BY TAMMY SCILEPPI
Nostalgic Broadway songs, old-time comedy routines, poetry readings and much-needed conversation. A special digital program featuring New York City performing artists, brings joy to socially distant seniors.
Here in Queens, senior citizens can now enjoy the company of others in a fun and meaningful way, thanks to Queens Theatre’s Sing Along Senior Wellness Program. Queens Theatre at Home offers free multiple sessions per week, and participants can join via Zoom (for audio and video connections), or simply opt to be part of the conversation by phone.
“It’s the highlight of my week!” said Sandy Bordi, who participates through the Clearview Senior Center.
Viewers can engage with the discussion, or simply sit back and be entertained for an hour. The various sessions are led by teaching artists who invite their friends and former cast mates from across all NYC performing art disciplines, to lead the online groups in song and help act out old Abbott and Costello bits, like “Who’s On First?”
The program was developed earlier this spring by Queens Theatre’s director of education, Richard Hinojosa, in conjunction with seven local seniors.
“We found that the seniors wanted to talk about how they were feeling during these difficult times, and they wanted some entertainment,” Hinojosa said, adding, “During this pandemic, our senior citizens have not only been the most vulnerable to the disease but also subject to the debilitating effects that isolation can have on their mental health. Our program is designed to address this directly by bringing them together — in the only way we can come together, virtually — and lift their spirits through the universal language of song.”
What will they experience?
Participants will be greeted by a friendly group of teaching artists and NYC performers, including members of the Broadway community and beyond. They can expect to hear songs from the 30s, 40s and 50s, as well as classic Broadway tunes played and/or sung for them by working professional singers and musicians (lyrics will appear on the screen so they can sing along). Seniors will also enjoy some old-time radio comedy skits and hear poems that touch on the struggles of our current times.
What are the emotional and psychological benefits?
“By singing songs they know and love from their heyday … we have been able to reach into their souls and make them feel like someone out there cares about how they are feeling,” Hinojosa explained. “We also take some time to listen to their thoughts by going around the group with some check in questions, such as, ‘What is the best part of your day, what’s the worst?’ ‘What do you miss the most?’ The program also gives them the chance to connect with other seniors and just chat about everyday things in life. In the end, the benefits to their emotional and mental health are measured in the gratitude and joy they have expressed to us for bringing this to them.”
Most participants live in Queens, and many have lived here their entire lives.
“We have been hosting this program since the last week in March, but we are now opening it up to a wider audience of seniors from anywhere in the country,” Hinojosa noted. “We do hope to secure the funding to continue offering the program through the summer.”
Queens Theatre teaching artist Matt Zambrano of Astoria, who sings and plays the ukulele, weighed in about the program. “We all have a need for connection … to other people, to art, to fond memories, to the shared experience of being alive. This is especially true at a time like this,” he said.
“After the shutdown, Richard Hinojosa was looking for ways to still engage with the communities we sought to serve, and to employ his teaching artists; I jumped at the opportunity.”
Manhattan composer Brian Feinstein, who serves as one of the program’s musical directors, shared his thoughts as well. “The cognitive experience for our seniors will be stimulated as we discuss the historical (and political!) influences on some of the most popular songs of their day. Whether it be ‘Somewhere Over the Rainbow,’ ‘Bugle Boy from Company C,’ ‘Tomorrow’ from ‘Annie,’ and so forth,” he noted. “When we add music and memory to an experience, we notice our seniors light up like the top of the Empire State building!”
What has working on this project meant to you?
“I have had a longstanding passion in working with seniors — as my interest in psychology has often coincided with the themes I write in my musicals,” Feinstein explained. “When characters and people reflect on themselves, their surroundings, and human nature — there are so many life lessons that pop up. I love discovering these life lessons from those who have experienced life before me. After all, there are more questions for seniors than just ‘Tell me the secrets of a long marriage’ — and I intend to discover some of them!”
Zambrano added: “It has been incredibly humbling and heartwarming to get to meet these wonderful people, hear a little bit about them, and perform for them. I have no idea what their expectation of me or the program is, but if I can give them an hour of authentic, inspired joy … well then, I consider that a success.”
There are 4 Zoom sessions this month: Tuesdays, May 19 and 26 (at 2 p.m.) and Wednesdays, May 20 and 27 (at noon). Seniors interested in taking part can register for one or all of the meetings at queenstheatre.org and click on “Sing Along Senior Wellness Program.” They will receive an email about one hour prior to each session they sign up for, with instructions on how to log on to Zoom.