When the drama club at The Salvation Army Rose Center for Seniors in Portland, Oregon, presented its first play, it chose the dining room at the end of lunch to ensure it would have an audience. For the next shows, the group bribed attendees with root beer floats and ice cream sundaes.

Now, no bribes are necessary to attend the plays. The interest in the shows demands the largest room in the facility.  

“We’ve come a long way,” said Rose Center for Seniors Director Becky Bitah, who also directs the productions.

The Center’s Drama Club has performed 17 plays since it started more than seven years ago. Over the years the group has grown to involve around 20 individuals ranging in age from 75 to 90, most of whom have never acted before.

Most recently, the group performed “Greypup Jungle Tour,” about a group of “wacky seniors” who travel through the jungle on a Greyhound bus-style tour. The production is a follow-up to a previous play, in which the seniors took a Greypup tour in Oregon.

While both of the Greypup tour plays were written by a familiar face at the center, Fred Benton, Benton said each member of the group developed his or her own characters and ad libbed most of the play. Benton played a singer who had a horse named Mopsy.

“It’s amazing what they do. Their minds are really creative once they get started,” Benton, 90, said. “This last one we had 10 characters, and every one of them is different, and every one of them has their own attire.”

Each week, the group meets to practice. The members start each new play by sitting down for a table read, before eventually moving on to parts and staging. Bitah said the group doesn’t set performance dates for a play until it is just about ready to go. They then publicize the show in newsletters, and spread the word to the performers’ friends and relatives.

“For the people that come to be in the audience, it gives them something to look forward to, and they enjoy coming and laughing and talking about it later,” Bitah said, noting she overheard people talking about the play in the hallway following the last production.

“Every time we do one, they say it’s the best one we’ve done,” she said.

When the drama group started, they initially used scripts they had to purchase the rights to. Now, the group primarily uses scripts written by Benton.  

When Bitah approached Benton two years ago about writing a script, he told her: “I’ve never done that before, but I’ll try.”

The result was “Lost in Paradise,” a production about people who appear to be shipwrecked on an island, but ultimately find out they’re a block away from a resort.

“I’ve been involved in the last four plays and I’ve thoroughly enjoyed it,” Benton said. “I’ve never been involved in a play before like this in my whole life, and it is fun.”

And that’s the point. Every play the group performs is a comedy. They want people to laugh.

“They laugh way more than we thought they would,” Bitah said. “Sometimes it’s hard because we haven’t practiced where the laughs are going to be, and it’s really fun.”

According to Bitah, the drama group has been a “really positive thing” for both those who come to the Rose Center and those who are in the group.

“They’re involved in a project together and they enjoy starting it out at the beginning and seeing it through to the end,” Bitah said. “A lot of the folks that are in the plays have become friends because of it.”

Benton agrees it’s helped create a lot of friends, and it’s created an interest within the building and outside the building as well.

“When I first came here, I had been to most of the senior centers around. The atmosphere was so pleasant, no politics…I’ve been playing pinochle twice a week for two years…it’s been a home for me,” Benton said. “I’m in an assisted living facility now, and I have friends from here that transport me back and forth…it’s an atmosphere that I can’t explain…when I walk through the door, I feel at home. I wouldn’t have it any other way.”

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