Young at Heart Players mark 20th anniversary

Senior actors stage regional premiere July 14-16.

Credit: Art Fabian

Credit: Art Fabian

Fran Pesch can’t remember the precise moment she made up her mind to start a senior theatre troupe. But whenever it was, for the past 20 years Dayton theatre lovers have been the beneficiaries.

In the winter of 2000 Pesch had just completed a 10-year stint as a high school drama director at Chaminade-Julienne and was serving as the interim theatre manager at the Dayton Playhouse. She’d also been busy running children’s theatre camps and classes for the Girl Scouts and Theatre Under the Stars.

But she felt something was missing. It may have been that she missed directing; it may have been that some of her favorite older actors were available and eager to perform. It may have been that she had survived a brain tumor diagnosis and wanted to give back to the community. Pesch began envisioning a group that would offer seniors the opportunity to exercise their bodies and minds as well as promote creativity and camaraderie through theatre games. Outreach activities would help to dispel the myths of ageism.

The group was dubbed the Young at Heart Players or YAHP. As years went by, the focus of the company began to change and soon it was staging two major productions a year with a portion of the proceeds donated to local nonprofits. Members also provided entertainment for community gatherings.

Fast forward to 2023, when the company is preparing to celebrate a 20th anniversary with the regional premiere of “Women on Fire” by Irene O’Garden. The drama will be onstage at the Dayton Theatre Guild July 14-16. Because YAHP does not have a home base, productions have been staged in a variety of venues including the historic Patterson Homestead.

Pesch says the upcoming play portrays women from all walks of life who are ‘on fire’ with different emotions. “It addresses family issues, work struggles, passions in life, standing up for your beliefs and faith,” she says. Originally performed as a one-woman show by Judith Ivey, The New York Times called it “bewitching…astounding…heartbreaking.”

Actors reflect

Gayle Smith of Miami Township has been performing with the company since 2005 when she appeared in “Just the Sweet Stuff.”

“The actress originally cast was unexpectedly put in the hospital, and Fran asked me to replace her,” recalls Smith who has been a thespian since the age of 15. “Many seasons in other theatres there is absolutely nothing that an older actress or actor can do and many directors don’t think outside-the-box and leave room for older people to do generic roles like the maid, the housekeeper or the neighbor, even if there’s no dialog that pins a character to a specific age. It’s difficult enough to find good women’s roles, let alone older women’s roles and YAHP does look for vehicles for older actors and actresses:”

The troupe has staged a wide variety of plays–from serious to comic. One of Smith’s favorite productions was “Calendar Girls.” “While the particular English accent wasn’t so easy, the play is based on real women who really did pose semi-nude for a calendar to raise money for a local hospital,” she says. “All of the actors had so much fun and so did the audience.” In " Women On Fire”, she will play Miriam, an expert shopper and Jordy, an old Appalachian dancer.

Smith says it hasn’t always been easy with obstacles ranging from major health issues to a pandemic but adaptations have been made. As COVID-19 took hold in 2020, the company offered Zoom performances. In 2019 when tornadoes devastated the Dayton Playhouse in Wegerzyn Gardens, MetroParks was forced to close the park and the show, “Twentieth Century Blues,’” was hastily transferred to Actor’s Theatre Fairborn.

Steve Strawser of Centerville has worked both onstage and as a stage manager and credits Pesch with fostering camaraderie and a sense of family. “Fran shares the vision she has for each show by selecting casts that help to bring that vision to the stage as well as creating a picture that captures what she sees in each play,” he says. “The way the playwright’s words are brought to life and shared with the audience are part of the YAHP experience.”

He cites productions like “Ripcord” which deals with issues related to aging and “Still Alice” which demonstrates the ways in which Alzheimer’s disease affects both the person with the disease and those who love that individual. “My memories of those two shows will always remain with me because they embodied what theatre is about … touching the hearts of the audience and moving them to think and to wonder about life,” Strawser says.

Barbara Jorgensen is an actor familiar to Dayton audiences and has been involved with the senior company for many years. She likes YAHP’s challenging roles, short rehearsal and run time and the fact that performers don’t have to audition “which I hate to do.”

Since the company has no designated “home” theatre, rehearsals can be anywhere. “Chuck Larkowski and I did some rehearsals for ‘The Gin Game’ at my kitchen table because we lived near each other,” Jorgensen recalls. “It was the hardest show for me to do. It’s two people playing a game of gin and there are quite a few hands dealt. Each hand is different and keeping them in order was a real challenge for me.”

Jorgensen’s first role with YAHP was “The Waverly Gallery” in 2007. It was the first of several dealing with age-related dementia. She also appeared as the lead in “Southern Comfort,” a humorous look at elderly romance. “All the work I’ve done with YAHP over the years has been positive,” concludes Jorgensen.” There are few parts for older women these days and Fran has given us a voice and a platform.”

You don’t have to be old to participate. Since many of the plays deal with discrimination against the elderly, casts are often multigenerational. Pesch’s daughter, Annie, has been involved as both actor and director since the company’s inception. In the troupe’s first play, she worked with four generations of actors and is now directing the upcoming production of “Women on Fire.”

What’s different?

Fran Pesch says there are some challenges working with an older cast. “Some seniors have a harder time with memorization and need more time to learn their lines,” she explains. “Hearing and/or vision difficulties are not uncommon, and patience is a virtue that needs to be practiced by all.”

She believes every effort must be made to help keep challenged individuals active and involved as long as possible. “When actor Virginia Garcia’s vision deteriorated, we provided her with extra-large print scripts and gave them to her very early, so that she could be familiar with her lines before the first rehearsal,” Pesch remembers.

Senior theatre companies, according to Pesch, have grown dramatically in recent years. There were 79 in 1999; by 2016 there were more than 800 worldwide. “Studies show that arts participation has health benefits and promotes the physical, mental and emotional well-being of older adults,” she says. ”Senior theatres provide opportunities for seniors to participate in the arts as creators, learners, supporters or audience members.”

Although she looks for plays dealing with issues affecting older people– economic insecurity, physical and mental health, loneliness, friendship, love, end-of-life challenges– Fran Pesch insists those important issues affect us all. “Theatre is meant to enlighten, educate, and entertain,” she says. “This is our hope for our audiences – that they have benefitted from their time with us.”


What: The regional premiere of “Women on Fire” by Irene O’Garden. Presented by the Young at Heart Players

When: 8 p.m. on Friday, July 14 and Saturday, July 15 and 3 p.m. on Sunday, July 16

Where: Dayton Theatre Guild, 430 Wayne Avenue, Dayton

Tickets: Available at the door. $15 for adults; $12 for seniors, students, military. You can make a reservation by calling (937) 654-0400.

Note: This production contains adult content and language.

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