Grandparents Tales aspire to teach age-old lessons

The trouble with Theodora is that she doesn't act her age.

She defends trees, uses candles instead of electricity, doesn't have a television, plays the trumpet in a Dixieland band and has a pet raccoon.

That's no way for a senior citizen to behave. Is it any wonder that no one in the neighborhood likes her?

"The Trouble with Theodora," an original play, will be performed by the Stagebridge theatrical production company in its annual presentation of "Grandparents Tales," an intergenerational, intercultural theatrical work. The theme of this year's production, "Chicken Sunday and Other Grandparents Tales," is accepting differences and celebrating diversity.

Stagebridge was started 19 years ago by Stuart Kandell and Linda Spector to dispel stereotypes about aging through theatrical productions. The founders had a twofold goal — to air issues of aging and provide a performance vehicle for older adults. Spector, "Theodora's" creator, and producer Kandell created The Lost Tribe of Fantasy, an acting troupe of seniors.

Eight years ago, Stagebridge began to tackle intergenerational issues and "Grandparents Tales" was born. "It's a yearly pleasure. It's great fun because it's so appreciated."

This year, thousands of schoolchildren came to the Federal Building in Oakland to see "Grandparents Tales." There will also be two Sunday performances for the public, March 22 and 29.

In addition to "The Trouble with Theodora," Spector has written an adaptation of "Chicken Sunday," by award-winning Oakland children's author Patricia Polacco. "Chicken Sunday" is a story of anti-Semitism, a Jewish hat seller, a Jewish girl and an African-American boy who live in the same neighborhood. Through the drama, the characters come to understand each other, respecting their differences, and they end up celebrating Passover and Easter together. Set in the Rockridge District of Oakland, the story is autobiographical.

In addition to the two plays, the hourlong performance includes storytelling, improvisation, music and dancing. Following the production, the audience can join the cast for a four-course homemade chicken dinner.

True to Stagebridge's philosophy, the eight cast members of "Grandparents Tales" are multicultural and intergenerational, ranging in age from 10 to seventysomething.

"The relationship between [the children in the cast] and the older adults has been really wonderful this year," said Kandell, adding that the young and the old learn from each other. "Working together on stage is an example of what people can have in their own communities. It's not just older people filling kids up with their stories. It goes both ways."

In preparation for the annual production, Kandell reads a variety of stories, plays and folk tales before deciding which ones to use. Spector then adapts the works into plays for children in grades one through six.

"A lot of the stories we've adapted have been Jewish-based," said producer Kandell. "It's one culture that reveres older adults and their wisdom."

Every year, the cast is chosen from open auditions. In 1983, the first year Stagebridge used children in the cast, actor Michael Goordjian made his theatrical debut. Goordjian, who won an Emmy for his role in "David's Mother" and is a recurring character on "Party of Five," was a student at Oakland's Claremont Middle School at the time. He then went on to Bishop O'Dowd High School and ended up in Hollywood.

Many cast members are theatrical novices, according to Kandell. Among the older adults, their acting experience may have been in grade school or high school. Now they're at a time of life when they can return to something they really enjoy.

In conjunction with "Grandparents Tales," Stagebridge sponsors a children's writing contest.

"We encourage children to write their own bubbemeysas," or grandparents tales, Kandell said. From this year's 150 entries, 20 students from 11 schools received prizes. "This year we want to get the stories recorded by the children and played on [KPFA] radio."

In addition to its theatrical productions, Stagebridge sponsors a storytelling program in Oakland, Berkeley and San Francisco schools. Stagebridge recruits older adults, trains them to be storytellers and then places them in schools where they volunteer weekly. Stagebridge's programs are supported by grants from a number of sources including the city of Oakland.