CHICAGO >> The words “For You” conjure up a dating service and the director-choreographer Erika Chong Shuch says that’s not a bad description of how she is spending the pandemic months. But we’re not talking here about eHarmony or Match.com.
“For You,” which has just taken root at Court Theatre in Chicago, is all about matching up otherwise out-of-work artists with senior citizens, many of whom have found the past few months to be a depressing time of ever-increasing isolation. It is a one-on-one experience intended to be both personal and intimate.
That’s why an observer on a recent hourlong Zoom call could watch Chicago performance artist Darling Shear talking with Efe McWorter, a senior who calls herself a lifelong Chicagoan even if she is presently in Los Angeles. The pair spoke warmly of each other. McWorter, once a dancer with the Joseph Holmes Dance Company in Chicago, said that Shear had become just like family.
“When young people come into my life,” McWorter said, as Shuch and her colleague Ryan Tacata grinned approvingly in their separate observational boxes, “I call them children of the heart.”
Shear is a dancer and choreographer, too, among other things.
“I’m appreciative,” Shear said, “of being able to follow in Efe’s footsteps. This really has been an eye-opening experience for me. I think we’ll be attached forever.”
Like many things in the pandemic-stricken American theater, “For You” began with a cancellation — in this case, Court Theatre’s planned production of “The Lady from the Sea” last spring. Shuch, who is based in San Francisco, had been hired as its choreographer and says she watched what had been a busy year of freelance work promptly blow up in her face. So she decided to try to bring to Chicago a program that was already running on the West Coast.
Support came from the Court, which wanted to try to find ways to keep its artists employed, as well as from the University of Chicago’s experimental performance initiative. A decision was made to focus the program on the South Side neighborhood surrounding the theater (mostly, at least). Seniors were recruited through the Hyde Park Arts Center, with some of the Court’s staffers also making recommendations. (McWorter says she arrived through associate artistic director Ron OJ Parson.) Artists are compensated for their time.
What do the artist and the senior actually do together? Shuch says it all depends, but the basic idea is that the artist is there to offer the senior a gift. That present could, of course, be a personal performance (and that is often the case), but it might just as well be the opportunity for the senior to perform themselves, or otherwise express their creativity. In one instance, for example, a senior announced she wanted to do a dance performance over Zoom; the gift wasn’t a performance but the facilitation of one.
“If your job is to create a gift for the elder, you soon figure out that you can give a better gift if you know something about the person,” she said. “We think of the artist as a creative ethnographer and this as a kind of creative, mental-aid project. Sometimes the gift is that the artist is going to make something and deliver it to the elder; more often the gift is one of creative exchange.”
What Shuch says she tries to avoid is the artist asking the senior to reminisce.
She has found, she says, that seniors get that a lot, especially those who lived through something like World War II or the Holocaust. It’s profoundly valuable for younger people, and most seniors generously understand that, but often less so for the seniors themselves.
“We encourage the artist to move the needle forward in the elder’s life, Shuch said. “A lot of elders are regularly asked to reflect on their past experience. Most of them are not often asked to reflect on their dreams and hopes for their own future and enter this space of really creative imagination. We find that artists often come in with a specific bag of tricks and then they don’t use them at all.”
Clearly, the program is set up to be of most benefit to elderly persons who are not so far into the aging process as to perhaps render them too passive to take advantage of the collaborative intent. But it’s certainly a radical approach to traditional notions of what community outreach typically means in arts organizations. In the arts, growing an audience usually means trying to get more people to watch what artists do. In this case, that might well require some kind of rethinking of what the word “audience” actually means, especially in the middle of a pandemic. Maybe it means that artists have to better learn to watch and listen.
Over the past few weeks, the artist-senior pairings have all been proceeding in their different ways over Zoom and other modes of communication. The pairings mostly are left alone to follow their individualized path, although the artist is expected to provide some kind of documentation of the experience for the program. There is talk of some kind of big coming-together at the computers in December, so everyone can find out what was shared and what the future may hold on both sides of the cameras.