At the start of the pandemic lockdown, Simon Fraser University (SFU) professor Ryan Tacata and fellow artists Erika Chong Shuch and Rowena Ritchie noticed the particular hardships experienced by older adults. Their response was to launch the Artists and Elders project to help relieve isolation and provide support by bringing seniors and artists together to create art. Since then, more than 80 artist-elder pairs around the world have joined the project. Their artists have co-created numerous performance pieces, a drag show, paintings and music. Partners have included the University of Chicago, the Oregon Shakespeare Festival and the befriending organization Little Brothers-Friends of the Elderly, San Francisco. The initiative has enabled elders to engage and share their imaginations while allowing artists to learn from and be inspired by their experiences.
Collaboration and curiosity are the foundation of Tacata’s performance practice. He is a professor in Theatre Performance at SFU’s School for the Contemporary Arts who engages in place making, ordinary acts and gift-giving. His ongoing work with the artist collective For You reflects this dedication to gift-giving—each reiteration brings together diverse groups to offer performances as gifts. This is the spirit of Artists and Elders: artists develop creative-gifts for their elders, artist-elders collaborate with younger artists, and even members of the same family discover each other anew.
We talked with Ryan Tacata about his work with Artists and Elders.
How do you find artists and elders to participate in the project?
We posted on social media at the start of the pandemic asking what people thought of the idea and to feel out general interest. The initial response was significant—artists and friends from all disciplines and backgrounds came through and tons of folks nominated elders they thought would enjoy this kind of connection. We quickly gathered everyone’s contact information, time zones, artistic practices, etc. After that, we basically functioned as an international dating service and paired our participants based on shared details and gut feelings. We spent hours making connections with our elder participants, getting to know them a bit and making sure they understood the framework of the project. With the artists, we would work them through our specific approach to social practice and gift making: how we ask questions, take notes and how to document their engagements. We later streamlined that process through a commission at the University of Chicago, where we worked with a specific group of elders from Hyde Park Art Center that we paired with artists associated with Court Theatre. Since then, we have moved out of our curatorial roles and have paired ourselves with two elders in Southern Oregon as part of a yearlong commission from the Oregon Shakespeare Festival (OSF).
Elders and artist participants have responded that their discoveries about themselves and each other are surprising. Are you surprised by the connections that are being created?
I have to say that I am mostly surprised by the creative pivot our artists made when, first, they were asked to work over Zoom, and second, how they really embraced For You’s methodology of making bespoke performances. That is, what we are called upon to create as a response to something we have learned about another person might not look like ‘performance’ or ‘art’ in the end—it might very well be banana bread, a drunken walk or a childhood doll refabricated from recyclables. So, even though an artist may have decades-long training in Cunningham technique, in this project they are called upon to be sort of amateurs given that they are meeting their ‘creative source’ for the first time. We ask our artists to really listen to what is going on in their elder’s lives and to stay open to the possibility and potential of more emergent forms of response.
Tell us about a particularly memorable project or outcome.
They are all incredible, but I can say that the material generated between Carey Perloff and her longtime friend and artistic co-conspirator Olympia Dukakis is sweet, haunting and deeply moving. Essentially, Perloff asked Dukakis to recite a Lorca poem she knew she treasured. The gift here being the very simple circumstance of asking an old friend to perform her expertise and to remember something deeply personal against the reality of memory loss and physical decline. Dukakis passed away in the spring of 2021, and the documentation of their exchange remains a testament to the intimate and social life of theatre.
Do you have plans to expand the program?
We are devising a public facing, live performance as a response to one of the elders we have been working with since January 2021 through OSF. She is sensational—she marched with Martin Luther King in Selma, has been on the frontline of the pandemic as a registered nurse and loves bingo more than anyone we have ever met. I cannot say too much about the project, as it is something of a surprise, but I can say it might include the hunky Jason Mamoa, a lesson on replacing your car brakes and candy apples.