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Retirees speak Shakespeare’s language, one hard-to-memorize line at a time

From left, director Bill Boone, associate director Barbara Landy, and Pat Meaney rehearsed “Twelfth Night.” Meaney will star as Viola.
From left, director Bill Boone, associate director Barbara Landy, and Pat Meaney rehearsed “Twelfth Night.” Meaney will star as Viola. (Suzanne Kreiter/Globe staff)

They were heads of multinational corporations and forensic psychologists. University professors and accomplished architects.

Now they’re retired, and rehearsing for their toughest act yet.

The school play. Introducing the Frances Addelson Shakespeare Players, an amateur group of actors, with an average age north of room temperature, who operate under the auspices of the Harvard Institute for Learning in Retirement.

Rehearsals for the troupe’s next production, “Twelfth Night,” began earlier this summer. But the show won’t be staged anytime soon, as the group contends with some of the less-kind effects of aging.

“We see kids memorizing a role in two weeks that would take us six months or a year,” said 70-year-old Barbara Landy of Weston, associate director of the Players. “You challenge yourself almost to the point of pain.”

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The Players produce one play every two years. From auditions (fiercely competitive) to curtain-up (three performances, mostly for Harvard institute members), the production process spans 18 months.

“Everybody here was once a real fast racehorse, and they still want to run,” said director Bill Boone, 76, who has a PhD, taught English at Williams College, and ran a small company. “The problem with new actors is that they say, ‘I’m retired — and this is a lot of work.’ ”

Boone isn’t kidding. He is asking a handful of seniors to learn abstruse lines in a near-foreign language, without pay, from memory.

Director Willliam Boone.
Director Willliam Boone.(Suzanne Kreiter/Globe staff)

But that effort might have an upside. Research suggests that rote memorization can help keep the brain nimble into old age. One review of studies found wide-ranging benefits for elderly dramatists, including cognitive gains and improvements in well-being.

“When the age is in, the wit is out,” the Bard of Avon wrote. The Addelson Shakespeare Players beg to differ. They battle the atrophy of age with Shakespeare’s 400-year-old texts, their elixir of youth.

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“If you’re going to stay alive and alert, you have to tackle new ideas to keep those neurons going,” said Pat Meaney, 84, of Brookline, who’ll star as Viola in “Twelfth Night.” She worked for the Environmental Protection Agency before retiring. “Other people talk about being bored. But none of us are bored. We’re too wonderfully busy.”

Boone, a humanist who can recite Melville from memory, trains his actors like athletes, likening the group to “a gym for the mind.” He might pass for Santa Claus, if Old Saint Nick had a Southern accent and swapped his red sleigh for a red convertible. For his actors he makes personalized recordings of their lines, with four-second pauses for memorization and recitation.

Jon Small, a lawyer who worked at a nonprofit, has been cast as Malvolio, the play’s lead villain. He listens to his tapes in the car, “the best way to memorize. I play it everywhere I go.” Like other members, Small appreciates the difficulty of the work. “Memorizing is hard for those of us who are older,” he said.

But Boone doesn’t push too hard. The actors can handle only a few hours of rehearsal before tiring out. Their scheduling can get tangled. “You wouldn’t know it with a bunch of retirees, but getting together three people is a big job,” Boone said. “These people travel more than anybody.”

The misfortunes of old age also present unique problems. Casting directors decide if an actor suits a given role. But Boone must first ask a more basic question: Will the performer’s health hold up long enough to play it?

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He’s had his scares. Shortly after being cast as an elder nobleman in “As You Like It,” one 85-year-old man fell ill and was rushed to the hospital. He phoned Boone. “I don’t know if I’ll make it. This might be it,” he fretted. The actor recovered and delivered a “letter-perfect” performance.

Actor Fred Wanger rehearsed a scene.
Actor Fred Wanger rehearsed a scene.(Suzanne Kreiter/Globe staff)

The shows have had their share of senior moments, mental lapses that lead to flubbed lines and forgotten cues. To mitigate mistakes, the Players use a prompter, which sits by the stage and feeds lines on a computer monitor.

At the Harvard Institute for Learning in Retirement, a membership program within the university’s Division of Continuing Education, men and women over the age of 55 enroll in peer-taught courses on whatever interests the roughly 550 members: prehistoric cave art, the crisis of gun violence, Revolution-era Boston, the first season of “The Wire.” Courses meet once a week for two hours and have no exams or grades.

The Shakespeare troupe traces its origins to the 1990s, when Frances Addelson, a retired social worker and advocate for women’s rights, and her peers would hold readings of their beloved bard. By 1999, Addelson, then 90, had lost most of her eyesight. So she started reciting her parts from memory and convinced her colleagues to join her off-book.

Thus was born the HILR Shakespeare Players, which Addelson led as director over its first few years. Boone took over in 2003, as Addelson’s macular degeneration worsened. The group was rechristened in her honor a few years later. Addelson died in 2014, at the age of 104.

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Under Boone, the productions have grown in scale and quality. Costumes, which in the early years consisted of bathrobes and Hawaiian shirts, now present some 30 actors in convincing period garb. Shows are collaborative and homegrown, with member-composed soundtracks, original choreography, and scenery designed by Landy.

For a theater, the Players use a grand hall on the second floor of the institute building on Concord Avenue in Cambridge. “Twelfth Night” will be the company’s 15th production.

“We can play these roles because we have lived the ‘seven ages of man,’ unlike twentysomething actors,” said Boone in reference to a famed monologue from “As You Like It.” “Our ladies can play a 13-year-old Juliet. They’ve been one, they’ve raised one.”

Shakespeare’s plays traffic in family grief and intergenerational conflict, topics painfully familiar to members of the troupe. So they tend to stick to the merrier works, the comedies and romances.

And knowing that “time of life is short,” as Shakespeare wrote in “Henry IV, Part I,” the Players long to stay as active in retirement as they were in “the crest of youth.”

“This is what makes life wonderful. We are having a great time,” said Landy. “I’m 70, I’ve got 10 more good years, I better get going. Let’s do something with this.”

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Graham Ambrose can be reached at graham.ambrose@globe.com.