May 11, 2019

Dateline: Beattyville, Kentucky –

Actually, that’s not quite true as I am now back in Birmingham. If you’d asked me a month ago how I would be spending my 57th birthday, a quick trip to rural Eastern Kentucky and back would not have even cracked the top ten ideas. Probably not even the top one hundred, but there you have it. Sometimes life leads you on odd little adventures. And sometimes they take you up I-75.

This jaunt all came together over this last week. Ellise Mayor, one of my partners in theatrical crime over many years has long had an interest in theater for older adults and has been doing a number of projects in the greater Birmingham area with people in senior living facilities. She also ran The Seasoned Performers, the local senior theater troupe for a number of years. She had attended a training earlier this year in a program called Time Slips which went over the use of the arts with seniors in order to help stave off the apathy and boredom of aging that often leads to worsening cognitive problems. While there, she heard about another program Time Slips was involved with where they had resident artists going into rural nursing homes and helping the residents and staff together to create and mount a theatrical piece. One of these was to be performed this weekend at the Lee County Nursing Home in Beattyville, Kentucky. Schedules only lined up for the day so up I was at 5 am so we could drive to Kentucky in time for a 2 PM performance.

We were joined by Kimberly Kirklin, yet another old theatrical friend (all of us founding members of the Politically Incorrect Cabaret among other endeavors). Kimberley runs the Arts in Medicine program at UAB. The three of us loaded up Kim’s car and off we went through the rain and the fog in search of Lee County, Kentucky and inspiration for future projects involving aging, theater, and the possibilities of working with nursing facilities. Early Saturday morning is a quiet time on the roads so we zipped along through Alabama, Northern Georgia, Tennessee and into Kentucky. Then we had to leave the interstate and wind into the hills. I’ve spent plenty of time in the hill country over the years with all my work with the mine workers funds so I more or less knew what to expect.

After a couple of minor wrong turns, and a spate of surly gas station attendants and out of order rest rooms, we arrived at our destination with an hour to spare, joining up with Beattyville’s finest citizens to see ‘Wendy’s Neverland’, a free form piece adapted somewhat from Peter Pan. It was an interesting experience. Several dozen frail nursing home residents, working together with the staff and some imported theater artists (and some of the local high school theater kids). Had put together a fantasia on themes of aging and loss and hope and a reminder that even though they reside in a nursing home, the emphasis should be on that second word and that they are still interesting and vital human beings. There was a bluegrass band of lost boys, some clogging, a pirate ship made of appliance cartons on the back lawn, a wheelchair dance, and audio and visual remeniscences of an earlier time. The audience went from station to station within the nursing home with different scenes in each place. It wasn’t perfect but it was an incredible labor of love and had obviously impacted the residents and staff in positive ways as they all had labored together on their show. The three of us have some ideas for adapting some of their techniques locally as we continue to work to bring artistic expression to older people whom society conveniently forgets.

On the was back we stopped in Knoxville for dinner. (Three thumbs up for Taste of Thailand next to the Lowe’s in West Knoxville). Before getting back to Birmingham, 675 miles and 17 hours after we set out. It wasn’t a traditional birthday, but it was spent in good company and I feel that watching what these Kentucky elders had spent the last year creating was significant in some way that I am as yet unaware of. Sometimes I have moments where I know the pebble has hit the pond and that the ripples will continue to flow out for some time. This feels like one of those days.

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