Taking theatre to those who can’t get out

Tina Perrot, who plays Beth, left, reacts to a humorous moment with director Sondra Ilgenfritz with Ralph Sacks in back. (Akili-Casundria Ramsess/Special to the AJC)
Tina Perrot, who plays Beth, left, reacts to a humorous moment with director Sondra Ilgenfritz with Ralph Sacks in back. (Akili-Casundria Ramsess/Special to the AJC)

Credit: Akili-Casundria Ramsess

Credit: Akili-Casundria Ramsess

Interested in bringing Theatre-To-Go to your location?

Contact Sondra Ilgenfritz at 404-256-3310, 404-374-9542, Sondra@atlantatheatretogo.com, www.atlantatheatretogo.com. Fees range from $250-$375

Last week in the auditorium of the Renaissance on Peachtree, Sondra Ilgenfritz and her new lineup of actors were running lines for the upcoming production of Dick Meredith’s comedy “Misconceptions.”

It was the second week of rehearsals for the cast, who ranged in age from 81 to 96. Ilgenfritz had already gone over the fine points of stage movement and on this day, the actors were putting the play on its feet with scripts in hand.

“Misconceptions,” scheduled to open on Thursday, is one of 45 performances put on annually by Atlanta Theatre-To-Go at metro Atlanta retirement communities, assisted living facilities, churches and synagogues.

“Their age and vitality give credence to our mission to promote ‘creative aging’,” said Ilgenfritz, who founded the company seven years ago.

At their ages, they know well that chances are slim that these roles will ever land them a spot on Broadway. What is for sure, Ilgenfritz said, is they will never perform before more appreciative audiences or have a greater feeling of personal achievement.

Joan Stuart has been coming to witness Theatre-To-Go productions almost since its inception.

“From the actors to stage managers and costume designers, they do it just for the sheer joy of doing it and bringing joy to others,” said Stuart, a retired consultant from Smyrna. “It’s really an amazing concept.”

The idea to form the theatre, which also produces shows by professional actors, came to Ilgenfritz soon after her stepmother, an avid theatre-goer, died from esophageal cancer.

“I watched a very lively, dynamic woman become a lonely recluse,” Ilgenfritz said “Complications from her cancer treatment required two-hour feedings through a port in her abdomen. This limited her ability to get out and socialize.”

Wouldn’t it be great, Ilgenfritz imagined, if she could somehow bring the theater to people like her stepmom Pearl?

While still building her career in advertising and public relations, she tucked the idea away. In 1999 when Ilgenfritz was recuperating from breast cancer, she happened upon an article announcing that Jeff Adler, co-artistic director at Horizon Theatre, was starting a senior ensemble.

“When you recover from a life-threatening illness, you decide you want to make your days count for something,” she said. “For me, it was theatre.”

An ex-New Yorker, Ilgenfritz had always been an avid theatre-goer. With Adler’s encouragement, she decided to pursue her theatrical ambitions and joined the ensemble, writing and performing with them. She enrolled in acting classes at the Horizon and Georgia Perimeter College and studied playwriting at the Alliance Theatre.

While the Horizon ensemble experience was rewarding, the idea of taking live theatre to seniors who couldn’t get out still haunted Ilgenfritz.

After a meeting with her financial adviser, Ilgenfritz decided to form a limited liability corporation she christened Atlanta Theatre-To-Go. She would donate her time, but actors, directors and playwrights would be paid a stipend from the modest booking fee charged to venues.

To test the concept, Ilgenfritz reached out to Kathy Hobbs, activity director at Canterbury Court, an Atlanta senior community.

Great idea, Hobbs told her. But don’t just tell her. Tell everybody in the Georgia Association of Activity Professionals. Ilgenfritz made her pitch and the response was overwhelmingly positive.

She began recruiting and auditioning actors. Scripts were acquired through an annual playwriting competition. Directors were hired. Marketing began in earnest.

By 2008, the concept of making theatre accessible and enriching the lives of senior adults had more than proven itself. Productions were playing to full houses. The company applied for nonprofit status.

Stuart and other local theatre patrons, including Tina and Paul Blackney and attorney Miles P. Hurley, made donations to help underwrite the costs of performances.

When seniors in the audiences began to inquire if there was anything they could do, Ilgenfritz realized she could take her efforts one step further. Not only did she began offering acting and improvisation classes for senior adults, she created what has become one of Theatre-To-Go’s most popular programs: participants theatre.

Compared to other activities, research by the National Endowment for the Arts, Arts for America and the National Center for Creative Aging shows theatrical participation not only provides more social stimulation for seniors but also slows cognitive decline. Gerontology experts say participation in theater is the new “brain food.”

Ralph Sacks and Ella Bernhard swear by it.

Bernhard, 94, said she moved into the Renaissance reluctantly but soon found herself in the audience at one of Ilgenfritz’s productions.

“I thought it was remarkable,” she said.

Bernhard, who had starred in several Broadway productions in the 1930s, says she is happy to re-awaken that part of her life.

“It’s something I can have fun with again,” she said, her eyes dancing. “And I give so much credit to this charming lady (Ilgenfritz). What she gives to people, going place to place, working with people who don’t do anything much, is just unbelievably wonderful.”

Sacks, who at 96 looks 20 years younger, admits he was a shoo-in for the role of Richard in the current production.

“I was the only guy to try out,” he said, smiling.

Ilgenfritz said she was simply looking for a dynamic leading man and “the universe and the Renaissance provided Ralph.”

The right people, including her board of directors, continue to appear as navigators in her quest.

“It takes a village to raise a child and a village to create a theatre company with participants whose shared vision is to use their creative talents for community service,” Ilgenfritz said.

Her next goal? Produce a wisdom series featuring octogenarians on life lessons learned. After that, Ilgenfritz said a 25-hour day would help.

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