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Tampa Bay theater group helps seniors confront perils of aging

A local theater group uses plays to educate older adults about healthier living — from preventing falls to combating scams.
Stan Gurvitz, Patricia Price, and Jeff Holstein, actors with SAGES (Senior Actors Guild & Education Services), theater group performs in the show, Phoney Baloney, at the Performing Arts Center on Sunday, Aug. 21, 2022 in Largo. The play was crafted to help seniors combat scams while being entertaining.
Stan Gurvitz, Patricia Price, and Jeff Holstein, actors with SAGES (Senior Actors Guild & Education Services), theater group performs in the show, Phoney Baloney, at the Performing Arts Center on Sunday, Aug. 21, 2022 in Largo. The play was crafted to help seniors combat scams while being entertaining. [ LUIS SANTANA | Times ]
Published Sep. 1|Updated Sep. 1

No one thinks it’ll happen to them.

Scams are something that happen to other people. Like falling and breaking a hip. Or losing the ability to drive.

“Police ... can give people information, but it’s like, ‘Oh, it doesn’t apply to me, I’m smart. I’m not gonna fall for a scam,’” said Linda Goldman, 76, a playwright based in Tampa Bay. “They walk away unmoved.”

So Goldman decided to bring “other people” to center stage.

Related: 5 tips to help Tampa Bay seniors avoid scams

On a recent Sunday, a cast of senior actors looked out at an audience of roughly 300 people — who were themselves almost exclusively older adults — at the Central Park Performing Arts Center in Largo.

The play, titled Phoney Baloney, was a comedy. But it had a serious mission — to alert seniors about tactics scammers use and boost their strategies to combat them.

It’s the latest work from Senior Actors Guild & Education Services, or SAGES, an all-senior theater group that uses acting to empower and educate audiences on issues older adults may encounter in everyday life — but seldom talk about.

Stan Gurvitz, and Patricia Price, actors with SAGES (Senior Actors Guild & Education Services), theater group performs in the show, Phoney Baloney, at the Performing Arts Center on Sunday, Aug. 21, 2022 in Largo. The play was crafted to help seniors combat scams while being entertaining.
Stan Gurvitz, and Patricia Price, actors with SAGES (Senior Actors Guild & Education Services), theater group performs in the show, Phoney Baloney, at the Performing Arts Center on Sunday, Aug. 21, 2022 in Largo. The play was crafted to help seniors combat scams while being entertaining. [ LUIS SANTANA | Times ]

“When you do a play, and it emotionally resonates, people are going to remember the information,” Goldman said. “It’s a way to get through to people and break through that barrier.”

As she entered later adulthood, Goldman, a lifelong theatergoer, stopped seeing people on stage who looked like her.

When older adults were featured, they tended to be more caricature than character.

“We were more or less the butt of jokes,” said Goldman, who at the time had never drafted a play. “I said, ‘I can write a better play than that.’ And I did.”

In 2019, the nonprofit SAGES Theater, Inc. was born.

The troupe, composed of adults between the ages of 50 to 91, isn’t afraid to confront experiences of aging that are often considered taboo.

Its first performance, Denying Gravity, aimed to teach senior audience members about fall prevention. Another grappled with questions about when it’s time to surrender the car keys. The next play, which Goldman is currently writing, will deal with memory loss and dementia.

“But it’s a comedy,” she said. “Because life is not all horrible or all funny. It’s a mix. That’s what we put in there.”

Christine Hamacher, executive director of SAGES (Senior Actors Guild & Education Services), speaks to the audience before the start of their show, Phoney Baloney, at the Performing Arts Center on Sunday, Aug. 21, 2022 in Largo. The play was crafted to help seniors combat scams while being entertaining.
Christine Hamacher, executive director of SAGES (Senior Actors Guild & Education Services), speaks to the audience before the start of their show, Phoney Baloney, at the Performing Arts Center on Sunday, Aug. 21, 2022 in Largo. The play was crafted to help seniors combat scams while being entertaining. [ LUIS SANTANA | Times ]
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Notably, at a time of rising costs in Tampa Bay, all of the nonprofit’s plays are free. Christine Hamacher, executive director of SAGES, said sponsors make it possible to keep costs down.

SAGES staff met with law enforcement before writing the script for Phoney Baloney. The play features real-life tactics scammers use to target older adults, from romance scams to fake sweepstakes to impersonating a grandchild in crisis.

Related: Tampa Bay widow lost $700,000 in a scam, suit says. Is her bank to blame?

It highlights guiding principles like, “You should never have to give money to get money,” and “If you don’t recognize the number, use voicemail to screen your calls.”

Initiatives like this, which focus on prevention, are vital, according to Officer Joel Quattlebaum, senior services officer for the city of Largo. Because once money is transferred to a scammer, there’s often little law enforcement can do to retrieve it.

Scams targeting older adults are on the rise, according to the Federal Bureau of Investigation. In 2021, seniors reported losses totaling 1.7 billion — roughly a 75% increase from the previous year. Many crimes go underreported because victims are scared, embarrassed or don’t know where to turn.

“That’s why a program like this is so beneficial,” Quattlebaum said. “It’s proactive. It’s empowering.”

With humor, believable characters and a healthy dose of audience participation, the show also aims to dispel the shame that’s often associated with falling prey to a scam.

The reflexive response can be to isolate, Hamacher said — but as characters in Phoney Baloney realize, bringing scams to light is the best way to help others avoid becoming the next victim.

“To put it on stage takes the oomph out of it,” she said. “We want to live trusting lives, but we have to protect ourselves. And we just have to talk about it.”

As a group that prides itself on creating “plays with a purpose,” like its slogan states, SAGES doesn’t want its work to stay in Tampa Bay.

“We create kits so that this can be produced in any community — we’ve already been able to connect with Delaware, Maryland, Texas and Washington,” Hamacher said. “We’re very excited to see this take off in other areas as well.”

Want to go?

Here’s when and where Denying Gravity will be performed:

Sept. 17: 2 p.m. at the Center for the Arts, 11646 Town Center Road, New Port Richey.

Sept. 24: 2 p.m. at the Pinellas Park Performing Arts Center, 4951 78th Ave. N, in Pinellas Park. For more information, click here. Free admission.

Oct. 15: Want to see the play in Spanish? The group is hosting “Negando la Gravedad” at 2 p.m. in celebration of Hispanic Heritage Month at Town ‘N Country, 7606 Paula Drive, Tampa. Reserve seats here: https://www.eventbrite.com/.

Related: Senior Strong program's goal is to help prevent falls, injury

Correction: An earlier version of this story misstated the age range of seniors in the play and the date of one of the performances due to a source error.

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