Awardee: Sheila Zagar

Primary Artistic Medium: Performance


COVID has heightened our sense of vulnerability and mortality, especially with regard to people over the age of 65 and communities of color. Due to the pandemic we have become more acutely aware of the risk of loss for not only the people, but also the stories they tell about their lives and their communities, and the embodied archives they represent of places that have disappeared or might be on some urban renewal/development plan. This community engagement idea responds to the desire of seniors who frequent the West Philadelphia Senior Community Center (WPSCC, located at 41st & Poplar Streets) to share their stories with a broader public and younger generations. The idea involves capturing the place-based stories of a cohort of about 10 elders from WPSCC and crafting those stories into a multimedia, site-specific performance and/or walking tour that can be streamed online.

The story-telling/gathering process is one that I have used and developed during many years of movement and theater work with seniors. This unique approach will have the participants playfully reminisce through storytelling and improvisational movement games. Together we will view their photographs to elicit memories. We will be chatting, singing and dancing. These activities will take place at the WPSCC, on Zoom, in the neighborhoods and at specific sites. The entire project will be documented on video as a resource for future projects. Excerpts will be interwoven into the final performance.

The performance material will be developed through a whole-person approach that engages the mind, body and imagination. The process uses verbal prompts and improvisational movement scores. The participants will be guided to: lead and follow, be and bear witness, to physically inhabit and verbally narrate their stories, tapping into the body’s wisdom and memory. This movement/dance expression reaches beyond words creating corporal, somatic sensations for both the doer and the watcher. In the course of mining material, the participants will be creating a new history based on their present shared experiences. This intimate embodied practice is revelatory, engendering a visceral awareness of time and place. The nature of the work enmeshes the participants in a creative practice that increases their physical, mental and emotional health, deepening individual and community bonds. Performances will be shared with diverse audiences, bringing awareness of the rich history and life-long vitality of this older adult community.

Senior Citizens are a population who are often stereotyped, underfunded, overlooked and underutilized. They are of an age where many feel isolated, questioning their value and purpose. This is a lively community, but still they struggle with these issues, especially in these times of Covid. They yearn for ways to acknowledge the significance of their lives. Making space for this population to speak in their own voice, archiving their histories, will be priceless for the immediate and long-term health and wellbeing of this community and our city. I have shared these ideas with members of the community and they have responded with excitement about sharing their stories and ideas.