Every life has a story to tell, and each day we certainly catch a glance into the lives of those we interact with. But how often is it that we take the time to genuinely dive deeper into the history of another person?
For the actors and directors at Chicago’s Silk Road Rising theater group, the answer was not enough.
A few years ago, a group from Silk Road Rising formed EPIC (Empathic Playwriting Intensive Course), developed as a workshop for students in grades 6-12 to understand the importance of empathy through creative writing around personal experiences.
Fortunately, the idea was successful, but Tracy Strimple, Silk Road Rising’s director of education, felt EPIC should not just be limited to addressing a creative writing gap among children, but a population seemingly not tapped into at all — senior citizens.
Following collaboration with Lifetime Arts, a New York City-based program dedicated to enriching the lives of older adults through arts education, Strimple knew the concept of “creative aging” was one EPIC could replicate throughout Chicagoland.
“What I learned through that training is that it’s so important to stay engaged and creative no matter what age you are,” she said. “Who better to tell stories than people who have lived a very long life?”
Soon after, EPIC began reaching out to senior living communities to gauge interest in participation.
One of the places from the list willing to participate in the new endeavor?
Cantata Adult Life Services in Brookfield.
Adapted to suit the older-adult community, EPIC’s program at Cantata this past fall included professional playwrights and actors teaching residents storytelling techniques and how to translate personal stories into a play. Following peer-to-peer collaboration, revising, and reading aloud, the residents’ stories were finalized and then read back to them by professional actors.
Following the course, two of the residents’ plays were chosen to be professionally read in January at the Chicago Temple and during a special dinner theater program at Cantata on Feb. 19.
For Cantata resident Patricia Ritacco, the EPIC course was her first attempt at creative writing. Luckily, it paid off, as her play was one of the two selected for the showcase.
Titled “Petra,” Ritacco’s play tells the story of a young girl whose mother is expecting a new baby. But when her mother falls ill and the baby dies, Petra’s aunt comes to live with the family, and the family dynamics are very different from what they were before.
The best part about “Petra” for Ritacco?
It’s her autobiography.
“It makes me cry, because I remember how awful it was to live through that,” she said. “I thought I had forgotten it all until I wrote it down. When they did the show at the Chicago Temple, I was in tears.”
William Voller was the other Cantata resident whose play was selected. Voller had done some creative writing in the past, but EPIC was his first shot at formal training.
Though not autobiographical, his play “Opposites Attract” shares the story of a college boy who is an engineering major aspiring to go to law school. He meets a girl who lives near his campus who is the total opposite of him — an artist and free spirit.
For Voller, taking the course was a no-brainer because he says writing is a good way to express yourself. And, when he learned his work would be shared with audiences for the first time, he was shocked.
“When I was told they chose my story to act out, I said, ‘They’re going to do my story?'” he said.
Jarrett King, one of the Silk Road Rising actors who helped with the EPIC course, said the experience of working with the residents at Cantata was eye-opening.
“It’s always interesting to work with new students, and in this case, this is the first time I’ve worked with older adults,” said King, whose acting credits include TV’s “Chicago PD” and film and voiceover work. “What’s really great is that creativity is something that spans generations. I feel like we created a bond that went way beyond being students and teachers.”
Cheryle Hurtado, director of client hospitality at Cantata, said she is happy Cantata was open to welcoming the one-of-a-kind program.
“To see people blossom is a very exciting thing, and to see the sparkle in their eyes and realize that there’s more for them to experience, more for them to share, it’s amazing,” she said.
Strimple hopes the collaboration between EPIC and Cantata is one that will continue into the future.
“We felt so welcomed,” she added. “We have really made wonderful relationships with the people who took the class. It’s something that you can take over and over again, because nobody lacks for stories to tell.”
And, as Ritacco summed up, the chance for seniors like herself to share a glimpse into the depths of their imagination is something that she and her fellow residents will be forever grateful for.
“It lets you relive a part of your life that you may have forgotten about — and a chance to appreciate other people.”