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‘Still Dreaming’



Saturday, June 20, 2015
Charlotte Fairchild was a razzle-dazzle entertainer, ready to break into song and dance at the drop of a hat, not surprising given her appearances o n Broadway in the original productions of Damn Yankees , 42nd Street and Mame . At 81 she was youthful and limber, with a trilling soprano and a lively expression.

But in her long career she had never performed Shakespeare, until the summer of 2011 when filmmakers Jilann Spitzmiller and Hank Rogerson came to the L illian Booth Actors Home in Englewood, N.J., where Fairchild lived, to make a documentary about retired actors staging a production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream .

The resulting film, Still Dreaming , will screen Friday at 7 p.m. in the Black Family Visual Art Center’s Loew Auditorium; the filmmakers, who graduated from Dartmouth College in 1989, will be on hand to discuss the film afterward.

This country is notably obsessed with youth, but the past few years have seen a slight shift toward entertainments that look at life from the point of view of those who are over the age of 65, including the recently released film I’ll See You in My Dreams , starring Blythe Danner and Sam Elliott as a courting couple in their 70s; the HBO series Frankie and Grace , with Jane Fonda and Lily Tomlin; and Love Is Strange , which stars John Lithgrow and Alfred Molina as a married couple. It’s hardly a tidal wave, but it cuts a little into Hollywood’s overwhelming preference for big-budget superhero monstrosities.

As a documentary, Still Dreaming looks more unflinchingly at aging and illness than romantic comedies that revolve around affluent people growing older and making Viagra jokes. But Still Dreaming is about more than decay and despair; it’s about the unending potential for creativity and intellectual engagement, through the lens of Shakespeare’s comedy, in which a befuddled band of mortals and a troupe of fairies weave gossamer dreams of love during a night in the Athenian woods.

Spitzmiller and Rogerson’s previous documentary, Shakespeare Behind Bars (2005) , looked at inmates in the Luther Luckett Correctional Center in Kentucky acting in a production of The Tempest . After the release of Shakespeare Behind Bars , the couple, who live in Santa Fe, N.M., with their two children, began looking at other unique settings where Shakespeare was being performed.

“One of the ideas that came across the radar was Shakespeare being done with seniors,” Rogerson said in a telephone interview from Santa Fe. As they researched the idea, Rogerson said, they decided it would be ideal to use people who already had theatrical training. Between two actors’ homes in Los Angeles and the New York metropolitan area, they settled on the Lillian Booth Actors Home, because many of the residents had a connection to the New York theater world. In addition, there was already a Shakespeare group in place in the home.

The first Actor’s Fund Home was built on Staten Island in 1902; in 1928, it was relocated to Englewood, a short drive from Manhattan; it has expanded over the years and in 2003 was renamed the Lillian Booth Actors Home. It houses not only actors, but anyone who has a professional connection to the theater, whether as a stage hand, producer, critic, playwright or musician. Relatives of people who have connections to the theater are also permitted to live in the home.

When they began filming, Spitzmiller and Rogerson anticipated they would see the actors, most of them in their 70s and 80s, try to recreate what it was like to be besotted at a young age. But that’s not what happened, Spitzmiller said. “What materialized was the resonance with disorientation, dreaming and reality.”

Some of the actors were frail in mind or body, or both. Some, including Fairchild (who died in 2013), had been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s or other forms of dementia. Some actors had Parkinson’s disease. The pianist accompanying the show, Joan Stein, was bent over nearly double from Parkinson’s and other age-related infirmities.

One woman, Lynette Loose, was, at 68, younger than the other residents, but in the early stages of dementia; she had never acted but was in the home through a familial connection. Gloria Albee, a playwright with dementia, sporadically informed the directors and filmmakers that she could no longer be in the play because she was moving to Arizona, which wasn’t true. Not everyone was physically fragile: Mayleen Adams is the aide who keeps Charlotte Fairchild focused and present; their friendship is close and of crucial importance to Fairchild’s sense of well-being.

Over the course of six weeks, the 15 actors forged a bond with each other and their characters. Spitzmiller and Rogerson brought in two younger directors, Noah Brody and Ben Steinfeld, from the heralded Fiasco Theater in New York City, partially because they liked the idea of older and younger generations collaborating.

Brody and Steinfeld expressed reservations at first when they realized that some of their actors couldn’t memorize all their lines, forgot what they were doing, or became so anxious about performing that they shut down. But as the actors and directors became more comfortable with each other, the performance took shape.

Even so, said Spitzmiller, it was “a tough room to manage, with all the different realities going on.”

In an odd way, that worked to the play’s benefit, as the characters in Midsummer Night’s Dream also find themselves operating at different levels of reality and unreality. Shakespeare’s work is capacious enough to hold all kinds of realities, as the directors had already discovered when shooting Shakespeare Behind Bars .

“We don’t live in the times of kings and queens and noblemen and battles on horses.” Rogerson said, but Shakespeare plunges into the eternal emotions of “love and hate and dreams and loss. He speaks to that in a timeless manner and he has his finger on the pulse of humanity.”

Both Spitzmiller and Rogerson found that their own perceptions of what it means to age changed as a result of making the film.

“I personally have a fear of getting old,” Rogerson said, “and when I had to get up every morning and go to that assisted living home, I had to walk right into my fears every day. At the same time , I was walking into a place in that rehearsal room of creativity and community and love and laughter.”

“It’s important to create these situations and environments where you can experience intellectual stimulation and growth, even when you’re 84,” Spitzmiller said. When Joan Stein saw the final cut, she told Spitzmiller that it was a testament to the power of art to transform daily life into something extraordinary.

For tickets and information on Still Dreaming , call the Hopkins Center Box Office at 603-646-2422 or go to hop.dartmouth.edu/Online/filmspecialstilldreaming. It will also screen free-of-charge at 7:30 p.m. on July 1 at the Woodstock Town Hall Theatre; donations accepted.

Nicola Smith can be reached at nsmith@vnews.com.