Tragic comedy

The Society for Creative Aging explores life through theater

Taking a break from studying lines, a mid rehearsal nap.
Sarah Haas

Exposition, conflict, action, climax, denouement — the pathway by which order falls to chaos in each of Shakespeare’s plays. How that order is restored, whether through the catharsis of catastrophe or the satisfaction of a happy ending, determines whether or not we call it a tragedy or a comedy.

Either way, by classifying the plays, we seek to understand them. But in the process we may be oversimplifying what is a complex story into overly reductive buckets of “good” or “bad.”

“Really, it’s more like a balance between poignancy and humor,” says Katherine Campbell, president of VIVA Theater, a company run by Boulder’s Society for Creative Aging. “A story, or a life for that matter, is not just tragic or comic, but somewhere in between, and that’s the tone we shoot for as a company.”

The upcoming production of Outrageous Fortune, a new play by Denver playwright and Shakespeare enthusiast Rebecca Salomonsson, challenges the tragic/comic divide by bringing together Shakespeare’s tragic characters for group therapy, where they confront their fatal flaws in hopes of changing their fate.

“The reason these are tragedies are because the characters who contain these fatal flaws are either not aware of them or they don’t learn from them,” says Don Thumim, who plays King Lear. “When you look at the fatal flaw, it defines you in a certain and tragic way, but it is also makes you the character that you are. To change would challenge the authenticity of the character.”

VIVA Theater tackles the nuances of tragedy by gathering the characters from the plays of Shakespeare for “group therapy” in their new show Outrageous Fortune.
VIVA Theater tackles the nuances of tragedy by gathering the characters from the plays of Shakespeare for “group therapy” in their new show Outrageous Fortune. Sarah Haas

Part of the genius in Shakespeare’s body of work is in revealing a set of universal flaws. Play by play, he uses them to illuminate something bigger about human existence through archetypal characters that have survived more than 400 years.

“Illuminating indeed!” responds Diane Thoms, who plays the fatal flaw of Vanity in Outrageous Fortune. “I get to wear a sequin gown! It just arrived today from Shanghai. When I put it on I look like a human disco ball! But I don’t think that’s what you mean by illuminate.”

The room erupts into laughter. As it settles Hale adds, “No matter what’s going on, you can laugh at it.”

It’s in the balance between comedy and tragedy that the heart and soul of VIVA resides. Behind the mission to encourage healthy and vibrant aging, efforts to create intergenerational community through theater and the hard work of production is a group of people coming together to laugh and celebrate life.

Some might say VIVA’s work is about death or how to best spend the end of life, and on paper at least, it might seem that way. Their website and organizational documents carry serious sentiments about how old age is balanced “precariously between a weighty past and an intangible future” and seeks to enrich it with the vibrancy such an age deserves.

But here, in Katherine Campbell’s living room, with four actors sitting around a dark wooden table, glasses of iced lemonade in hand, the conversation is off script and unconventional.

“People find their way to VIVA different ways,” Campbell says. “Some have been actors for a long time, others haven’t acted since elementary school and still others have never acted before. Either way, as we get older it gets hard to find parts, in theater and in life, except for the role of grandma in the rocking chair, of course.

“So VIVA is here to provide unique and interesting parts that are not defined by age. Sometimes there are even parts that call for us to be romantic and that is very refreshing.”

Sandy Hale, VIVA co-founder and actor, bursts out laughing.

“I am picturing you and, who was that again? That old man sitting on the couch?” she asks. “In the last play we did, Kathy jumped on a guy on a couch while they were on a blind date.”

“Well he made believe he was blind,” Campbell adds.

They are remembering a scene in VIVA’s recent production of Almost Maine, a series of short plays about romantic relationships set under the northern lights. In Boulder, it’s been performed by high school students, college students and, most recently, by the players of VIVA.

“When we did it, a local director remarked that it was fascinating to see it done by older adults,” Hale says, “because the romance was so enhanced by the performers who have experienced the heart feeling of falling in love and the disappointment of it breaking apart and who have sat with that over quite a few years as their lives played out.”

VIVA Theater actors discuss the difficulties in finding roles outside of  “grandma” as older adults.
VIVA Theater actors discuss the difficulties in finding roles outside of “grandma” as older adults. Sarah Haas

The room pauses in a moment of poignancy. “I think doing theater helps you look at your own life,” Thoms adds.

Each of the people around the table, whether new to theater or life-long actors, talk about the ways that theater has interwoven with the fabric of their lives.

Campbell, a petite blonde woman who plays Lord MacBeth in Outrageous Fortune, remembers playing Anne Frank as a kid. That role taught her to look past who’s supposed to play certain parts, encouraging her to look beyond stereotypes and expectations. A lesson that, in theater and in life, applies even today as she steps into the gender-bending casting decision by director Jim Valone.

Thoms, who is choosing to play Vanity as a sexy and seductive woman, is also using the role to bring out a side of herself largely unknown and unexplored, especially in her later years.

As Vanity, she only has nine lines in Outrageous Fortune, which she admits she is struggling to memorize.

“It’s always been hard for me, remembering my lines,” she says. “But especially lately.”

Thanks to the encouragement of director Jim Valone she is working on ways to improve. A lot of VIVA’s actors struggle to memorize lines as age has a way of diminishing the faculty of memory. Valone has actors practice by going through drills, like looking at lines for 10 seconds and then putting it down and reciting them to the group.

“It is amazing what you can remember after only 10 seconds,” Thoms says. “The brain is more capable than I give it credit for.”

The company has also developed ways to accommodate such challenges, little tricks of the trade like working in an extra prop, like a book, lined with cues and reminders for the actor.

“One time, we gave an actor a note to put in his pocket, to check when he needed a cue on his lines,” Hale says. “It was working too, but then on the night of the play, he forgot which pocket he put the note in!”

Each of the actors at the table approaches aging with determined confidence, sarcasm and an irrepressible attitude of making the most of their remaining years, which makes Outrageous Fortune a fitting production for the company.

“This is a comedy with poignancy that suits us well,” Thumin says. “It asks: ‘Can any of us change our habits, the ones that are so ingrained that we think them immovable? And, if we succeed in changing them, will our stories die? Will we disappear?’ In a big way, we are our fatal flaws and this play literally brings them to life on stage.”

“Luckily,” Campbell adds, “it’s a comedy.”

On the Bill: Outrageous Fortune — presented by VIVA Theater. The Dairy Arts Center, 2590 Walnut St., Boulder, 303-440-7826. Through Nov. 27.

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