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Septuagenarians Tell All

Turning life's lessons into art in 'Stages'

By Kimberley Jones, Fri., April 16, 2010

Sally Bergom
Sally Bergom
Photo by John Anderson

"I want to tell you," begins a 70-year-old woman in spotlight on an off-Broadway stage. She has a lot to tell; like the other senior women participating with her in an inventive theatre project in New York, she's experienced early marriage, emigration from Puerto Rico, and tremendous loss, not to mention a culture that frowns upon too much disclosure, too much airing of the dirty laundry, so to speak. But, as the cathartic documentary Stages proves, the airing of that dirty laundry can make inspiring entertainment.

Stages documents a 20-week collaboration between the Evolve Theatre Project and frequenters of the University Settlement Neighborhood Center, New York's oldest community center. Theatre coaches walk two classes – one of sixty- and seventysomething women, one of at-risk teens – through the process of developing theatre material from their own lives. Filmmaker Sally Bergom recalls the reaction of some of the septuagenarians to the unorthodox improv games they were asked to play.

"They were like: 'Why are we going to do that? I have to stand up for this? No.'"

<i>Stages</i>
Stages

Bergom, now an Austin resident, is one of 12 core members of the New York-based Meerkat Media Arts Collective, which – true to its name – shares collective credit for the film. It also shared a collective panic when the theatre project was threatened by kids dropping out.

"When things started to fall apart, we almost fell apart. We thought we didn't have a movie anymore," Bergom recalls. "We were like: 'There's got to be a performance to have a movie. It can't be about a failed program. That's not going to motivate anyone.' Yeah, there was a lot of stress about even having a compelling story."

Working with more than 120 hours of footage, the collective did indeed find a compelling story –multiple ones, in fact, that challenge assumptions about what it means to be "old." The film addresses that idea humorously when the kids come up with questions to pose to the older generation: "How fast are they capable of moving?" "How active are they ... sexually?"

Stages puts equal emphasis on the demands put on the teenagers in the project –those of school, work, bilingualism, and pregnancy. After the film was completed, two of the teenage boys profiled in Stages attended some of the Meerkat Media Arts Collective's filmmaking workshops. Bergom smiles. "Now both of them are in film school."


Stages screens Sunday, April 25, 7pm, and Wednesday, April 28, 5pm, at Mexican American Cultural Center. Both screenings are free to the public and will be followed by Q&As with Bergom and fellow Meerkat Media Arts Collective members Brian John and Jay Sterrenberg.

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