Prologue: Enter two very different 70-year-olds — one, a veteran actor; the other, a novice playwright — who teamed up to turn her words, his direction and five amateur actors into a comedic theatrical production in Clearwater.
The lights go down in the auditorium, silencing the theatergoers who are seated at round tables waiting for the show to begin.
At the table directly in front of center stage, the play's director, Stephan Alpert, seems to snap to attention.
Moments before, he had taken his seat after strolling about the perimeter of the hall, looking dapper and sporting an air of confidence. He greeted patrons and made a regular spot-check of the wine bar and hors d'oeuvre table to make sure they remained well-stocked. If he was nervous, it didn't show.
Meanwhile, Linda Goldman, the writer of the play about to be performed, sat on the edge of her seat in the very back of the room. It was opening night for her second play, Get in the Game, and she appeared to be working hard to keep opening-night jitters in check.
"This is when I'm out of control," she whispered. "They either know their lines or they don't."
• • •
Get in the Game is the story of a woman trying to decide if she should jump back into the dating pool years after the death of her husband.
It is the second play to be staged by the newly formed group SAGES (Senior Actors Guild & Educational Services), which was launched in March in a collaboration between Alpert and Goldman, both members of Temple B'nai Israel in Clearwater.
With almost a million residents in the Tampa Bay area 65 and older, SAGES was created to give older people access to the performing arts and to allow them to continue — or start — acting in community theater.
"There are many acting roles for younger people," Goldman said. "Ours are for older people."
Auditions are open. In the case of Get in the Game, 15 people auditioned for the five roles in the production.
"The majority have done theater acting," said Alpert, who has performed on Broadway, in films and on television.
The group plans to produce plays with a positive message on aging.
"It means something when the audience feels something about themselves," Goldman said.
Even though the plays debut before the public in a couple of performances at the temple, they are meant to be traveling shows that aim to entertain residents of area retirement and nursing facilities who rarely get to see live theater productions. To make it easier to do that, the plays are structured to have a small number of characters and to require minimal staging.
The senior facilities pay SAGES to have the productions come to their venues and, in turn, SAGES pays the actors. That's unlike many community theater groups in which actors perform for free, but Alpert believes compensation commands an air of professionalism.
"Once you accept that money," Alpert said, "you better be professional."
• • •
Like a character in one of her plays, Linda Goldman has dealt with a lot of zany — she calls them "interesting" — older people in her eight years as manager of the Adults at Leisure program at Temple B'nai Israel.
But, unlike her fictional characters who come into conflict with those zany, interesting people, Goldman finds them endearing, amusing. She finds their dialogue memorable. They are blueprints for the characters in her next play.
Goldman, who spent 25 years in finance with the U.S. Postal Service, could be a poster child for any of the trendy reinventing-life-late-in-life movements. Yes, she's 70, but you'd never know it unless she told you. Her vivacity is as big as her stature is small.
And, while she has accomplished many things in her life, her latest endeavor — writing plays for and about senior citizens — seems to be her most fulfilling achievement yet.
After her husband died in 2004 and she retired, she went to work managing leisure programs for adults at the temple. She was determined to bring a vibrancy, and more people, into the program, which, at the time, consisted of four adults who played bridge.
She started small, adding more board games. Eventually, she added excursions to live theater. Voila. People really started taking interest.
And Goldman started wondering if the temple could support its own community theater program.
While working at the temple, Goldman went back to school. She enrolled at St. Petersburg College, where she got an associate of arts degree as well as a renewed interest in writing. She decided she would use the amusing anecdotes she had gathered to write a play, and borrowed a script to learn how to do it.
• • •
One day in 2013, Goldman was working at the temple when Stephan Alpert came in. She overheard him say he had come to offer his theatrical talents and experience.
Originally from New York City, Alpert said he made his Broadway debut in 1969, appearing in Our Town with Henry Fonda. He also said he had been teaching acting for more than 30 years, including classes at the Marcia P. Hoffman Performing Arts Institute at Ruth Eckerd Hall and Eckerd College.
He downplays his recurring roles on One Life to Live — "not this again," he said when asked about it — but proudly speaks of other roles. On Broadway, he was in Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead with Christopher Walken. He had the lead role in Butterflies Are Free. He was in the film The Going Up of David Lev, which starred Melvyn Douglas and Claire Bloom.
His desire to pass on what he has learned in a lifetime in show business has become his life's passion.
It was his role as a teacher of improvisational acting skills to residents of about 15 area retirement living facilities that brought him to the temple to expand his reach.
Goldman and Alpert first collaborated in March for SAGES' first play, Grandma Goes Off Her Rocker.
Like all the plays they hope to stage, Grandma is meant to spur discussion on the kinds of issues faced by older people and those who love them. In this case, the childhood sweetheart of an elderly widow living with her daughter disrupts their lives when he moves back into town.
• • •
The audience waiting to see Get in the Game is unaware of all the work that went into getting it into production. Earlier in the week, the players were in final rehearsals. Smoothing out the rough edges. Making sure they remembered their lines.
Goldman silently looked on as Alpert — in the same breath, a tough director and a sympathetic coach — took the helm.
"Are we ready?" he asks.
"House lights down.
Contact Patti Ewald at [email protected]