Meet the Geriactors

Group of aging actors determined to continue entertaining and be vital

By John Addyman

As we go down the highway of life, we drive by a lot of beautiful meadowy areas — pastures. A lot of the time, we’re so busy chasing life that we don’t see what’s standing silently in those pastures.

Slowing down, as we do when we get a little older, we see what the pastures have held for many years — doctors, teachers, bank managers, cashiers, snowplow drivers, carpenters, mail carriers — all people who have gotten off the fast track and are enjoying a quieter stage of life.

But locally, there’s a pasture where people are standing at the gate, refusing to cross into the field. They’re adamant — not us; not now.

“Who the heck do they think they are?” the retired and sedate pasture-dwellers in other fields ask.

They’re actors. A small group, to be certain, but steadfast in their desire not to leave the limelight.

And there they are, standing apart. The Geriactors.

They’ve organized and become emboldened.

“The people who started this group were some of the best veteran actors in Rochester,” said Jean Gordon Ryon. “They were people of a certain age, in their 70s, and they were very frustrated because the local theatre groups, community theaters, were offering so few roles they were appropriate for, so few plays that had older characters in them. They were frustrated. They wanted to perform more. They decided to take matters into their own hands and form a performing troupe that would tour and be an ongoing learning and performing opportunity.”

Ryon is the artistic director of Geriactors.

When actors Elaine Good, Jim Scholes, Darrell Lance, Greg Byrne and Sonya Raimi decided to form the group in 1999, they invited Ryon, who had been a dramaturg (show developer and director) and literary director at Geva Theatre, to an evening of conversation.

“It started with us sitting around a table, deciding what kind of work we’d like to do, what kind of performance situations we’d like to be in, and we landed on the idea of becoming a touring group that would perform when hired by organizations like senior living facilities, schools, libraries, churches Rotary clubs — whoever wanted a program of an hour or so, groups who wanted someone to come in and do a program for them,” she said.

Ryon added that the group is very selective: 10 members, period. This number keeps everyone involved to a satisfying degree.

“As with many things, the more you enlarge it the more you water down the benefit for the people involved,” she explained. Ten is a manageable number, easily portable and everyone would get to know each other well.”

Geriactors was born

Geriactors Denise Bartolo, Jean Gordon Ryon and Roger Gans.

Roger Gans, the business manager and advance man for the troupe, said they’re ready to go in places small and large.

“We need about 200-300 square feet of space,” he said. “We like to have 16 feet across and 14 feet deep for a ‘stage,’ but we can do readings in a smaller space.”

Geriactors travels light.

“We have five to seven actors plus a keyboard and player, Elaine Fuller. If an organization has a piano, we use theirs. We never bring all 10 people,” Gans said.

“Quality is very important to us,” Ryon stressed. “The original founders wanted to do very high-standard work. We’re not the dancing grannies. We’ve always kept in place that we want to do excellent work. We don’t want to just throw stuff up there and have people say, ‘Isn’t it amazing that they can still talk?’”

Ryon’s history with Geva and theatre in the area meant she compiled a Rolodex — a file — full of writers she has worked with.

“I usually approach writers we’ve worked with before, with whom we have a relationship, and say, ‘You got anything new? Would you consider writing a play about this?’ We have three or four who will — almost by return email — send us new plays. I am so grateful for them,” she said.

“We have a pretty big set of plays,” Gans said. “Jean is brilliant in the way she’ll take this play and this play and this play and program them as a theme. She writes the little pieces, what we call the ‘connective tissue,’ that get said between the plays to stitch a whole performance together.”

A typical Geriactors performance goes between 45 minutes and an hour, and presents four to seven small plays with a Ryon theme weaving them together.

“We’re not just doing fluffy stuff,” she said. “We do a lot of comedy, but we’re trying to do scripts that have some character, some theme to explore, some idea about life as we know it to talk about. All the actors I work with are hungry to talk about these things — we don’t talk about them very much in social situations,” she said.

Gans describes their play, “Downsizing”, “about a couple who don’t agree too much on what they’re doing, but they’re selling their big house and moving into an apartment.”

The sardonic “Bridge Club of Death” is a fuller production and actor Denise Bartalo has her favorite role in it. “There’s a lot more character development and it’s more challenging,” she said. “It’s about four people in a senior living facility who hatch a plan to assist the people in memory care to their ends.”

Gans went a little farther in the play’s description: “People had asked us to murder them.”

That production was done at the Multi-Use Community Culture Center at 142 Atlantic Ave., Rochester. It’s a rent-a-theatre turnkey enterprise for local groups who need more production space.

“Reminiscing” is a play about the afterlife.

“Some of its scenes are funny and some are touching. Some are just silly, total fluff, like ‘The Godmother’,” Ryon said.

“Disconnect” is a play about all the ways people don’t communicate.

“We Were There” is another play Bartalo especially likes.

“It’s composed of pieces written by our members.” Gans added. “It’s about how war affects people, about ordinary people in extraordinary times, from the Napoleonic Wars up to World War II.”

“That developed in the sitting-around-the-table phase because people had old family letters that had been written from the front, or a poem someone had written for their son who was a soldier, or an old family story,” Ryon said. “So, we asked, ‘This is such great material, how can we use it?’ Everybody in the group had their own monologue. A story, a letter, a relating of experience about how war had affected not necessarily the people at the front, but people who were at home. It is a wonderful program. All of our programs are designed to be dusted off at a moment’s notice if people request them.”

For Bartalo, coming to Geriactors filled in some special places in her life.

“Here you get to do some character analysis — and it might just be a two-page script. You kind of make up a backstory for your character. It gets your creative juices going to be able to do that,” she said.

“One of our newer members asked me, ‘Do you still enjoy it?’ When I said I did, I was asked what I enjoy about acting. I enjoy keeping the craft, keeping my skills sharpened. Because if you don’t act for 10 years or whatever, you’re not as sharp. Having to memorize, thinking about character and character development, the arc of a scene — it’s good to keep all that active,” she added. “My favorite role as a Geriactor was in SSFP – Seniors Searching For Partners. In my role, I’ve come to hear an activist lecture and she’s definitely searching for partners and I’m not searching for partners.”

“It’s kind of speed dating for seniors,” Bartalo summed up.

The troupe size makes it easy for people to be involved and busy, but Ryon also noted the reality of her partners.

“As we age, we have more doctors’ appointments. Sometimes people have conflicts. Sometimes they go on vacation. Sometimes they get a part-time job. Sometimes they’re active, then something happens and they’re less active for a while, then they come back,” she said.

Still, the Geriactors have performed at every Rochester Fringe Festival since the beginning and they’ll be back this summer.

Each production of the Geriactors is specifically tuned to the audience providing the $250 performance fee. The process of booking the troupe starts with a phone call or email to Gans (geriactors@gmail.com and 585-533-1606).

Ryon said they’d like four weeks’ notice, but can work more quickly in certain cases. Sometimes organizations would like a longer glidepath while they apply for a grant. After that first phone call, Gans will visit the performance site to make sure it’s workable. And then the troupe will start to prepare.

“This has been a great privilege of my life, to lead this group of people because they are so excellent and so dedicated and I hate to see a person’s gifts go unused,” Ryon said. “We’ve had some members get increasingly frail, but as soon as they start to perform, the spirit comes out of them and just fills up the room — that’s just so thrilling for me to see.”

How to Contact the Geriactors

For more information about the Geriactors or to book a presentation, email geriactors@gmail.com or call 585-533-1606.

Top image: The Geriactors are, from left, bottom row: Greg Byrne, Jean Gordon Ryon and Ginni Pierce; middle row, Vicki Casarett, Mary Krickmire, Elaine Fuller, and Denise Bartalo; back row, Roger Gans, John Jaeger, and Richard Kenrick (Courtesy of Ira Srole).